Send three-and-fourpence, we're going to a dance
If anyone wants to know how urban legends start, here's an example.
Oxford's Cowley Road Passion Play was cancelled this year. All parties agree on this fact. After that, myth takes over.
Publications including the Daily Mail, the Irish Times and the Huffington Post reported the cancellation under headlines such as "Passion Of The Christ cancelled because city authorities ‘thought it was a sex show’ “Gormless Labour council bans Good Friday Passion of the Christ play because they thought it was a live SEX show”.
One can hardly blame the sub-editors for making the most of it: sex, religion and bureaucratic incompetence, delivered by the Easter Bunny just in time for the slow bank holiday weekend.
However, the irreligious Oxford bureaucrats with epically smutty minds seem to have existed only in one person's imagination. Councillor Dick Wolff (who is also a pastor in the United Reform Church) was quoted in the Oxford Mail as saying, “Unfortunately, one of the city council’s licensing officers didn’t recognise that a Passion play on Good Friday was a religious event. I think he thought it was a sex show, so he said it may be committing an offence.”
This -- which may have been a joke on Wolff’s part -- seems to be the only connection anyone ever made between "Passion play" and "sex show", at least, before the national press got involved.
Julian Alison, the head of the licensing team said, “At the time of processing the application, I did not appreciate that this was a religious event. I made a mistake and by the time I realised my mistake, the organisers had cancelled the event.”
An expanded article by the Oxford Mail produces further interesting facts.
So the Passion Play people bunged in a six page application form a week last Tuesday (8th April 2014)...
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.
If one reads Oxford City Council's guide to putting on an event, handily available from its website, this wording stands out:
Submit your signed Event Application by email within the required timescales and attach any supporting information as per the ‘Supporting Information Required and Submissions Timeline’ document...
Once we receive your application, we will email you to let you know that we are processing it. Your application will then be sent to the relevant stakeholders who will include the emergency services and other internal Council departments for their approval. This initial consultation takes a minimum period of 2 weeks...
...Any further supporting information MUST be submitted to the Events Office a minimum of 4 weeks before your event date. Failure to submit your required further supporting information may result in your event confirmation not being granted for which the Council accepts no responsibility or liability.
On the Events Application Form itself there's a tricky little section under LICENSING & NOISE DETAILS which asks “Will there be regulated entertainment?” and includes as one of the examples of regulated entertainment (which requires a licence in advance) “Performance of a play”.
Accordingly, if those organising the the Passion Play were unclear “what offence or why” they might have been committing by proceeding, a check of the Events Application Form which (according to the Oxford Mail) they had completed should have enlightened them. “Regulated entertainment” covers all plays, not only sex shows.
Whether or not the Passion Play organisers ticked the “Y” box in answer to the question “will there be...performance of a play?” it hardly seems unreasonable for the licensing team to raise the question. Something can be both a religious event and a regulated entertainment; Oxford City Council would probably have strong words if a wandering orchestra decided to plonk itself down in the middle of Cornmarket for a quick rendition of Messiah without bothering to clear it with anyone in advance.
Furthermore, the date of Good Friday could hardly have come as a shock to the churches involved in organising the Passion Play. As shown above, the Council website advises applicants to allow at least six weeks for necessary formalities. Whether the play actually needed a licence or not, leaving the application to a matter of days before the event was a serious oversight on the churches' part.
Julian Alison, however, seems to have accepted that a licence wasn't needed for this play, presumably on the basis that religious re-enactments are not “entertainment”. Furthermore, he extended a prompt and unqualified apology (which the Daily Mail characterised as “grovelling”) to the churches and those disappointed by the play's cancellation.
In the meantime, the story has taken hold on social media. It will be resurrected for years to come, every time someone wants to mock the educational or cultural standards of public officials, or claim that Christians in the UK are a persecuted minority. It has even become another example of “health and safety to the sticky limit.” Rev. Councillor Wolff claimed, in a follow-up piece in the Oxford Mail, “You can’t even crucify someone in public these days without permission.”
The licensing team at Oxford City Council might beg leave to disagree.
The main image used for this article is: 'Station of the Cross fresco at St. Jacob church, Urtijëi, Val Gardena' and was used under the terms detailed at the above link on the date this article was first published.