William Blake, England’s great Christian radical, was baptised in St James’ Piccadilly 266 years ago. Today, his church describes itself as a place where the congregation puts its “faith into action by educating ourselves … particularly on issues concerning refugees, asylum, earth and racial justice, and LGBTQ+ issues”.
On Saturday night, the latest saga in this long history of Christian radicalism started by Blake, was a drag show featuring RuPaul Stars “River Medway” and “Veronica Green”.
The show was met with controversy. GB News’s resident chaplain Calvin Robinson weighed in with his usual fare of pious posturing. The Rev Dr Ian Paul of the General Synod described it as “inappropriate”. Many rightly pointed out that the Church has a long history of booking musical acts, from REM to Adele. Nonetheless, a drag show in a church (shock, horror!) was certainly part of its marketing appeal and a seam of apparent controversy which the acts were keen to mine.
Drag queens have emerged as shock troops in the culture wars
Sending up the Church of England with a drag act is about the least controversial thing you can do — something in which perhaps the only concern of the parish committee would be whether enough offence had been caused. “I’m terribly sorry, were we stuffy and boring enough for you?”
Still, as a Christian who is also gay, I just had to go, because apparently this is precisely what is supposed to make me feel included in the Church. It’s not the gospel, or the Anglican tradition or the spiritual solitude offered by these ancient buildings. No, it’s “Barbara” and friends making innuendos that rhyme “garden” with “harden” and lip syncing to 80s pop.
WIth the Times having declared drag the “New front in the Culture Wars” the previous day, I was expecting a full blown skirmish. Calvin Robinson would surely arrive, armed with a cross and holy water for an impromptu exorcism. The drag queens and their acolytes would engage in a shouty stand off. Maybe even David Aaronovitch would appear from the shadowy side pews screaming the sentiment of his final piece as Times columnist. “Bollocks to the Culture Wars!”
What followed was painfully tame. Think slow night in Butlins rather than subversive feast. Bewildered families and elderly members of the congregation rubbed shoulders with leather harnessed homosexuals. Disco lights sadly illuminated stained glass. Still, the tedious attempt to manufacture controversy persisted. “What’s wrong with drag in a church?” exclaimed our host, before a bloke dressed as a bearded biblical figure threw off his robe.
Drag queens have emerged as a sort of shock troop in the culture wars — ever ready to be deployed by the fun loving urban middle classes eager to expose the latent Mary Whitehousish mores of stuffy conservatives. Watch its most successful incarnation, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and you can see the corporate human resources types trying to desperately enjoy themselves, emasculated squares who get a sort of cathartic thrill from having a stilettoed male poke fun at their virility. “Look, we’re not boring! We’re inclusive and diverse!”
The repackaging and deployment of the drag queen into the current culture war is historically damning in some respects. Androgynous lewdness has long been a well of subversion and satire. Think Weimar Germany, even the suburbia of Reagan’s America in which John Waters’s muse Divine played her most famous role. Divine was certainly a different breed from today’s drag queen. A 21 stone star of American underground cinema, he died of heart failure at the age of 42.
How different the scene is today. With tacit establishment endorsement and the spoils of a multi-million pound industry up for grabs, the spectacle is depraved for all the wrong reasons. Mate, mate, mate, did you see Starmer sit down for a photo op and a robust chat about policy with the Duchess? How about the BBC’s Economics Editor being interviewed about the cost of living crisis by “Baga Chipz”?
This isn’t the end of western civilisation, nor the promised victory. It’s just plain dull
As another spectacle of the cultural wars, the relationship between its opponents is reciprocal. The industrial outrage complex of the American online right loves a good drag queen controversy, and vice versa. The two sides live for each other, finding vindication in calling out the apparent extremities of the other’s ideology and aims.
For the rest of us, left to deal with things like “Drag Time Story Times” (another import of course from the US) and PREACH, the reaction is more a sort of confused bafflement I saw on the faces of some of my fellow audience members that night in St James’. How has a narcissistic cadre of painfully unfunny men in dresses, desperate to cosplay the notoriety of their much more interesting predecessors, come to command such attention?
The whole point of drag is that it is promiscuous, daring, lewd. No bloke dresses up as a woman to emulate the maternal touch of Mary Poppins. This was something quite evident when a drag queen recently ended up arguing with an 11 year old in an Isle of Man school over how many genders there were. The child was made to leave the class by the offended queen. Not exactly the anti-authority spirit of drag is it?
In light of this, the link between the rise of drag in schools, libraries and churches (up 300 per cent in the last year), and a wider concern about the sexualised content children are now exposed to, isn’t entirely unfounded. This latest absurdity seems to have helped political action gain momentum. Last week the Telegraph reported that Sunak was considering launching a review of “age-inappropriate” Stonewall backed sex education materials in schools. No surprise, in light of the charity’s dramatic fall from grace.
Tom Jones recently compared the right’s attempt to fight the culture wars with America’s struggle in Vietnam. Of course the US lost in Vietnam, but about twenty years later there were Coca Cola factories springing up outside Ho Chi Minh City. The ideology the regime fought for did not last into the 21st century. Watching PREACH, one of the culture war’s latest set pieces (though largely fought online), I couldn’t help but wonder if this metaphor would play out in a similar way.
As Jones points out in his piece, the issue is compounded by the fact that these people all too often receive an awful lot of money from the governments to be incredibly boring — be it refusing to actually show a painting in a gallery, creating crap sculptures or teaching weird things to children in schools. The more transgression is sought against the many latent -isms and phobias of our society, the more it tends to defeat itself in the self parodying absurd. Drag in church is the latest example of this trend. This isn’t the end of western civilisation; nor is it the promised victory for “inclusivity and diversity”. It’s just plain dull.
What would Blake and Divine have made of PREACH? I suspect they too would have found it really boring. As it turns out, a twenty stone drag queen and a Christian mystic do have something in common. They were both genuine radicals: unique, original, creative. The polar opposite of today’s culture war dullards: from gallery curators and activist artists, to controversy seeking drag queens.
If watching establishment conformity, lack of talent and sheer tedium unravel itself is the long march of the culture wars, then I can only see one side winning by default.
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