“We have to tell new stories!” The Reverend Billy is in full flow, his clerical collar a bright ring around his throat, his blond Elvis hair a wild mane. “We’re just waiting as the ecocide goes forward. We don’t know what to do,” he wails, gazing out over the congregation. “There’s no Nelson Mandela of earth,” he goes on, his voice lower now, more intimate. “We’re living with consumerism and militarism and racism all day long. It still controls us.”
This isn’t your average sermon. This isn’t your average church. In fact, it isn’t a church at all – we’re at Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End of London, a ragged 19th-century auditorium, used today as an arts space. The Reverend Billy is not an ordained minister but a 64-year-old performance activist named Bill Talen.
Over the past 15 years, Talen and the Stop Shopping Choir – an energetic, gospel-style group directed by Talen’s wife, Savitri Durkee – have been preaching an anti-consumerist message on Wall Street and outside banks and high street shops. In 2007 Morgan Spurlock produced a film about Talen’s work – What Would Jesus Buy? – a project that came about, Talen says, after Spurlock “came up to me in a bar and said he wanted to make a movie about me. He had all that Super Size Me money lying around.”
I meet Talen in Camden at an independent coffee shop, a day before the Wilton’s show. He tells me that he grew up as “a damaged Christian kid” in Wisconsin. The Reverend Billy persona draws on the American tradition of evangelical hellfire preaching but when he is without the white suit and collar, Talen is softly spoken. He has a strangely haunted air. I get the sense that this is not the life he planned.
In the 1990s, Talen ran a San Francisco theatre called Life on the Water. He fell under the spell of the Reverend Sidney Lanier, an episcopal priest involved in experimental theatre in New York (whose disciples include David Mamet, Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway). Lanier took an interest in Talen, suggesting “a new kind of American preacher”, which led to the creation of Reverend Billy.
Talen is the father of a five-year-old daughter. I suggest that having children makes it pretty hard to stop shopping. “Our Church is one that forgives in advance,” he says. “When we say, ‘Stop shopping,’ maybe what that means for you is just to pause for ten seconds and think.”
What Talen offers is “secular spirituality”. In the weeks after 9/11, he tells me, thousands came to hear him preach. He covers all the bases, not only consumerism but climate change, racism and the evils of what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”. In performance, the Reverend Billy and his choir are stylish, funny and musically exacting. Sometimes the seriousness of their message sits at odds with their joyous tunes. “Oh, it was great!” a female audience member said when the performance was over. “But I kept thinking, is it real? I mean, was he really preaching?” It’s hard to know, when the preacher is down on his knees, singing lines such as “Monsanto is the devil!” and “I’ve got the human blues”.
At one point, a chorister recites the names of young African-American men who have died violently, often in confrontations with the police, from Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray to Emmett Till. A woman sitting behind me begins to sob.
Talen seems surprised that his personal beliefs have caught up with those he invented for a persona. In Camden, I tell Talen that the Church of England is ending investments in heavily polluting fossil fuels. His face lights up. “Well!” he says. “Maybe the Church of England will lead the way.”