Dr Gavin Ashenden says hosting comedy in cathedrals is blasphemous. But where is the line when it comes to allowing entertainment in sacred spaces, and in banning it, are we missing out on great communal joy? Comedian Paul Kerensa explores
This week, a former chaplain to the Queen publicly criticised Newcastle Cathedral’s plans to host comedy evenings. Reading such news stories, we may think this is something new – a turning-point in church culture. Actually, such shows have been happening for years, filling these buildings with great joy, positivity and, oh yes, people.
As a comedian and a Christian, I’ve performed various comedy shows in cathedrals, as have comics you’ve actually heard of. Milton Jones performed at Leicester Cathedral over a decade ago; Bristol Slapstick Festival occupied their cathedral last week. I performed at Leicester Cathedral just three days ago. Other cathedrals on my CV include Birmingham, St Asaph and Derby, as well as hundreds of other places of worship, from small chapels to megachurches.
We use humour in our lives like a chicken uses a road: to get to the other side
Of course, just because I’ve done it, doesn’t make it right. If that were our benchmark, it would excuse thousands of sins, from coveting my neighbour’s lawnmower to all the seven deadly ones, including gluttony, pride, sleepy, dopey and bashful.
Reading the room
I understand the concerns of former Anglican bishop, Dr Gavin Ashenden, who complained of “spiritual illiteracy, where the people appear to have no sense of being able to read the meaning of the building”. Reading the room is something I’m very keen on.
Perhaps it’s a sense of trust. When I’m onstage in a place of worship, I try to bring a Christian sensibility. I’m respectful in language and attitude, and encourage the audience to be too. We’re there to celebrate joy and community. Many have a stereotype of a spit-and-sawdust stand-up club, but on holier ground there’s a sense of welcome, openness and, whisper it (although in St Paul’s Cathedral that can be quite loud), fun.
In Covid times too, a cathedral’s airiness may appeal far more than poorly ventilated comedy cellars. Your local high-ceilinged church could be the next great entertainment venue – if all treat it with respect.
Denying us these shows could miss out on opportunities for great communal joy
So can these new cathedral comedy nights be trusted with hallowed ground? The acts (on the bill, not ‘of the Apostles’) include David O’Doherty and Phil Wang – non-Christians, but skilled and intelligent stand-ups who I’m sure will read the room too. As far as I’m aware, the cathedral hasn’t booked Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr.
A right respect
It begs the question though, what is appropriate for a venue like this? Should the comedians be free to do any material they like? Is this a swear-free zone? And what about the habit of mainstream culture using ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ as milder expletive alternatives to post-watershed effing and jeffing? Personally I’d rather hear someone abbreviate Thomas Crapper or even acronymise ‘fornication under consent of the king’, than hear my saviour’s name as sweary punctuation or punchline.
So that’s a big question mark for me. Is the promoter hiring the building and letting the comics run wild? Or is there an awareness and respect for a cathedral’s status? An outright ban though is surely not the answer.
Dr Ashenden claims that the building’s “misuse” is “blasphemous”. He’s a Roman Catholic now, who will certainly view this (Anglican) building differently to an Anglican like me. I’ve done church shows with Catholic comedians who’ve queried where we’d be performing, eager to preserve and protect the altar. I reassured that the stage would be closer to the audience, away from the holiest areas of the church.
So it depends what Dr Ashenden means by blasphemy. He may think that the very presence of a performance in a cathedral qualifies for this. I wonder if he’d think the same of Aled Jones’ forthcoming cathedral tour, or the ‘Space & Life’ sound and light show currently at Guildford Cathedral? These events move us, entertain us, make us think. Are they all automatically blasphemous? I wonder where the line is.
Personally I think an accusation of blasphemy is tricky when we don’t know the actual content. A pre-emptive ban may be safest, but is safe always best, especially at a time when we need to rebuild community? Denying us these shows could miss out on opportunities for great communal joy.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, famously noted that “the Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Any initiative to invite non-Christians into these town centre temples should be applauded, or at least considered.
I pray the event would go well, that the buildings would be treated with respect and enjoyed anew. I hope, too, that audiences vote with their feet. If the comedy doesn’t hit the right mark, may they go elsewhere, or let the promoters know (other comedians are available).
But if God-given joy is shared that evening, benefitting building and audience (potential congregation or passers-by) alike, then I hope footfall increases as laughter fills the vaulted ceiling. May God smile on us, or even laugh.
After all, we use humour in our lives like a chicken uses a road: to get to the other side.