Our Man at St Marks, All Gas and Gaiters, The Vicar of Dibley, Father Ted, Rev. Some of the finest comedies have chosen the Church as its subject and would indeed make most Christians laugh, give or take the occasional wince as a barb goes home. I have very fond memories of Our Man at St Marks and long for the day when it is released on DVD but I won’t hold my breath.
For although Christianity and comedy have long been natural bedfellows, something has changed in recent years. Gentle mockery or sharp satire aimed at Christians and their leaders have been replaced by abuse of Christianity itself.
The BBC asked me to look at why this might be and to try to explain, to a secular world, why it matters so much to Christians. After all, comedy producers respect Islam sufficiently to avoid laughing at the Prophet so why are even the most sacred aspects of this country’s major faith seemingly the stuff of so much comedy? Is it because the Church here is seen as part of the Establishment? Or is it due to the rise of militant atheism? Or is it simply that comics would be afraid to do to Islam that which they regularly do in their routines to Christianity?
We began making the film with one obvious drawback: it had not been a priority throughout my life to watch mockery of the Church. I had not, for example, seen Life of Brian. It was widely banned at the time of its release and I have never since felt that I was missing anything. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, assured me that it was “very funny”, so I watched excerpts chosen for me by the producer.
Most of it, being slapstick and Pythonesque, made me yawn. A man claims he can suddenly see and promptly falls down a hole. I got over laughing at that sort of predictable Carry–On stuff about 50 years ago. Then, however, came the crucifixion scene and my soul revolted. How could anybody not find that offensive, Christian or not?
Next I was shown a scene from Goodness, Gracious Me in which the body and blood of Christ were mocked with two recipients putting chutney on the bread and ordering a couple of bottles of wine. It was justly banned by the BBC and has been forbidden to be aired again. We had to get special permission to view it but those who made it were unrepentant, apparently oblivious to the enormity of the offence caused. Anil Gupta, one of the creators of the series, still felt aggrieved at the ban.
Yet this repellent scene was to provide one of the programme’s most riveting moments for me, when I was interviewing comedian Marcus Brigstocke, whose initial reaction was to defend the scene. I tried to explain to him why I found it so upsetting and then asked him if he would draw the line at anything, fully expecting him to say no, that comedy should know no bounds, but instead he bravely responded that my explanation had given him pause for thought.
Stand-up comics tend to make two assumptions: that Christians have no sense of humour and that all their audiences are unbelievers. The first is so ignorant as to need no answer but the second explains the current trend towards thinking that even the most sacrilegious mockery will be seen as fun. Such comics work on the principle that only stupid people believe in God and that their audiences are too intelligent to do so and will therefore share any joke directed at any aspect of religion.
There are increasing claims that Christians in this country are being persecuted: Christians are forbidden to wear a small cross in a workplace which includes colleagues wearing turbans or hijabs, which by any definition are vastly more visible. One has been demoted for posting a perfectly moderate expression of dissent over gay marriage on his private Facebook site. Others have been disciplined for saying “God Bless” or “I will pray for you”. Others still have found the police on their doorstep because someone has taken exception to their views and invoked either hatred or equality laws.
Perhaps then the modern trend towards ridiculing what is sacred to Christians in comedy – as opposed to ridiculing its priests or congregations – is a part of this persecution? Why otherwise single out only the one religion?
To that the comics answer that people can laugh only at what they know and understand: that the average Briton knows next to nothing of Islam and even less of other minority faiths. Indeed it seems unlikely that Life of Brian would have much resonance today. To laugh at the joke “blessed are the cheesemakers” you would have to know that Christ had said “blessed are the peacemakers” and standards of Biblical literacy now make that unlikely.
So the laughs today are sought not in subtlety but in coarseness, sneering at the creed having replaced satire aimed at the believers, and mockery of the person of Christ replacing mockery of His all too fallible followers.
It is a vital distinction.
We have no blasphemy laws these days but with that freedom comes the responsibility which should always attend the exercise of free speech: truth, courtesy and an awareness of impact. It is the last of these which is so neglected by so much modern comedy.
Heard the one about the vicar, the priest and the rabbi? Or the vicar who skived off church to play golf? Or how Noah’s ark was ruled unlawful by the EU? Everybody has a favourite Church joke but I made this programme in order to ask where the joke stops and how much further it might go. Sadly I think it might go a lot further before common decency prevails.
Source: The Telegraph