An annual spring-time ritual that this year hit new heights,found Billy Connelly prancing naked around Piccadilly Circus.
Lenny Henry and Jonathan Ross pushed TV innuendo to new heights –or depths,depending on your perspective.Julie Walters and Victoria Wood proved once more that they are the grandmothers of all that is best in British comedy and Ali G fired a few well-aimed darts at Posh and Becks and lived to tell the tale.Through it all,a huge amount of money was raised for innovative projects in Africa and around the UK.
The event that brought us these diverse delights was Comic Relief,a national institution that has long outlived the music projects –Band Aid and Live Aid –by whose example it was originally inspired.There is something in this marriage of zany and anarchic behaviour with genuine social care that has won a large and loyal following in the wider population.
What lessons might there be for the church in the success and appeal of this remarkable formula?What can we learn from Lenny about life,the universe and caring for the poor?
It’s good to laugh!
Firstly,that is OK to have fun. Comedy has always had a part to play in popular entertainment: but this is something more.In recent years comedians have gone beyond being successful media personalities to being cultural icons.We invite them into our front rooms as friends,and join with them in pricking the pomposity of those who take themselves just a little too seriously. As someone claimed a few years back,“comedy is the new rock and roll”.
Hang out at any bus stop during the school rush hour and you will hear countless conversations inspired by last night ’s Fast Show or the antics of Vic and Bob on Shooting Stars . Listen to Radio One in the early morning or late afternoon and you would be forgiven for thinking that the music is there to link the jokes together,rather than the reverse.From the Goon Show via Monty Python to Alan Partridge and beyond,a legacy was established in the late twentieth century by which comedy took up a privileged place at the heart of teen and young adult culture.Whatever other messages the rising generations have taken to heart in recent years,they have clearly decided that it is good to laugh.How hard they must find it to sit in Churches where even celebrations have the feel of a funeral,and the world is a very sombre place indeed.If we are serious about making faith accessible to the Comic Relief generation,it may just be that we need to lighten up a little.
It’s OK to cry!
A second message of comic relief,ironically,is that it is OK to cry. One of the most powerful aspects of the approach is the sheer drama of seeing the same personalities you have laughed with visibly moved by the needs they encounter.Lenny Henry or Billy Connolly turning their heads away from the cameras as tears flow.Davina McCall utterly ‘losing it ’at the abject horror of the scenes she is witnessing.Julie Walters holding a young African child who nuzzles his face into her neck to kiss her.These are images that move us deeply,because they touch a common thread of humanity in us.
Just as comedy is often built on the utmost honesty,so this willingness to be affected by the needs of others speaks volumes.It is a rejection of the ‘stiff upper lip ’of previous generations and an acceptance that the depths of sorrow are as meaningful as the heights of joy.It resonates deeply with a generation seeking authenticity in emotional expression. Perhaps it is only comedians -who have already proved their capacity to burst the bubble of our self-importance and shed a little light on our feelings -to whom we will give this right to make us cry.And it is somehow true that these scenes come across as real:free of the insincerity and gloss of which celebrities are so often accused.We do not feel manipulated by their tears,but moved.Is it the honesty and humanity of laughter that enables us to accept the integrity of grief?
These twin messages –that it is good to laugh and good to cry –find their common foundation in the enjoyment and exploration of being human.If comedy is nothing else,it is a celebration of the human condition –with all its frailties and failings.
This same acceptance of human emotion and experience is reflected in the Biblical witness.The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is ‘A time to cry and a time to laugh;A time to grieve and a time to dance.’[Eccles.3:4 ] The apostle Paul,centuries later,urges his friends in the Church of Rome, ‘When others are happy,be happy with them.If they are sad,share their sorrow.’ [Romans 12:15 ].Both injunctions imply sensitivity to the needs of others and an ability to read the times and seasons of our lives.Both call for a willingness to express emotion appropriately,and to enter fully into the moments of laughter and tears that arise in our everyday world. Comic Relief,on this analysis,is a healthy model of the life the Bible calls us to live.And many of our churches are not.Too often we shy away from ‘extremes ’of emotion,and blend everything into finely balanced grey sludge.
Too often there is a veneer of ‘praise ’ that hides our sorrow and an appearance of ‘maturity ’that suppresses our joy.Too many of us have spent years of our Christian lives shying away from honest human emotions only to find,when change,tragedy or emptiness strike,that we are ill-equipped to cope.It is one of the saddest aspects of the Christian journey in recent years in the West that many people have had to leave the church in order to find a place where with honesty and authenticity they can express the way they feel.
There are two questions this raises about the faith we profess,and how it connects with the ‘bittersweet symphony ’ of our lives..
Celebrate our humanity
Firstly,have we adopted a faith in which we are afraid to express or explore our own humanity?It seems that the two temptations that have dogged men and women since their very earliest days are on the one hand to accept sub-human behaviour and on the other to seek super-human status.City streets the world over are populated by those who have taken the former option,and have given up trying to rise above their most basic instincts.Two of the largest industries in the world –drug trafficking and pornography –thrive on the inability of men and women to break free of appetite and compulsion.But religious people, more often than not,pull to the other extreme.So determined are they to distance themselves,at least publicly,from ‘base ’behaviour,they come to aspire to a kind of pre-death angelic perfection;a life of sterile flawlessness,untouched by ‘worldly ’ concerns..
Both extremes are wrong because both deny our God-given humanity.How much fuller might our churches be if they were seen as places where this humanity is welcomed,expressed, explored and applauded:with all its inherent oddities and weaknesses?
Take comedy seriously
Secondly,are we unwilling to take comedy seriously?We allow our preachers to be funny,but only on condition that they move swiftly to serious business.Those gifted with the capacity to make people laugh often feel,in church circles,that they must attach that gift to some other function –as an evangelist, preacher or children ’s worker –in order to give it credibility.I have heard preachers described disdainfully as “little more than a stand-up comic ”as if such a calling was by definition inferior to that of ‘real preaching ’.And I have met more than one youth worker who has gained a reputation for being very funny:only to struggle for years afterwards to be taken seriously.
It is as though laughter is too trivial to be accepted as God ’s gift to the church; comedy is not a talent we associate with spiritual depth and maturity.We can understand that God would use laughter to make a serious point:laughter for its own sake we resist.The few brave souls who do set out to be comics for Christ often do so with relatively little support from the wider Christian community.
But while we banish comedy to the trivial fringe,our culture is allowing comedians to shape its values,opinions and perceptions to a remarkable degree. The most celebrated vicar in the country can ’t choose between Mel Gibson and Jesus and wins the hearts not only of the people of Dibley,but of the rest of us as well.If we are to make the church an arena for the celebration of the gift of humanity,might we not be helped and resourced by those amongst us who have the gift of laughter? Where are the Bible colleges offering twin-track degrees in theology and comedy? Where is the pastoral support and understanding for those facing the tortuous rigours of the live comedy circuit? When was the last time you saw the leaders of a church laying hands on someone called of God to a comic vocation?
These become major questions when you take stock of the place of comedy in our culture. Comic Relief is a measure of two realities about the rising generations.The first is that those who can make them laugh are given the privilege of also shaping their thinking.The second is that the same privilege is increasingly withdrawn from those who have no time for laughter.
If the church goes on being associated with people who can ’t laugh at themselves and won ’t let others do it for them,it will increasingly lose touch with the post-python generations.Comedy may yet prove to be,for the church,a very serious business indeed.