Ministry & Music Hall
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
The Bishop’s car ran out of petrol, but much to his relief his wife remembered passing a garage half a mile back down the road. He searched the boot for a container, but he could only find his baby grandson’s potty, so it had to do! He trudged to the petrol station, then back with a full container. The leader of a new church, driving by, recognised a fellow Christian in need and stopped his car to offer help. As he approached he saw the bishop pour the contents of the potty into the tank. The man gasped: ‘If I’d known they had faith like that in the Church of England I’d never have left!
I’m not sure if this is a true story but it makes for a good sermon starter. It’s what you might call an ‘attention grabber’ with a touch of light humour. It has made people laugh and laughter, I believe, stems from a spirit of joy. There is nothing wrong with a good, wholesome chuckle.
Why do we laugh? Freud said people laugh because ‘a sum of physical energy which has hitherto been used for narthexes is allowed free discharge’. But I prefer a definition of what laughter is from the late Sir Ken Dodd. Laughter, he said, ‘starts at the chuckle muscle in the "diagram", rises up past the clack, then comes out through the titter valve’.
Laughter has healing qualities. It unburdens us and temporarily distracts us from our worries. It can lift our spirits, bond people together and overcome awkwardness. We laugh at the ludicrous situations in life: observational and self-deprecating humour is the material of stand-up comics. But it’s not just life situations that we can find amusing. Some people use laughter as a coping mechanism in the face of death. Spike Milligan has been immortalised by the epitaph on his gravestone, ‘I told you I was ill’.
When we think of the Church or the Bible – or even the clergy for that matter – we tend not to associate them with laughter, fun or humour. I have attended many social gatherings where someone has cracked a joke and then, feigning embarrassment, looked over at me to apologise: ‘Sorry Vicar’. When I told a friend I had joined the Mary Ward Players and perform in regular shows they said, ‘So God does have a sense of humour’. I wasn't quite sure how to take that comment. However, it saddens and frustrate me that people see the Christian faith as a po-faced, humourless religion that looks down on people wanting to have a good time. This was true of the Victorian Church at a time when religion had a great influence over peoples lives.
The Reverend Stewart Headlam was a controversial Anglican priest in Victorian Britain because he publicly defended music hall goers and performers at a time when the majority of the clergy saw this form of entertainment as vulgar, obscene and a breeding ground for vice. Headlam told his clergy colleagues, in no uncertain terms, that he believed they were more opposed to people having fun than committing so-called immoral acts.
Throughout his ministry, Headlam was at loggerheads with the Bishop of London, John Jackson. Jackson was outraged when he heard about Headlams lecture, Theatre and Music Halls, which took place at the Commonwealth Club, Bethnal Green in 1877. Jackson told Headlam that a man must either be a churchgoer or a theatregoer. Headlam replied that it was scandalous for a clergyman ‘not to enter into the amusements and whole life of the people’. Reflecting on his own Anglo-Catholic spirituality he added that, ‘a strong faith in the Incarnation and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ sanctifies all human things, not excluding human mirth and beauty’. Headlam caused further scandal by publicly declaring that George Leybourne’s songs would have more influence in London than the diocesan Bishop.
Jesus was certainly someone who's mission was to enter into the ‘whole life of the people’ and, although it was subtle, he certainly had a sense of humour. He used some great comical images when he was teaching. Just imagine a camel passing through the eye of a needle! (Matthew 19); the fool that places a lamp under a bushel basket or under a bed and not on the lampstand (Mark 4); someone straining out a gnat while eating a camel (Matthew 23); the hypocrites who blow loud trumpets to announce the jingling of their money in the collection plate (Matthew 6).
Comedy can be about turning things upside down; presenting situations that are out of place or are absurd in relation to its surroundings. In the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22), Jesus tells of the King hosting a banquet in his son’s honour. Invitations are sent out to the VIP’s but they can’t be bothered to turn up. So, instead the King invites those off the streets: the poor and the powerless. Just imagine it. The outsiders became insiders!
There are plenty of examples of status reversal situations in music hall, vaudeville and classic comedy sketches on television.
In the Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup, the eccentric and insane Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes the leader of the nation of Freedonia. It is the day of his inauguration and distinguished notables from adjoining countries are present; soldiers and trumpeters line the large reception hall and young girls gracefully move around the hall dropping rose petals in front of the entrance door. A fanfare sounds and a rousing chorus is sung, (‘Hail, Hail, Freedonia! Land of the Brave and Free!’), during which the guests, with heads bowed and arms outstretched, turn towards the entrance door anticipating the arrival of their new leader. However, Rufus T. Firefly fails to show up. The fanfare and chorus sound a second and a third time and still Firefly does not appear. The scene moves to show the newly elected leader just getting out of bed with an unlighted cigar in his mouth. He then slides down a fireman's pole into the reception hall wondering what all the fuss is about.
Such a solemn and stately occasion is turned on its head with comic nonchalance.
Incongruous behaviour and situations can make us laugh but they can also make us think about social customs, protocol and etiquette. Imagine something inappropriate happening during solemn worship in church!
Don Maclean, well-known for his popular religious radio programme Good Morning Sunday, tells the following stories that actually took place in church during the reading of the lesson: the first, recounts the tale of someone nervously reading from the prophet Isaiah. During the reading he had to say three times ‘camels in throngs’ and each time he said ‘camels in thongs’. The second story involves a mispronunciation of Hittites (an ancient nation that originated from Noah’s great-grandson Heth) during the reading of the Old Testament. The lector very confidently read, “Rebekah said unto Isaac, ‘my wife will not be worth living if Jacob takes unto wife one of these high titty women’”.
So, can there be such a thing as a theology of laughter or humour?
I’ve already mentioned that much material used by stand-up comics is about the bewildering antinomies of life; the contrast between reality and fiction; between what we think we are and what we are for real. A Christian theology of humour brings into focus the sharp contrast between (a) what God created us to be and what he wants us to become and (b) our own foolish, puffed-up self-importance. This is the stuff of comedy. Its all about our hypocrisy and pretension and the way we aggrandise ourselves; the absurdities and incongruities of human life. God laughs at all this. There is a dissonance between what is and what should be and it is comical because we think we are in control of our lives and that we always get it right.
Think back to the piano playing of the wonderful Les Dawson. ‘Ladies and Gentleman’, he would announce, ‘this is the part of the show you have all been waiting for..melody hour!’ He would then play a well-known piece of music for the audience to sing-a-long to but play it (purposely) off key! There was a comical dissonance between the written manuscript and his own funny interpretation of it. From a Christian perspective, so it is with our lives. We go ‘off key’. Because of our foolish self-importance, we deviate from God’s purposes for us and it is absurd.
Thomas Merton was a Catalan Trappist monk, writer and poet. He said, ‘Comedians and clowns are likely to have a high place in heaven because they must be near to the heart of God.’ I think this statement reflects two realities. Firstly, that the work of a comedian is also a vocation. Secondly, that in the nearer presence of God is the fulness of joy. Christians believe that those who have God in their lives also have joy. Laughter and faith in God are not opposites. As spirit-filled people, Christians believe that we are called to live lives of joy and this joy, found in laughter, comes for God.