Ecclesiastical Humour: Whitterings, May 2005

“One of the joys of belonging to the warm hearted Church of England, safely but not too tightly folded into the cope of Canterbury, is the jokes about ourselves. A sense of humour is a sense of proportion. I hold no brief for those solemn people who are so shocked by ‘high’, ‘broad’, ‘low’ and the various subtleties of ritual and verbal expression in the Church that they refuse to be amused by them. Such solemnity argues a lack of proportion. And if the variety of the Church of England is regarded as something too painful to be contemplated, let those who feel like this read these verses by Father Forrest before taking the plunge to the Pope or Mary Baker Eddy or Total Immersion. The yardstick by which humorous verse about ourselves as a Church must be judged is the yardstick of charity. If we can laugh about ourselves we can love one another…”

John Betjeman (Poet Laureate of Great Britain), from his preface to What’s the Use by Father S.J. Forrest, Published by Mowbrays, 1955

When I was a younger, and Head of the Society of Mary in Scotland, I was wont to observe the all night vigil on Maundy Thursday in my parish church. A dozen or so of my friends would spend the night in the church in prayer, the recitation of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, and meditation and then retire after the early morning Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday to a friends flat to watch movies. We watched the same two movies ever year: ‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon’ about St Francis of Assisi and ‘The Small Miracle’ about a young boy who takes his sick donkey into the basilica of St Francis to be healed at the Saint’s tomb. Then it was off to the Three Hours Devotion. It was a lovely routine. Part of the same routine was the retelling of the same silly story. My friends would tease me that they had planned to remove the large statue of our Lady before the vigil, was fully draped in purple fabric for Holy Week, and one of my friends would take Her place. Then while I knelt in front of Her statue to lead the Rosary she would start whispering from beneath the veil, “Edward! Edward! Free my people!” It is not really that funny now that I see it written down. I guess you had to be there. We, however, thought it was a hoot and we would all cry laughing about it. Probably fasting and being up all night made it funnier. Father Timothy, our Rector, also thought it amusing. Needless to say, no one would have really done such a silly prank with our Lady especially during the solemnity of the vigil. When the new Rector came he overheard us laughing about this story and became furious. He refused to believe that we were not really running around the church all night in front of the Blessed Sacrament playing pranks on one another. He banned the All Night Vigil and it is still banned to this day. He had no sense of humour, as we discovered as the years crawled by, and our parish life became more and more serious. The rot had set in.

I tell this story to illustrate how the church I have grown up in has changed. When I think of the ten years I spent at that church in Edinburgh as well as the churches I grew up in in the United States I seem to mostly remember camaraderie and humour. After every service there was a gathering. After the weekday Masses there was coffee with the elderly ladies in the kitchen. After High Mass on Sunday there was Sherry in the Church (champagne after the Christmas and Easter midnight Masses) and then thirty or so of us would go to the Pub next door for breakfast with the Rector. Often we would while away the whole day wandering about the city until it was time for Evensong and Benediction. After E & B it was off to the pub again for a pub dinner (and a pint or two of course). There were the annual pilgrimages to Lindisfarne, Iona and Walsingham. And that was only one parish. Throughout the city there were other gatherings of clergy, choir, servers, and parishioners you could drop in on. Running through all of it was laughter. We were always laughing, usually at ourselves. I found one of the most disquieting things about modern church is how little we seem to socialise like this. After diocesan meetings everyone disappears. The clergy and laypeople seldom if ever go for a meal or drinks. There is no hanging around to see who is going where. Everyone seems to have somewhere they need to be. The church and the running of Her seems to be totally divorced from the social life of Her people. If we do not socialise together how do we ever get to know one another? It seems as if we do not get past the professional facades needed in the game of church administration. One senses that we become caricatures of ourselves in the minds of most of our colleagues.

I have never understood solemn, serious Anglicans. How you could possibly avoid seeing the irony and humour in our way of life still escapes me. I also admire eccentrics, especially ecclesiastical ones. Their very life adds a sense of relief to the utilitarianism of the modern world. I believe one of the funniest ecclesiastical books ever published is ‘Merrily On High’ by The Rev’d Canon Colin Stephenson. It is basically his personal anecdotes about the various eccentric High Churchmen he had known. It could easily have been called ‘Mad Priests I have Known and Loved’.

Of Fr de Waal he writes:
“Every year he would arrange a Sunday School treat and present it to a poor parish. They always had to start from the same place, even if it meant going back through the station from which they had set out, and he always took them to the same spot in the country. Unfortunately it was sold for building development and every year there was less and less country, until at last he was taking the children into the middle of a housing estate and the residents complained.”.

Of Bishop Roscow Shedden sometime Lord Bishop of Nassau in the Bahamas he writes:

“He never really ceased to be the rather overbearing lovable prefect he must have been at school, who always thought he could get his own way by shouting. And what a voice he had! He seemed entirely unable to modulate his voice and was apt to make what he thought to be quiet asides which would ring throughout the church. Once in the middle of reciting the Angelus he said: “I shall want the lavatory accommodation after this”, in exactly the same tone. On one occasion he was pontificating at a church in Nassau and barking orders he said: “Mitre”, to a small boy holding it. He repeated the word with growing impatience and then said: “Put it on boy”, and the small boy solemnly put it on his own head! I knew the mitre only too well as it had a lot of metal decoration on the top and I have more than once nearly lost an eye when he wanted it off and butted at me like a goat. He once got it caught in the tassel hanging from the sanctuary lamp and began to shake his head like an angry bull so that the whole thing – glass, oil and all – upset over him adding to his rage.”.

What happened to these lovable, eccentric priests and the odd mad Bishop? Most of them seem to have disappeared. We seem so serious in the church these days. It seems as if we stumble from crisis to crisis without a chance to catch our breath. We are polarised, fighting, overworked, worried, and often exhausted. I have to admit the church no longer seems to be very much fun. However, I must say that the new Bishop’s sense of humour is a breath of fresh air, even if his humour often takes the form of bad puns!

I know that this month’s column reads like nostalgic longing. That is because it is. I miss it. I miss poking fun at our solemnity. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the genuine, relaxed, social aspect of our life, especially the clerical life. I miss the eccentrics. I miss the hearty, stress releasing laughter the most. I want it to return like the spring. It feels as though winter has been with us too long. You all know how we get when winter goes on too long: grumpy, and tired, and serious. Surly we need a good laugh. The whole Communion needs a good laugh. As John Betjeman reminds us, we need to regain our sense of proportion.

P.S. The Photograph from 1954 is of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, asleep in Wembly Stadium while Billy Graham's preached his crusade. Very Funny.