Canon Gerald Osborne, Send a Cow Trustee, Wiltshire farmer, rural Dean of Pewsey and a Canon of Salisbury, is to perform a dramatic retelling of St Mark’s Gospel at the historic Bath Abbey on 26 September. Here he tells us more about how and why he took on the challenge of learning the 11,000 word gospel and what it means to him…

‘‘The Gospel of St Mark is a thrilling and pacy account of the life and death of Jesus. It is too often neglected as a gospel, but my eyes were opened to it by tutorials with a retired priest in 1998. In very few words Mark seems to be able to create wonderfully evocative vignettes of each scene, proclaiming the identity and authority of Jesus.

So, when in December 2011, our Bishop, Nicholas Holtam, challenged us to take the reading from the service, which was a large portion of the first chapter, and meditate on it further for ourselves, I decided to take the challenge a step further and try to learn the first chapter. Having managed that, I carried on learning the rest of it. It became my own spiritual discipline, learning it by rote, meditating on it as I repeated each verse, each section, each chapter to myself in my head.

An eyewitness account

I thought it a good way to get to know the person, who Mark claims in his very first sentence is ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God’, more intimately for myself and directly from the eyewitnesses to his life. I say ‘eyewitnesses’ deliberately, as tradition, dating back to a fragment of writing from around 110 AD, has held that Mark’s main source was the Apostle Peter himself. The more I have read the more convinced I have become of the truth of this.

Furthermore, Mark is very careful to point, explicitly and implicitly, to eyewitnesses to all the events recorded, as if he realised that his first listeners would have been sceptical about the claims as we might well still be. It is generally agreed that it was written in Rome in the late 50’s or early 60’s AD, well within the lifetime of some of those witnesses and only around 30 years after the death of Jesus.

Memorising and performing the gospel

Over a period of about two and a half years I gradually learned it, not regularly every day, but at times when I was doing other things such as around the farm, doing chores, travelling on a train. It was a very relaxing thing to be able to do when stuck in a queue.

I then began to wonder whether I could do it in front of an audience, to bring to them the power and thrill of this amazing gospel. I knew it had been done before by the actor Sir Alec McCowen and I was inspired by Nicholas Maude, the brother of a friend, who had done it at the Edinburgh Festival.

I began reciting long parts while on walks with Emma, my wife. However, I had never even been in a school play before and so I sought help from Colin Heber-Percy, a friend who is a TV script writer and himself training for ordination.

He encouraged and coached me, while devising the staging whereby I play St Mark dictating it to him, acting as Petronius, a hired scribe. This gives me a focus to the recital while audiences have appreciated watching him as well, as he acts and reacts to all I am telling him. My main aim though was that people should forget about me and be able to listen to and absorb the power of the words and the story as it unfolds.

I am just a vessel for these words...

After much rehearsal and two full run-throughs, on 14 November last year I staged the first performance in Pewsey Church in Wiltshire. Sitting in the vestry beforehand and wondering what I had let myself in for, it seemed like a huge mountain I had to climb with two hours of recital before me. Equally I knew that I was surrounded by prayer, and very deliberately I begin each performance in prayer myself, usually kneeling before the altar. I am just a vessel for these words. 

In the end I remembered it all, but not only that. My vision seemed to have paid off as people who were there said that they were really struck by the power of it and the chance to hear a whole gospel in one sitting. Encouraged by that, I have since done it four more times in Buckland Monachorum, Canford, Marlborough and Guildford.

And now to Bath Abbey. It is very thrilling for me to be doing it in those magnificent surroundings and I am very grateful to all the staff there for their help with it. I am also thrilled to be able to bring together ‘the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’, and the amazing work of Send a Cow. Both have the power to transform lives.’’

Tickets for Canon Osborne’s performance at Bath Abbey are £5 and include refreshments at the intermission with all proceeds going to Send a Cow. Tickets are available from Bath Box Office in person, online or by calling 01225 463 362. The performance starts at 7pm.