Learning from laughter
The Bishop of Stafford’s pastoral letter for August 2018
Visiting so many different church families I am very aware of the variety of talent with which God has blessed our Diocese but as we are reminded every year, Britain’s Got Talent!
2018 has seen the 12th series of this popular ITV television show and many would say that the final was the most exciting ever – so many really good acts and such a variety of skills, it was impossible to predict the final outcome. However, it will be remembered as the year when ‘inclusion’ became a reality rather than a well-meaning intention.
The winner of Britain’s Got Talent 2018 was Lee Ridley from the other Newcastle (that city further up the country from our own Newcastle Under Lyme!). Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of six months, Lee has been unable to speak for over 30 years and so pre-programmes his comedy routines into a voice synthesiser. Calling himself ‘Lost Voice Guy’, both his content and timing are incredible and he won the competition on his own merit rather than through some kind of sympathy vote.
Similarly the person who came second, Robert White from West Sussex, describes himself as ‘the only gay, aspergic, quarter-Welsh comic on the British comedy circuit’ and clearly came so close to winning because of the quality of his act – which brought both the judges and the audience to their feet with appreciation of his chaotic comedy style and improvised music skills.
I would suggest that until very recently neither of these two men would have been included in such a popular programme on mainstream television let alone receive the millions of votes that resulted in them winning the top two places.
Put this within the wider context of a theatrical movement that is urging directors to cast more women over the age of 35, black and minority ethnic actors, those from the LGBT+ community and those living with physical and mental challenges into leading acting roles both in theatre and on television, and we could justifiably say that there is genuine sense of a cultural change slowly evolving in the entertainment industry in this country.
Recently Zoe Hemming came to a Bishop’s Staff Meeting and shared with us some of her excellent ministry as our Diocesan Enabling Officer. At one level this is about the practicalities of making our churches accessible for all but if we are really going to be true to the theological belief that the love of Jesus Christ is for everyone then it is more about promoting cultural change within the Church. It is recognising what people can do rather than what others think they cannot do. It is accepting that we are all ‘different’ but then rejoicing in our differences because together we can be so much more effective for Christ by complementing each other and sharing the individual gifts that God has given to us.
Often this cultural change can start to grow from us simply being more aware of others. Mike Bridgewater is helping many of us to think creatively about how our churches can embrace those living with dementia and those caring for them.The Café that is now run in Holy Trinity Chesterton is one of the friendliest places I have visited and everyone is made to feel really welcome and included. There is sharing of food, friendship and a lot of laughter.
I believe that the culture is changing, both within our churches and the wider society in which we serve, but there is still a long way to go. It is significant that both Lee Ridley and Robert White are comedians and use laughter as a way of forming a relationship with their audience and we can learn from their example. Laughing with one another rather than at one another is an important way of enabling us to build the kind of church where genuinely all feel welcome.
There have been times when the Christian Church in our country led society. Perhaps we have to have the humility to admit that possibly God is at present working through society and leading the Church into respecting and rejoicing in the diversity of God’s creation. No wonder Jesus urged us to be like ‘little children’ who of course are constantly learning and who learn best when lessons are fun!
Wishing you much laughter and every blessing,
Bishop of Stafford
Links to more info on Zoe Hemming’s Enabling Church ministry across the Diocese and Mike Bridgwater and colleagues’ Dementia-friendly Churches ministry in the three episcopal areas can be found at www.lichfield.anglican.org/open_to_all.