The Fringe is home to all manner of hedonism, filth, exhibitionism and debauchery. Among its denizens, pagans normally outnumber priests. But the Fringe is nothing if not a broad church, and that includes, sometimes, the actual church. Among this year’s performers are three persons of the cloth who will be preaching from the comedy pulpit at Sofi’s Southside in a show called White Collar Comedy. So, pray tell us…
Who are you all and who (or where) are your respective flocks?
Rev Ravi Holy: I’m vicar of a group of eight (Church of England) churches in Canterbury Diocese.
Rev Dr Kate Bruce: This and that, C of E Chaplaincy, writing and such – currently in Oxfordshire (sorry, not allowed to tell you more!).
Rev Maggy Whitehouse: Independent, currently working on the West Devon Methodist Circuit. Also author on Judaeo-Christian mysticism.
How did the three of you come together?
Maggy: We met at a Christian comedy show in London called Holy Guacamole.
Ravi: … And then one day, after seeing one of Maggy’s posts on Facebook, I thought, “We should really do a show together some time…” And about 5 minutes later, she rang me and said “I was just thinking: we should really do a show together some time… And Kate should be there too.”
Kate: …And then the phone rang!
The Fringe as a whole is pretty godless. How does it feel bringing religion here?
Maggy: It’s lovely. It’s my third Fringe and I generally wear my rainbow clerical shirt. I’m always being stopped in the street by LGBTQ folk wanting to know if I’m really a vicar and asking for selfies with me. The idea is simply to make people laugh … but lots of folk are in need of a good listening-to at times like this.
I can’t count the times I’ve had wonderful, intelligent and wise conversations with fellow comedians in green rooms up and down the country. And, let’s face it, we’re probably the smallest minority on the circuit today. How’s that for a cultural turnaround?
Ravi: I’ve been quite clear since I started doing comedy that my only agenda is to make people laugh. I’m not trying to convert anyone and I think if audiences got any sense that I was, they’d hate it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they’d crucify me! But, equally, as Maggy said, I do end up having some interesting conversations with people after gigs; I’ve even picked up weddings and funerals as result. But that’s very much a side effect.
Kate: I’ve never been to the Fringe, but I’ve been to lots of godless places, and generally found God. What you find depends on what you are looking for. Like Maggy and Ravi my agenda is to make people laugh, whilst wearing a dog collar. Perhaps we will keep the rumour of God alive.
What are your thoughts on the state of Christianity in Britain today? Terminal decline or ripe for a comeback?
Maggy: I don’t think Christianity has been tried properly for about 1700 years. The original idea was of something much bigger than a small, tribal God that is more interested in what you’re doing in bed than whether you’ve got a bed to do it in. The original Christianity was about loving the poor, and the outcast and about healing. Once Rome appropriated it, and turned Jesus into Jupiter, it was downhill all the way. I think it’s time for a return to following Jesus rather than just worshipping him.
Ravi: What Maggy said. I almost don’t think of myself as a Christian these days – which might sound weird for someone in my line of work. But that word has become almost irredeemably associated with the most extreme form of Christianity – the anti-gay, anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-LIFE kind – and I guess I feel about that the way moderate Muslims feel about ISIS… But God continues to be the sustaining centre of my life and I continue to find Her in the church – all the madness notwithstanding…
Kate: What those two said. (It’s really easy being the third person to reply.) God sustains me, makes me laugh, accepts my outbursts, motivates my desire to listen to people and care. Genuine Christianity, after the pattern of the fella who fed the poor and noticed the little ones could do with a re-boot.
Maggy, if I remember rightly are you not an alternative Catholic priest? How does that work?
Maggy: I was ordained by a Catholic bishop specifically to work with people on the edges of faith: those who had been hurt or damaged by orthodox Christianity (as I was myself at one time). We generally don’t have physical churches, apart from house churches, and we go where we are needed like hospices and prisons. Before the Roman Catholics changed their stance, we did a lot of funerals for suicides and unbaptised babies, for example. Another term for us is “hedge priest”. We do have a cathedral (All Saints in Putney) and a Wikipedia page, however.
What are you three bringing to the Fringe that you think the Fringe needs to hear?
Maggy: Love, compassion, friendship. I tend to shoot down a few holy cows (mixing religious metaphors!) As a Bible historian and author on Jewish mysticism, I tend to reinterpret the Bible anyway and you’d be amazed at how funny that can be – and it gets people thinking. I don’t give a monkey’s whether people believe what I believe, but it is my job to make them think. The main problem with the decline of Christianity is that people believe/don’t believe what they’ve been told instead of researching it for themselves.
Ravi: As I said, my only – or at least primary agenda – is to make people laugh but, like Maggy, I hope I make people think too, challenge their assumptions. So a highlight of my comedy career so far was when a fellow vicar wrote to me to tell me that this lady had turned up at his church one day having been to one of my gigs the week before and she told him she’d been so struck by my open and inclusive approach that she was prepared to give Christianity a second look. So, if my act serves as a positive example of liberal rather than fundamentalist Christianity as well as making people laugh, I’m not gonna complain.
Kate: As I write these answers I’m sitting in a café in beautiful Weardale in County Durham. As I glance up there’s a sign that says “church open”. Where the church is genuinely open, people find friendship, belonging, care. Now most people won’t come into a church building, so it seems to me the church needs to turn inside out and be found at the crossroads of the world – in bars and pubs and comedy clubs. My interest is simply being present at the Fringe, making people laugh, meeting people, listening. People really matter – some people have a really hard time believing that.
Do you ever get atheist hecklers or offended non-believers picking arguments?
Kate: Never happened, yet. I’m not really an argumentative person, unless I have PMT, in which case run to the hills … Generally, I mock myself – and that doesn’t really require debate.
Ravi: Not really. Because often I’m saying exactly what they would – i.e. it’s insane to believe that there’s an angry, white man in the sky who demanded the ritual murder of his son so he could forgive us for the crime of being human except he’s not gonna forgive most of us anyway: he’s going to torture us for all eternity for the sheer hell of it… Kind of takes the wind out of their sails when a bloke (or woman) in a dog collar says it but I’m an atheist with regard to that kind of god myself.
Maggy: Never once had a problem with an atheist. They’re generally intelligent folk who like to hear new ideas. Have several times had problems with Christians but that’s almost always only if I swear. Quite a few Mondays there’s a slightly resigned call from the Bishop saying, “You said the F-word again, didn’t you, Maggy?”
Who from the Bible would do the best Fringe show and why?
Ravi: Well, this is a groaner and requires a reasonable knowledge of the Old Testament but it has to be Samson ‘cos he brought the house down in Gaza.
Maggy: Eve. For a start, she’d put to rest the very idea that a woman could be tempted to disobey God for a piece of fruit. There would be tales of chocolate trees, wine rivers and the serpent would almost certainly look like George Clooney while Adam was probably more like Boris Johnson.
Kate: Um… I like Jeremiah, he was a miserable so and so, with an underpant fetish. I’m sure there’s comedy there.