Laugh in church? God forbid | David Mitchell
JNews that Newcastle Cathedral will be hosting monthly comedy nights, complete with a ‘full bar’ and merchandise store, a former chaplain to the Queen has annoyed. Dr Gavin Ashenden described it as “an abuse” and feared the “impressive” cathedral would be reduced to “an O2 Arena or nightclub”. ‘If the Newcastle Diocese wants to have comedians they should hire a comedy club,’ he said, ‘but to do it in a cathedral is offensive to anyone who thinks a cathedral is a sacred space’ .
I love comedy, but it’s hard to immediately dismiss that point of view. You imagine a comedic concert-style state of lighting, all reds and greens and lager-brand gobos shimmering on the walls, and it all feels somehow diabolical against the backdrop of shadowy Gothic architecture. And then in the middle, the confident, spotlight-lit standup, mic in hand, swearing and talking about getting dumped and saying the statues of the saints look like pedos. Raucous laughter echoes through the nave, spilled beer drips into the lettering of the commemorative slabs, while the comedian perches his buttocks on the altar and engages in Internet pornography.
I never liked those bars or clubs that exist in desecrated Victorian churches or chapels. It’s a bit sad, the spiritual hopes of the people who commissioned and built these worthy the premises crumbled at night, their confidence and piety driven mad by the passage of time, as punters drink or dance or rush to the new lean-to toilet block. They are beautiful buildings whose congregations have long since dispersed, and so logically they should be put to use, but part of me thinks demolition would be kinder to the memory of the long-dead worshipers who once filled them.
So is Ashenden right when he says that by allowing David O’Doherty’s next concert, the Church of England has shown “spiritual illiteracy”? It’s a catchy phrase, no less than you’d expect from a media-savvy former clergyman, though I’m not sure what it actually means. At first glance, it really looks like it means something insightful, but then you stare at it a little longer and no more meaning is forthcoming. I guess that just means he thinks the church did something wrong and so he says it in a vaguely religious and ecclesiastical way to fit the mood. It’s the same instinct that might lead someone to compliment a particularly delicious plate of haggis with a comic Scottish accent.
I think I’m uniquely positioned to comment on this issue because I actually performed at a comedy concert at a cathedral a week ago. Maybe “realized” is a bit strong. I chatted. It was part of the Bristol Slapstick festival and I was interviewed about my favorite slapstick bits from film and TV, in front of a big screen to show the clips, in Bristol Cathedral. My wife, who was in the audience, said she didn’t know if there was a bar. But she said she really enjoyed the evening so I think there must have been some.
I thought it was a beautiful event: Bristol’s annual festival celebrating silent and physical comedy, having withstood the existential threat of lockdown, returning triumphantly to its audience of pratfall enthusiasts. And while his usual venue, the Bristol Beacon, is being refurbished, he has been welcomed into the oldest of the city’s indoor spaces, its medieval cathedral. It was a jolly vibe, with orchards wearing cathedral regalia mingling with festival volunteers in their burlesque-branded sweatshirts, all excited for the hundreds of people arriving and eager for the show to be a success. We ended the evening with a tribute to the wonderful Barry Cryer, who passed away a few days earlier.
So, was it “offensive to anyone who thinks a cathedral is a sacred space”? I’m not very religious, but I’m not an atheist either. I’m a “don’t know”. I hope there is a good big God, and I hope I find myself believing in one when I die, but I don’t think thinking about it much will give me the answer. I love churches, though – I find them both soothing and moving, a combination rarely achieved by TV series. During the event, I was extremely happy to be in a cathedral.
Would Ashenden say that was irrelevant because I am not a practicing Anglican? Probably not because he isn’t either. Although a former Church of England priest, he later changed service providers and is now a Roman Catholic. He says he left the C of E because of its “capitulation to the increasingly intense and non-negotiable demands of a secular culture.”
I understand his frustration. Religion, many people believe, is meant to provide clarity: rules and salvation. Eternal and immutable truths. The woolly, writhing Church of England, the state religion of an increasingly irreligious state, facing declining congregations and disintegrating architecture, might seem like a poor excuse for a belief system by compared to its muscular and unwavering rivals. Far from converting people to his doctrines, he seems more concerned with accommodating the infidels.
Maybe that’s why I like it. To me, the troubled, thoughtful, and well-meaning fog of the C of E seems much more truthful, a much more understandable and wholesome reflection of what the human condition feels like, than all these more dynamic philosophies. Other religions may have retained the fiery naïveté of youth, but the Anglican Church has the gentle, tolerant confusion of experience, which is the closest thing to wisdom I will ever believe.
And he has all these amazing buildings. Why not take as a starting point that people should go inside, for some reason? They should be part of our lives. They are beautiful and steeped in centuries of faith, but also politics, compromise and hypocrisy. Bristol Cathedral was an abbey before Henry VIII became interested in a young woman. It’s a cathedral because of a midlife crisis. It doesn’t seem like a totally inappropriate venue for comedy.