Comedians love to take the piss out of the Catholic Church. Catholicism is one of the oldest comedic targets. Only Judaism has sourced more comedy (yet most Jewish jokes are made by Jewish comedians and are often in relation to their race rather than faith). Not that the Catholic Church would give three Hail Marys for the humorous views of a bunch of heretics. The Catholic Church has survived many reformations, sectarian violence and religious wars so a few jokes are not going to hurt them. When you are as old as the Catholic Church it must be hard not to laugh at the criticism and controversy you cause. History has taught the Catholic Church to never take its persecutors seriously and remain defiant of all political attacks. It’s not the rich, beautiful, Baroque buildings of Italy that tempt atheist tourism that have kept the Catholic Church popular it’s the blind faith of its internationally poor and impoverished followers. Doug Stanhope’s joke takes two stereotypes and merely indicates the hypocrisy of history written by the victor that mirrors my own reactionary views towards the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church might not care about their past but atheists and agnostics do, and history not faith has fuelled a divide between the two. Regular readers will have noticed I am more a fan of the jubilant services of the politically right wing Pentecostalists than the routine ritual and religious dogma of a Catholic service. If I am going to worship with groups I politically disagree with I would rather sing and dance than reluctantly join a chorus of whispers disguised as prayers. Aware I should leave my conservative comfort zone this Sunday I visited Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Church on Commercial Road.
I may not be fan of the Catholic Church but arriving at the service I was shocked at the large, culturally and ethnically diverse congregation. Our Lady Immaculate was a very popular woman and I had to sit in the balcony to get any view of the service. The narrow building had unbelievable depth once inside, that its tall exterior hid from the outsider’s eye. Built in 1934 the church appeared like a giant chimney on the busy main road but inside the sparkling candle lit nave was most heavily adorned by people of all colour. As we all trawled through the routine prayers and hymns which I could surprising mime correctly without looking at the pamphlet, my eyes were distracted by the congregation. Chinese, Punjabi, Tamil, Italian, Polish, Peruvian, South American, West Indian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Irish, Philippinoes and cockneys. This was a proper East End congregation, migrants from all over the globe united by Europe’s most popular religious export. The more liberal minded Anglican Church would be envious of such diversity; Stanhope had correctly stated the Catholic Church “is more popular than ever.” The global cross section of the congregation was neatly explained by Reverend’s sermon based on the reading of Jesus’s parable from the Book of Mathew Chapter 22.
In the parable a “certain king” made a supper to celebrate the marriage of his son and invited many to come. Sadly the “certain king” was not that popular so his invitation was rejected by some and his servants beaten by others (the Biblical era was far more brutal than the simple online world of Facebook). Angered, the “certain king” retaliated on his rude invitees but also instructed his servants to invite everyone across the land to come, calling for the “the good and the bad” to attend. At the wedding banquet the King discovered one man not wearing the traditional wedding garment as was the custom; unconvinced of the man’s excuses he banished the man from the wedding. Jesus ends the parable with the warning that “many are called but few are chosen” (Mathew 22.4) which adds a lot of gravitas to a really shit story. The parable is very a simple story to highlight that God welcomes everyone but one will only be accepted into heaven by following God through the teachings of Jesus Christ. In the Bible Jesus uses the parable to have a dig at the Jews who will later betray him but the Reverend was using the parable in a larger modern context.
The Reverend reminded the congregation that all are welcome but some of us are just “sleep walking” through the service. I am unsure what the Reverend wanted from his congregation, the diverse group all found Christ in different ways and are unified through the church but what does he see as an adequate understanding of Jesus Christ. Catholic services provide a ritual unison but I have yet to experience a sermon which actually specifically questions ones existence towards God (which is so common in the Anglican Church). The sermon seemed to merely prey on the fears of the congregation that they are not Christian enough without indicating what it is to be Christian. If the Reverend wanted the congregation to awake to spiritual investigation he needs to find better parables. I am not “sleep walking” I would actually describe my experience as attempting not to daydream of God by battling with the rhythmic rituals that bombard you throughout the service. I think the lack of depth of the sermon was typical of the church’s need to appeal to such a wide audience but what the sermon lacked in spiritual depth the ritual enriched.
Rituals can be seductive; it’s so easy to be a slave to the sacrament rather than question the repetition and routine. Conformity is a comfort and the group prayers that I once found scared me I now find a hugely reassuring feature to my week. It is easier to sleep walk in a crowd at a Sunday service than it is during a mid-week lone confession. Looking over the large congregation from the balcony it was touching to see the same text spoken so many ways, some mime the words, others are brave enough to mutter, rare solitary shouters lead the service, mothers are often too busy orchestrating their children and some singletons blindly smile as they speak the text in their head. Despite the ritual attempt to build unity no ritual can ever be the same and are forever different but they do legitimise the ridiculous. Staring into the sanctuary I was amazed at the grotesque grandeur and glamour. Black and white marble squared floor separated the masses from the holy area. The white and egg shell marble altar had three levels; the top level burned in hope of the heavens with six candle sticks; a congested central level consisted of two candle sticks separated by four potted plants and a heavily adorned holy box; while the lowest level was decorated with shimmering tea lights. The sanctuary shone with wealth like a nouveaux rich house except this brick had been bought by some seriously old money. The grandeur of the sanctuary and the mutters of the mass ritual are instantly recognisable but that does not make it any less ridiculous.
The Catholic Church’s success has been built on conformity. As long as the majority don’t see hypocrisy in the Sistine Chapel and hilarity in the Holy Communion it will remain a social norm and comedic target. I can’t help being the comedian (despite how unfunny I am) it’s an essential default when faced by such mass approval so as to demonstrate your own individualism. My comfort are the jokes that attack such powerful establishments, comedy is essential in highlighting the silliness and corruption of institutions and Doug Stanhope’s brash manner might have attacked the political hypocrisy of the church but you can equally laugh at the ritual. In contrast to Stanhope I have posted a Dave Allen sketch which is 30 years older. The sketch appears very innocent but at the time it was far more mainstream and controversial than Stanhope. What like the sketch it is a comment on religious ritual, except this ritual is simple to understand and therefore far less ridiculous.