Vicars need to challenge us, like Jesus did. So how can they stop telling bad jokes and start telling good ones?
If you haven't been to the Edinburgh Fringe then it's time to get your skates on. We're just back from our annual comedy binge and boy was it good. Well it wasn't all good – you have to take the rough with the smooth, but comedy does seem to be carrying all before it, with record numbers reported at all venues this year. Doesn't it say something that comedy venues are full to bursting, while many churches find it hard to get the punters in?
As we face the uncertainties of Brexit and Trump we all need a good laugh it seems. But there's much more to it than that. What can we learn from the art, or as award-winning comedian Sarah Pascoe has it, the craft of stand-up? What has comedy got to offer and can stand-ups help us to reinvigorate the way we speak into the situations and challenges faced by our communities?
The art of the sermon and the craft of the comedy have been uneasy bedfellows. If you are anything like me you dread the toe-curling vicar joke at the start of a sermon. Vicars shouldn't be let anywhere near a joke book, let alone a joke. It's something Bentley Browning, Christian stand-up who has his own show at the Fringe Tinder Rehab agrees with: 'My dad is a vicar and I have heard so often the vicar cracking an awful joke and then moving onto the serious stuff…it is terrible.'
It takes a different way of looking at things. It is the difference between telling a (bad) joke and then getting on with the serious stuff, and having a humorous stand-up slant on life itself. Comedians see things differently. They start from a different place. They notice the absurd, they see strange connections and they add a twist and this makes us laugh.
'Great humour is inventive, it is truth-telling but it uses surprises and twists. And when it does that we remember it,' says Browning.
This allows us to see things anew. Stand-ups defamiliarise the ordinary and everyday. And oddly that's what Jesus did too, although he wouldn't have got that far as a stand-up.
Browning runs training courses for vicars in stand-up so he knows a thing or two. So what can preachers learn from stand-up? What makes stand-up so compelling?
'If you do stand-up you have to tap into your real self and go into areas that might seem upsetting, but you have to be truthful to be a good stand-up.'
It was that truth-telling that really hits home at the Fringe – and yes it can be uncomfortable. There is a cost to being a stand-up – an emotional one. It is about making ourselves vulnerable – and perhaps preachers might really benefit from a bit of vulnerability at times.
Comedians can speak into situations and taboo subjects in a way vicars shy away from. They can tackle the big issues, the orthodoxies of the world that need shooting down and even in their filthiness challenge us to think again. There is a deep moral core in much of the comedy, a deep sense of wanting the world to be different. That's something we have in common, isn't it?
Take Leo Kearse, stand-up comedian and writer, and his show I Will Make you a Tory. It takes some chutzpah to cover the range of hot topics that Kearse does. His excoriating analysis of liberalism is enough to make your eyes water, but somehow we leave uplifted and challenged by it all. I kept thinking, why aren't vicars this challenging – Jesus certainly was.
Kearne explains that the stand-up can go for the jugular: 'Comedians can say things you couldn't normally say in ordinary life. We can get away with things. We have a licence for political incorrectness. We ask questions about our society and our world.'
Which is perhaps just the licence that vicars have handed back in, in order to be nice and tell the odd dad joke. Jesus may not have been laugh-a-minute but he was politically or spiritually incorrect.
Bentley Browning says: 'Perhaps we need vicars to be a bit "nastier", to be more real and to let the humour take us into areas where we comment on society.'
Comedy has many guises, and Edinburgh caters for all types. There are character sketches, reviews and autobiography. But perhaps the most powerful performers were the comedians with a point of view (however contrary) and a need to express it.
This kind of comedy is genuinely subversive. Humour can be used not so much as a weapon, but as a tool to get us thinking and challenging our own comfortable orthodoxies. What struck me so forcefully about Edinburgh and its comedy offering was just how prophetic the acts actually are. And perhaps preachers need to take a leaf out of this very book. If we are too nice. If we don't ruffle feathers then we may be doing it wrong. But the ingredient added to the meal in Edinburgh is humour – and that's a powerful spice.
'I was so fed up with us getting all worked up about small things, that I decided to talk about the big things,' says Kearse. 'The stage is a place we can comment on society. We are the new prophets.'
It is here that we bump into an uncomfortable truth. Humour opens us up to new realities and thoughts. So why is there so little of it in the Bible and especially the New Testament? Wouldn't the medicine have gone down better with an arch smile, a wry riposte and the odd laugh?
GK Chesterton in his winning, if chaotic, book Orthodoxy, written after a nervous breakdown, clings to the hope that the fully human Jesus had a sense of humour, even though we didn't see it, or he failed to show it.
'I am haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple. Yet He restrained something.
'I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.'
Perhaps Chesterton is right. I'd like to think he is, but we only have his word for it. What seems clear is that vicars have a great deal to learn from stand-ups – both in the art of speaking aloud, and in taking risks and using humour to say things we might otherwise not say.
But has a controversial comic like Kearse any advice for vicars and their sermons?
'You need passion and emphasis. Never read out a sermon. Tell it as though you are talking to a mate down the pub. You'd never write down and story and then read it out to a mate, would you?'
Bentley Browning echoes this: 'Any vicar who wants to be really heard needs to be real, not cool and not chasing laughs. We can learn from stand-ups and be a bit edgy…edgy but with a good message.'
Steve Morris is the parish priest of St Cuthbert's North Wembley. Before being a priest he was a writer and ran a brand agency. In the 1980s he tried to become a pop star.