Bob Mayo with Sara Savage and Sylvie Collins
I worked for three years as the chaplain at London South Bank University. South Bank was a large multi-campus site with around 18,000 students. I had one room and no immediate role in the life of the university. My initial task was to make people realise that there was a chaplain in place. I had to deal with the fact that there was no understanding in many people’s minds of what a chaplain might do – but could only do so after they had realised that there was someone there at all.
I had no publicity budget and I felt that I was never going to manage to communicate clearly to a large and transitory student population. There were some people who would always come along and there were others who were never going to come. If all I did was to communicate a clear and comprehensive picture of the services on offer in the chaplaincy, then it would have brought me to the attention of people who were potentially interested in any case and therefore would probably have found them anyway. It would probably also have confirmed in the minds of others why they would not choose to access the services of a chaplaincy. I wanted to connect with some of those ‘others’ and give them just enough awareness to make them think of making further enquiries. So I set out to present the work of chaplaincy creatively and ambiguously.
On one occasion, I performed a play-parable by setting myself up with all the equipment needed to clean people’s shoes. Formally dressed in black suit and clerical shirt, I presented myself as a caricature of a priest. People were intrigued, amused and confused. When asked why I was doing this, I would deliberately reply enigmatically. I would tell people that it was all ‘part of the service.’ My cleaning people’s shoes while dressed up in full clerical garb was an acted-out parable, the point of which was not to explain what I was doing but to leave people intrigued enough to wonder and to ask further questions.
Over the next three years, I used various other pieces of ambiguous communication. I took photographs of a biscuit and used it on a poster with the words ‘@ The Chaplaincy.’ I did email-shots of staff and students using words of poems such a Stevie Smith’s ‘Not waving but drowning.’ When the kettle was stolen from the chaplaincy, I put up 300 notices around the university saying, ‘God knows who has got the kettle.’ I created different designs for the writing paper I used. One design had an image of a priest-clown in a dog collar; another was with a spoof press release: SHOCK HORROR! VICAR FOUND DOING HIS JOB!
By providing the optimum level of information and insight, people can choose either to pursue an interest or else to walk away from what they have heard. David Attenborough said on Desert Island Discs (1999) that the best way to get someone interested in a subject is to show a great energy combined with a great ignorance. There is a lightness of touch assumed within this approach that does not leave people feeling disempowered or judged, but instead allows them to come back to ask about what they hear as being said. When the disciples of John the Baptist come to ask Jesus if he is ‘the one who was to come’ or whether they should expect another, Jesus does not give them a point-by-point explanation but tells them to look around and to draw conclusions from what they see.
From chapter 5 of Ambiguous Evangelism, published by SPCK 2004