"RACING DEMON" FORMS the first part of a trilogy of plays by David Hare currently appearing at the Royal National Theatre. Along with "Murmuring Judges" (about the law) and "The Absence of War" (about the Labour Party), it sets out to examine the internal workings of another English institution, the Church of England.
The play focuses on a South London team ministry comprising four very different clergymen with ual understandings of their vocations.
The pivotal figure, and team Rector, is the Rev Lionel Espy. Espy is a kindly old liberal weighed down by professional and spiritual failure. Uncertain of his faith, he faces usurpation from his inner city parish by the Rev Tony Ferris, a thrusting young evangelical intent on "pushing Christ" into the community.
It is a very ambitious piece of work. Throughout the play Lionel comes into conflict with the whole panoply of Anglican theology, from Anglo-Catholic to Evangelical. Issues emerge like an inventory of clerical contemporary woes endemic bureaucracy, falling church attendance, the ordination of women, poor housing.
We even have the tabloid exposure of a gay priest; Michael Bryant as the unfor=ate Rev Harry Henderson has the audience applauding ferociously when he cries out "they give knighthoods to people who publish this stuff"
Above all, it is a play about the conflict between faith and expediency. To what extent should Lionel bow to the "rules of the club" if he feels such rules are not applicable to his ministry? To what degree should the wishes of an individual be subsumed in an institution?
A bishop I spoke to said that he "enjoyed it enormously" because it was "so I true". So if the picture Hare paints of the Church is broadly true, then the audience can draw two conclusions. First, priests feel deeply frustrated and alienated, lacking support from the hierarchy. Secondly, team ministries, while providing a system of mutual support, can exacerbate theological divisions in the Church.
JOHN PETER, THEATRE critic of the Sunday Times, called "Racing Demon" "one of the best British plays in the last 30 years". But what do Anglican clergymen think?
Rev Perry Butler (St
Michael's, Bedford Park) "I suppose all the types were there agonised liberal, smooth bishop etc. I have known characters like Lionel Espy, the exRector of Charlton for example... but at least he had a bit more substance." Rev David LawrenceMarch (Bearwood College, Berkshire) "I thought it was full of issues that the Church prefers to sweep under the carpet. The day after seeing the play, I asked a colleague what he thought of it.
"He rather surprised me when he told me that he loathed it. When I asked him why, he replied that 'it is full of people that I know'".
Rev John Hackett (Team Rector, Clapham Team ministry)
"I thought it was very true to life, but characters like Lionel Espy would normally have a much stronger biblical base. As for the bishops, I thought they were slightly unbe
lievable, although it is well known that Hare combined the ideas of one ex-Bishop of London with the style of another."
Rev David Houghton (Holy Spirit, Clapham) "There was a great deal of caricature, but it was clever caricature."