I’m the vicar on Gogglebox, but that’s not the only funny thing about me | Kate Bottley

It’s often hard for clergy to hold the attention of the congregation and a good joke can work wonders. But comedy is a weapon that must be deployed with care

With Victorian-style public lectures now a rarity, listening to anyone speak to a crowd, for most of us above school age, occurs only when the best man tells stories of the groom’s indiscretions. “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking” is as much a case of “unaccustomed as I am to public listening”.

Pity the preacher then, who, as well as the regular Sunday gig, is drafted in for school assemblies, the Women’s Institute and the odd Rotary dinner.

The vicar is charged with delivering something memorable, neither too long nor too short, and not just once in a while, but week in week out. For me, the Sunday sermon looms large enough to make many a Saturday night sleepless. As I step nervously up the pulpit steps I worry that my waffling will leave them uninspired or, worse still, asleep. But while preaching is culturally alien to many, and being “preached at” unappealing to most, it is similar to something we are more used to seeing: standup comedy.

Kate Bottley
Kate Bottley: ‘My congregation tell me I’m funny (and yes more “ha ha” than peculiar).’ Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

Clergy standup is not a new idea. As a newbie curate I was sent by the bishop with other apprentices to a retreat house with a professional comedian. After two days of theology and theory we were expected to deliver 10 minutes of standup to our peers. It was so terrifying that one of the trainee vicars simply refused to even try.

The idea was that sermon writers could learn from the way comedians construct their sets. Bill Bailey’s absurdity, Eddie Izzard’s surrealism and Sarah Millican’s storytelling were all deconstructed to inform our own homilies. I still use some of the tricks I learned during those two days.

This week at London Excel’s Christian Resources Exhibition, Bentley Browning (who has a sideline as a David Cameron impersonator) will be offering a similar experience; leading a workshop for preachers on how to use comedy to communicate the Christian message.

My congregation tell me I’m funny (and yes, more “ha ha” than peculiar). I like to tell funny stories. I’m partial to a witty one-liner and every now and then these arrive when Gogglebox is filming. I was especially proud of my recent description of Daniel Craig as a “sexy Tintin”. OK, I’m no Oscar Wilde, but it’s not bad for a vicar.

And I’m not the only one; I knew a vicar who always began his sermon slot with a “joke of the week”. At vicar school (think Hogwarts with cassocks) we had a tradition of “the Friday joke” – the biggest challenge was not getting laughs but trying to think of 52 clean gags suitable for trainee clergy. Fictional vicars, meanwhile, are often funny; think Dibley, Rev and All Gas and Gaiters.

But comedy is harder than it looks and clergy should handle it with care. Strike the right note during the sermon and it can be the hook off which it all hangs; get it wrong and it’s the public-speaking equivalent of dad dancing. We all know the discomfort of someone trying to be funny when they’re not. The preacher pauses for the laugh, there’s a polite titter and then metaphorical tumbleweed whirls down the chancel steps. Or perhaps worse, when the funny story the vicar tells to support the theological crux is all anyone remembers as they shake your hand at the church door. A case of the punchline outperforming the point.

But it has its place. The medieval court jester could deliver the bad news that no one else dared tell the king; and wit is not devoid of wisdom. So perhaps we vicars would do well to exploit all means possible to communicate the message. At least it might keep some people awake. Now, did I ever tell you the one about the nun in the bath…


Kate Bottley

The GuardianTramp

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