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The Actors’ Church Union

2009 June 18
by Gordon Reid

For ten years, I was the Scottish Regional chaplain  of the Actors’ Church Union. This is a charity established at the end of the 19th century  to bring together and to help Christian actors and actresses, mainly by appointing Chaplains to every theatre in Britain. When I was appointed Rector of St Michael & All Saints in Edinburgh, I was also invited by the ACU to be Chaplain to the Kings Theatre, which was just around the corner from the church. This I gladly accepted, though I hadn’t much idea what was required of a theatre Chaplain.  

The priest who gave me a crash course in what to do (and what not to do!) was Canon Edwyn Young, who was Rector of Our Lady & St Nicholas, the Parish Church of Liverpool. Because Scotland had very few theatres, the ACU had always lumped it together with the North West of England, and Edwyn was the Regional Chaplain for both. He was a larger than life character, who had established chaplaincies in Liverpool not just for the theatres but also for night clubs and some of the biggest  stores and businesses of the city centre. He was then appointed Chaplain to the Royal Chapel of the Savoy where minimal parish duties enabled him to exercise his unique gifts with the stars of theatre land, including the scantily clad ladies of Raymond’s Revue Bar!

Edwyn came to Edinburgh to visit, and asked me to become the first  Scottish Regional Chaplain, which I gladly did. The duties were not onerous: I just had to appoint a priest to be chaplain of every theatre in Scotland – and I had no trouble in finding recruits. 

Every year the dozen Regional Chaplains gathered at St Paul’s, Covent Garden in London, (“the Actors’ Church”) for a conference. Apart from the serious work of examining how we  could better serve the theatre world with various ministries of hospitality and listening, we also had a great Festival Mass which was often glorious, since the Rector of St Paul’s could draw on opera singers, readers from Shakespearean companies, whole Chorus Lines from musicals. We always had a well-known preacher.

One year, the preacher was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. This simple saintly Bishop wowed us all, chaplains and actors alike, with a sermon on the drama of the Mass and the drama of the theatre, and what both could, at their best, do for people.

The Regional Chaplains always followed the Festal Mass with a night out at one of the shows in London’s West End, and on this occasion we took the Archbishop, not to some uplifting tragedy, but to Raymond’s Revue Bar, London’s equivalent of the Folies Bergere! The reason for this extraordinary choice was that it was at the invitation of Raymond himself who actually flew from the Caribbean to be with us that evening. He had been brought up as a pious Anglo-Catholic in the East End of London, and could think of no higher honour than to be asked to host the Archbishop and the Regional Chaplains of the ACU.

Of course, when we all arrived at the Revue Bar, we were shown to a large table right at the front and greeted by Paul Raymond himself. Then champagne was produced in great quantities, and we settled down to watch the show. The oldest of the Regional Chaplains was the eighty year old Canon Percy Gay (I’m not making this up – go check!) who had expressed delight that we were going to “a Revue” but clearly had no idea what we were in  for. I think he thought it would be conjurers producing rabbits from hats. 

As every glittering line of scantily clad girls was introduced, the announcer would say, as usual: “Ladies and gentlemen…” and then add: “and Vicars!” which always got a cheer from the other tables. I must say that Archbishop Ramsey took it all with great aplomb, though his Chaplain took him away at the interval. The rest of us stayed to the end (even Canon Gay, who said to me:”I’ve lived to see my family name become a joke, and now I’m in Soho at a night club! I have enjoyed myself!”) We met the cast afterwards, several of whom said that Canon Young had married them and baptized their children. Others said they had been in provincial theatres and been so glad to see the local chaplain when he visited the theatre. So we were much encouraged.

God bless the Actors’ Church Union: it has a great ministry.

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