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franciscan - May 2000

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

Out of the mouths of babes and comedians . . .

by Brother Desmond Alban SSF

Young Katherine, aged four, was beginning to take an interest in what went on in the anglo-catholic church she enjoyed attending with her father and baby brother. On this occasion she was in church to see the gospel solemnly proclaimed but, from her perspective, the incense smoke rising from the thurible as it passed over the gospel book looked for all the world like steam. Hence her question, ‘Why is that man ironing that book?’ But she clearly listened to the gospel reading itself too, for her next enquiry, after hearing that Jesus would build his church on the rock (Peter) was, ‘Is our church built on a rock?’

Katherine, of course, was not trying to be funny. We might find humour in recounting the incident but for her they were serious enquiries, from the unique perspective of the young which is honoured in scripture. The comments and sayings of the young, on all sorts of issues, provide material for best-selling books because they help us see the puzzling realities, and sometimes absurdities, of our grown-ups’ world with fresh eyes. As such, I believe children have a lot in common with newspaper cartoonists, scriptwriters and satirical comedians. They too help us, if we will only allow them to, to find a fresh perspective, a way of seeing ourselves, in the church specifically, as others see us.

My impression is that BBC TV’s 'The Vicar of Dibley' is popular viewing amongst many sisters and brothers in our community, as it doubtless is in a number of vicarages up and down the country. Not all however! I remember a conversation with one brother not keen on watching this comedy who happened to be of the integrity opposed to the ordination of women. ‘It’s a comedy;’ I said to him in frustration, ‘you’re meant to laugh at it.’ I had however misunderstood the grounds of his objection. The brother was not concerned about the title rôle of a woman priest. Rather, what he had found was that in its portrayal of the life of an anglican church the programme was so close to the mark, so near the knuckle, that he really couldn’t stand the experience! But there are those who might object for other reasons.

It would be tempting to fill an article like this with jokes. Tempting, but dangerous. One reason is that for every reader who laughed at a particular joke there would be others who would be offended. I would be walking on egg-shells. I will however confess to finding certain religious jokes really rather funny, particular those that are about the foibles of Christians themselves and their attitudes. I even have one or two I like to tell against myself. By joking though, and allowing others to joke about us, are we implying that the things we believe and do are of no importance? Not at all. We have only to look at other popular subjects for humour. Politics is one – and, if we’ll admit it, right government is hardly a trivial matter. Sex, of course, is probably the most popular subject for jokes, though again it is a minefield and there will be those Christians who would perhaps object to even the mildest of jokes here. Reactions would be similar to the whole area of dark humour – gallows humour, medical-school humour and the use of even human tragedies and disasters as a subject. I am sure we would all agree there are jokes which go too far, offending common decency and Christian values. The problem is where to draw the line, and again I hope it won’t cause shock for me to admit that there are jokes that I would tell in certain company and refrain from elsewhere. The problem is, it seems to me, that the funniest humour, whether from a stand-up comic, a sit-com, or a joke told to friends, is very often that which comes closest to the line, wherever it is we draw it. Just consider the opposite: Jokes in Christmas crackers and in books for children are, appropriately, very ‘safe.’ They are also, I would contend, not usually very funny – though perhaps we enjoy in a way the groan rather than belly laugh with which we greet them. I am not saying that to joke you inevitably have to risk offence. There is some very funny, gentle and innocent humour. My point rather is that we actually laugh at what is powerful and important in human life. Humour about religion is a kind of homage to its ongoing relevance and importance, at least to some in our society. Indeed, considering how people laugh at the church reminds me of laughter in church. There can’t be many brothers and sisters who have never experienced one of those situations of almost irrepressible hilarity in chapel. A line of a psalm (‘You have exchanged your people for a trifle’. . . ), or a liturgical mistake, can seem hilarious in chapel in a way that evaporates afterwards. Do we not care about the offering of prayer? I hope we do. But it is perhaps because we care, because we give to our chapel life a solemnity and dignity that honours what we do there, that our awareness of what is funny is heightened.

Returning to Dibley, as an example of how comedians see the church, it strikes me that in many ways the Vicar is not the most significant character. Yes, she is funny, and she does highlight certain perceptions of the clergy. It is the villagers though, the diverse members of the parish council in particular, who strike me most. Are they really the sorts of people that make up the church? Well, I’m afraid, they are – or rather we are. To look at a typical congregation of the Church of England, or indeed a typical local house-gathering in the Society or Community of Saint Francis, is to be tempted to say, ‘Well, one can either laugh or cry . . .’ Perhaps there is a third alternative though. Perhaps the primary response ought to be to love. Let us use humour, especially the humour of others, as a mirror to ourselves, and to ask questions of what we’re really doing in the church and what we’re really like. But let us be kind in our humour with each other. And let us especially never give up loving, and believing in, the absurd, mixed-up, largely as yet unredeemed Us who form the church – the church Christ loved and for whom he gave himself up. §


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