Interview: “Jesus was in a minority of one”.

rev simon buckleyRev’d Simon Buckley of St Anne’s Soho talks church, inclusivity and puppetry with Claire George

I couldn’t help notice your career as a puppeteer. Could you tell us something about the day to day life of a puppeteer? What were your biggest projects?

One of the great things about being a puppeteer for me was the sheer variety of the things I was able to be a part of; from performing in Haydn operas in Austria using marionettes, to being part of a team of five puppeteers operating a one and a half tonne robot animatronic in the film Lost In Space with Gary Oldman and Matt Le Blanc.

Add to that over 1,200 stage shows – from intimate 100 seat theatres to 6,000 seat venues for CBeebies Live, hundreds of children’s TV programmes, Spitting Image, Muppet movies, commercials and pop videos – and I think it’s safe to say that in my career as a puppeteer two days were rarely identical.

Nevertheless it’s easy to get the monday morning ‘back at work blues’ when lying, contorted on a dusty studio floor squinting into a monitor with your hands up the back end of some furry creature! It’s not all glamour.

Do you bring puppets into ministry?

I do use puppets in ministry when it’s appropriate (i.e. not at funerals!). Done well puppetry has the power to speak to the adults as much as, if not more than, the children. I have puppeteered in several churches during services, including the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral, which was rather nerve wracking!

Your profile on your church website says that you enjoy going to the theatre. Have you seen anything recently that you’d recommend parishioners should see?

Living in Soho it’s rude not to go to the theatre at every opportunity, and I’m spoilt by choice living here.

I saw Fiona Shaw’s powerful performance in the Testament of Mary at the Barbican the other week, which was brilliant and thought provoking; for sheer fantasy and spectacle I hope the National Theatre’s production of The Light Princess transfers to the west end, and I’m happy to see Limbo is back on the Southbank this summer for my parishioners who would appreciate something skilful and sexy!

Of course as a puppeteer I think that War Horse is a must see.

What’s the community like in Soho? Who goes to St Anne’s?

Soho is a remarkably diverse community, with very much the feel of a small village. People are surprised to hear that among the strip clubs, gay bars and restaurants are many elderly people living in social housing and we have a thriving and wonderful primary school.

Yes, people do actually live in Soho, it’s not just a tourist destination! Our congregation, is small but growing, diverse and welcoming, and about 50/50 between locals and those who come from further afield.

How long has St Anne’s been open and welcoming to LGBTI people? What impact has this had on the church’s ministry in the community?

St Anne’s has a long history of being inclusive- back in the early 1900’s there was a rabbi and the local RC priest on the vestry ( what we now call the PCC) and I do think its welcome to LGBTI people springs from that, we are also, incidentally fully wheelchair accessible!

The C of E is unusual in that it has a ministry not just to the gathered congregation but to the whole parish churchgoers or not; and with Soho still regarded as ‘the gay village’ it is only natural that we are out and proud about our welcome to the LGBTI community in a way that (sadly) not all churches are.

We try though, within our limited resources, to ensure that we don’t get trapped by narrow definitions of inclusivity… which can actually be another exclusive ghetto if we’re not careful!

As you are in central London have you found an international or cross-cultural element in all this? Are you able to reach out to tourists?

Because we don’t have fine architecture or a famous musical tradition we don’t tend to get tourists, beyond those who wander in slightly accidentally. Many write in our visitors’ book that they appreciated finding the church open on a weekday, really valuing a rare space for quiet and reflection in the midst of the sometimes chaotic streets!

Do you find that people assume Christians are homophobic? How do you challenge that idea and make sure LGBTI people know they are welcome?

It’s funny, some people assume Christians are homophobic, whilst many others have had so little contact with the church or Christianity that the fact that sexuality may be an “issue” comes as quite a shock!

The church needs to wake up to the fact that being gay is more ‘normal’ for many in Britain than going to church is! We simply state in our literature that this church exists to “express the love of God for all humanity” and then don’t bat an eyelid ( or a false eyelash!) at anyone who we are privileged to welcome in.

Does St Anne’s have any involvement in LGBTI groups in the local area?

I am on a member of the Westminster and Soho LGBTI forum, and various groups that have an LGBTI focus hold meetings in our rooms. The Diversity Choir rehearse here, I lead the annual act of remembrance for The Admiral Duncan bombing, we support a group for gay Muslims here, and on Thursday we hold just about the campest OAP lunch in town!

Gender and sexuality are two different things. Have you had any involvement in action against transphobic bullying as well as homophobic bullying?

A group for trans Christians, The Sybils, meet here for prayers at 5.30 on the second Thursday of the second Month and I am pleased that they have not needed to ask for my support due to bullying, neither has this been an issue within Soho Parish School.

Has St Anne’s been involved in any other work for minorities. e.g. Is the church autism aware? Disability aware? How does supporting LGBTI people help you to think about supporting other groups?

There is always the danger that in championing one ‘cause’ you overlook another, and I hope that what I have already said suggests that our radar here is tuned towards being inclusive as widely as possible, whilst acknowledging that we won’t always get it right.

I find it strange that some parts of the LGBTI community can celebrate their relative freedom with a total lack of awareness or sensitivity for those it leaves out in the cold.

Jesus always seemed to clock out of the corner of his eye the person who didn’t feel welcome at the party, and find a way to assure them that the door was open to them too.

I guess being in a minority of one made him ultra sensitive to this and I would hope that any sense of our difference as individuals will help us to find common ground with others especially those who feel on the margins.

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