TODAY is Good Friday, the day we commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but there will be no re-enactment of the Passion Play on the Cowley Road this year.
When the play was first performed two years ago it was a great success. This year it is a complete failure; it has been cancelled at the last minute.
What’s the bottom line in this saga? Scores of actors, singers, musicians and costume makers have been rehearsing since mid-November. The local church groups are baffled. The audience is angry.
The organisers at St Stephen’s House seminary in East Oxford put up a notice on the website: “The Passion Play has had to be cancelled. This is due to an intractable situation… the decision was taken this evening (last Saturday) that we could not proceed as we would technically be permitting an offence by doing so.”
The group put on the same play in the Cowley Road two years ago. It wasn’t illegal then. So what’s changed? The “reasons” don’t really provide an answer; so what’s going on? The question remains: Is this a tragedy or a comedy?
Two years ago the organisers wrote to the police who gave it their blessing. This year they informed the police again on March 22. The police sat on the information for about two weeks. The Passion Play was discussed by the Neighbourhood Action Group.
No alarm bells were raised. Finally a police officer had a query. Simon Guerney with a great title for any crucifixion – Police Tactical Operations Planning – emailed St Stephen’s House on April 8 to say in his opinion they needed an events licence from Oxford City Council.
The events team on the city council is very helpful. They facilitated all those Diamond Jubilee street parties and they act as a hub to help people jump through the hoops to get permissions for events like the Cowley Road Carnival in August when the road is closed and transport needs to be redirected. The Team liaises with about 20 agencies in the Safety Advisory Group to keep all the authorities in the loop.
So the Passion Play people bunged in a six page application form a week last Tuesday. The police were happy. The events team did not flag up any issues and because of tight time limits they sent the application to about 20 bodies for “sign off” such as the Oxford Bus Company, First Great Western, the County highways department (this could be seen as a political demonstration), the ambulance service (because if someone is going to be crucified, it could be tricky), and the Oxford City Licencing Department.
The licensing team deals with events like the sale of alcohol, late night entertainment and pole dancing. The officer picked up the application for the Passion Play. His brief didn’t include “religious activities” which don’t need a licence. So he didn’t judge the application on that merit, and besides this application for a Passion Play did not say anything about religion.
He knew nothing about “Good Friday”, the date of the event. He didn’t know the organising body from St Stephen’s House was a Church of England seminary; and the words “Passion Play” didn’t mean anything to him in terms of religion, but possibly in terms of lust.
The organisers didn’t spell out that this was a religious event and the fact that it was a Passion Play could mean they were selling alcohol and charging money for a moving peep show on the Cowley Road.
The licensing officer wrote they might be committing an offence by putting on a Passion Play without a licence from the council and sent an email to the organisers last Saturday (yes, he works on Saturdays).
So the St Stephen’s House director of the Passion Play cancelled the last rehearsal on Sunday because of this advice that they might be committing an offence, even though they didn’t know what offence or why, and then cancelled the whole production.
The Reverend Councillor Mike Wolff investigated. “All the people in the city council were trying to be helpful, but a fatal disconnect came down and people were talking at cross purposes. This is a lesson for Christians that if they are going to talk about Passion Plays, please bear in mind the possibility that fifty per cent of people making decisions on it might not know what the Christians are talking about.
“It’s certainly strange, though, that the organisers might be committing a public offence when in reality they were simply re-enacting a crucifixion.
“This is health and safety to the sticky limit. The application form asks if there will be undue noise. No, just a crowd shouting ‘Crucify him, Crucify him’. The risk assessment for a crucifixion was an interesting part of the preparation especially when Jesus strips off and has to get onto the cross without slipping.
Three actors, the guards, were strategically placed to catch him if he fell. But the best part of the application asks about ‘any unspent convictions’. Well, he did say he was the Son of God. You can’t even crucify someone in public these days without permission.”