A generation ago there was reawakened interest in the tradition of the salos or holy fool, the person who was ‘a fool for Christ’s sake.’ Where the world saw only bizarre behaviour, to those with eyes to see, there was a message in the madness.
Long popular in the Russian Church, in the West, St Francis’ reckless espousal of poverty and the later austerities of St Benedict Joseph Labre carried on the tradition of holy folly.
Until 2001. Then Harry Hammond, a 69-year-old, open-air Protestant preacher and Asperger’s sufferer, mounted his stand in Bournemouth. He displayed a handwritten placard proclaiming that homosexual practice was immoral and that those engaging in homosexual acts should repent and believe the Gospel.
Asperger’s often leads to the blurting out of views that would disturb polite society and would not fit into the alleged Anglican tradition of balanced moderation. Furthermore, the Wesleys and old-time Church Army evangelists apart, when did Anglican preachers ever stand on a soapbox?
Harry’s preaching – or possibly ranting – soon attracted the attention of a group of gay activists who knocked him, his stand and placard to the ground, slightly injuring him. Fearing disorder, the police appeared and acted decisively to preserve the peace. They arrested Harry for annoying the gays. Harry appeared before a court, was found guilty and, shortly afterwards, died.
A modern holy fool? A counter-culturalist, similar to those early Christians of whom Celsus wrote that to them ‘the world’s wisdom is evil and the world’s foolishness is insight’? An unsophisticated pensioner standing against modern received wisdom that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle? Earlier Christian ages might have enrolled Harry in the ranks of holy fools, or possibly even seen him as a martyr. Modern man has not ceased to revere martyrs, but wants higher profile figures – a Romero or Bonhoeffer. But poor, unknown, incoherent Harry – no altar will be raised nor biography written.
However, as the men of our generation count their failures, perhaps it’s again time to ‘Send in the Clowns.’