The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with ‘Permission to Officiate’. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. For many years he’s been a well known preacher and communicator in the North of England.
Have you heard the one about the two elderly ladies dressed in black who are leaving Burnley Crematorium one winter’s day having said farewell to their dear departed friend? There’s ice on the ground and one lady slips but manages to save herself by grabbing the handrail at the side of the sloping path and then with indignation declares to her companion: “You would think they would
scatter some ashes!”
Or the one about the vicar who is invited to address the Mothers Union, on this occasion a group of elderly ladies who have attended church for years. He says he will call out just one word at a time and they have to sing the first hymn or song that comes into their mind. “Cross”, shouts the priest and they all sing, ‘The old rugged cross’. “Grace”, and ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound’ is sung. “Rock”, is followed by ‘Rock of ages cleft for me.’ He then shouts “Sex”. There is total silence and the enrolling member collapses in shock and the rest are looking around nervously, and afraid to say anything till a long-married 90 year old with a cheeky smile on her face sings ‘Memories!’ But where is all this leading? Well I’m on the public speaking circuit. Maybe that’s a little over the top. But I am sharing my reflections on ‘humour in church’ to church and secular groups and for what it’s worth, it’s so far well received.
But let me side track with a moment of humour against myself. You will recall if you read the April edition of Northern Life that my God Slot was about scandal in church and the headline read, ‘Vicar Runs Off With Woman Organist’, little realising that the very talented Northern Life graphic designer would inset my title into a newspaper headline with my photograph in clerical dress at it’s side.
One of our daughters-in-law receives her copy of the magazine by post and when the April edition was delivered our granddaughter Hannah happened to be outside the door and is handed the magazine by the postman and she immediately opens it to find my article, and whilst leaving the door open so all the neighbours can hear, runs to her mum shouting: “Granddad’s run off with
a woman!” I have much to live down!
When Jade, one of our granddaughters, was but a young child her mum explained that Jade’s granddad had died some years before and that I had subsequently married her grandma. Christine
and I were visiting her shortly after this conversation and Jade was playing out and I was asked to bring her in for her tea. Jade wished to introduce me to her young friend by saying, “This
is my granddad,” and then thinking of what her mum told her, “But he’s not my proper granddad!” It certainly dents your ego.
Well, what have I learnt about delivering humorous stories? First and foremost, the stories have to be relevant to the audience, so if it’s a church group who are familiar with the workings of the church, the way that the priest and the congregation interrelate.I’m in with a chance if the stories are based on these factors and relationships.
To illustrate this point, when I was offered a book with cartoons relating to ‘The one hundred funniest Jewish jokes’ as a gift of the chairman of a well known publishing company in London I failed to see what was so funny about most of them, till to my great embarrassment he personally explained in detail the habits, customs and rituals of Jewish faith, society, and family life and then I cottoned on to the humour!
Secondly I need to keep the listeners’ interest; it is no good me going round the world, rather I need to just build up to the punch line, with language that is interesting yet credible and then deliver
the punch line as dramatically as possible. I will have practiced several versions out loud to myself till I feel it works to best effect. But the proof of the pudding is in the reaction to the delivery on the day!
Here’s another: When I was training to be a priest I shadowed the Reverend Ronnie Clarke Senior Chaplain at East Lancashire Hospital Trust. Whilst with him we would visit the wards to chat to patients and offer friendship and a little spiritual uplift. With Sister’s permission we also visited the maternity ward, with new mums so happy about their precious babes. Yet too soon I was to realise how vulnerable life is when I spied a large colour poster on the corridor showing the female anatomy with a unborn child and in bold print across it, ‘The first moments of life are critical,’
then just as quick I was brought out of my seriousness as I joined Ronnie’s buoyant Irish laughter when he read out how some wag had responded to it by writing, ‘And the last moments are a bit dodgy too!’
But unlike comedians I have to decide limits and when it is inappropriate to use a particular humorous tale. This story would be hurtful if retold to a mum who has just lost a babe or to someone who is recently bereaved. Care is needed.
Earlier this year I was invited to speak to Friends in Bereavement and I assumed their secretary required me to address the group on the impact of bereavement and how faith may assist recovery. But no such thing, she said she wished me to share my humour with them, and to offer them a little uplift at a time when her members were finding life difficult. It was agreed I had free range, but I decided that humour surrounding funerals and death was out, but church, birth, marriage and family life was in.
So here to illustrate the point is one I did share: When my sister and I were tidying up our mum’s affairs, I was thrilled to bits to see in a chocolate box with papers and photographs, a form that my mum must have taken from Skipton District Hospital’s maternity ward with details of my birth. But what chance had I in life? For at the bottom of the form reserved for the doctor’s comments it simply read ‘Poor Sucker!’ The group roared with laughter even though it was tangential to death, my apparent inadequate start in life humorously overrode and offered pleasure at my expense.
We all need humour and don’t forget that there is a lot of humour in the Bible! Think of the Book of Jonah. It shocks by describing a prophet who is about as unprophet like as you could get. When
God commissions him he tries to run away. And at the end of the story he is still telling God what God ought to have done. Of course it’s humour. And humour in the Bible often has a purpose, and in this case that the ungodly current state of affairs of the people were being commented on by the creator of this story. God used humour for effect!
Even the great matriarch Sarah could be vain and act like others. Sarah, who was eighty-nine years old when she heard that she would have her first child, laughed because she felt Abraham was too old, He was ninety-nine. Apparently, even at her advanced age she was reluctant to admit to herself that she was old. God used humour to draw out how easy it is to judge inadequacies in others whilst dismissing our own significant failings. Again humorously illustrated by Jesus in the parable of the speck in another’s eye when we have a great plank in ours, or the camel through the eye of the needle!
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the expectation of the conclusion would be realised by the hearers as the story unfolded, but the humour is, they got it wrong! They would have expected a story about a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite. That would have been a perfectly good teaching story about the need to care for the unfortunate since the peasant hearers saw themselves as Israelite.
But Jesus said, a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan, from a mixed race who were reproached by the Jews. That was humour if you like; though I don’t know whether the first hearers laughed, or simply let their mouths fall open. It could indeed teach compassion or maybe a dig at the clergy or as a warning not to stereotype people. Why should we take it for granted that a Samaritan could not have compassion for a Jew? Jesus used humour for effect!
And to end with one of mine: Recently a Colne lady in her eighties married for the fourth time and the press called on her for an interview. She explained that she married a bank manager in her twenties but he died within a few years, then in her forties she married a ring master but that marriage had failed and then in her sixties she married an elderly vicar but sadly he passed away soon afterwards and now in her eighties she had married a funeral director. The press were fascinated by the different careers of her husbands. But to her it was quite simple: “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, four to go!”
So if God and Jesus can use humour to effect, may we share humour that brings enjoyment and refreshment and pleasure and maybe a little teaching and the odd challenge to a world that is today so desperate for a smile!