Anglicans find humour during COVID-19 isolation

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For the Rev. Jay Sidebotham, a cartoonist and Episcopal priest, humour is a valuable tool, but one that can be difficult to wield in a dark time. Image: The Rev. Jay Sidebotham

As the coronavirus pandemic continues across the globe, Anglicans are adapting to a new normal of physical distancing measures, online services and video conferencing. While this is a tense and frightening time, many people find humour to be a good tool to cope.

“I believe humour does have an important role to play as we trek through the unknown and frightful landscape of COVID-19,” says the Rev. Jay Koyle, congregational development officer for the diocese of Algoma, reached by email. Koyle runs the diocesan Facebook page. “I suppose, in part, it provides some relief from the lingering stress of our situation. However, I think humour plays an even more significant role than that. In a time when many feel plagued with a sense helplessness and loss of control, humour gives us a bit of a handle on things.”

Koyle says the humourous posts he shares on the diocese’s page are among the most popular and are usually widely shared.

Now that physical distancing measures, in place to slow the virus’s spread, have kept people from meeting together in person, laughing together online provides a way to “maintain a sense of connection” with each other, Koyle says.

In the diocese of Algoma, along with live-streaming services, video call check-ins, phone trees and Zoom Bible studies, Koyle says he has seen “lots of posts sharing ideas of faith-building activities for households, and some great videos of people sharing the greeting of peace or ‘COVID parodies’ set to popular songs. What is really impressive are the creative, effective ways a number of congregations have managed to continue much needed ministries with some of the most vulnerable in society.”

‘The church…can be lighthearted as well’

In the diocese of Nova Scotia and PEI, a dark horse has entered the episcopal election to replace retiring bishop of the diocese, Archbishop Ron Cutler: Bishop Don Butler. Bishop Butler made his appearance in a video posted to the Christ Church Dartmouth YouTube channel.

“I was honestly just trying to let go, late in the evenings, to do something to pass the time, so I brought the puppet out and did that video,” says the Rev. Kyle Wagner, rector at Christ Church Dartmouth, N.S., and the voice behind Bishop Butler—as well as the script writer, videographer, and editor of the video.

Wagner bought the puppet years ago, when he found it in a puppet shop in Vancouver and thought it looked like the diocesan bishop. A parishioner made vestments for it and Wagner would take it to diocesan youth events. He got the idea to film a video with it after his son found the puppet in the back of the closet.

“[It’s] just something lighthearted, I guess, to kind of pass the time,” says Wagner, who says he’s planning to make more videos with Bishop Butler, including a campaign video for the episcopal election, and maybe even a recorded Zoom call between Bishops Butler and Cutler.

When asked if Bishop Cutler liked the video, Wagner replies, “He does. Well, he never really said. But he laughed at it, so I assume he’s okay with it.”

Humour can be a helpful tool for coping with stressful times, Wagner says. “Obviously we all have different senses of humour, but I think humans can connect through humour and…there’s studies that your endorphins are changed when you laugh. So I guess there’s a physiological effect as well. So I think that’s important.

“Often people will think the church is just serious, and it is, but it can be lighthearted as well,” he says.

“I think humour is critical at a time like this,” says Canon Virginia Doctor, Indigenous Ministries Coordinator for General Synod, reached via email. “It is good in all of our situations, but especially now. We look at [it as] a gift from the Creator, a gift that keeps us strong and resilient. Humour brightens our spirit and keeps us in balance with the other elements of our being—the mind, the body and…our emotions.”

Doctor says she usually uses humour when preaching. “Perhaps a funny story about my life or self that relates to the Gospel. I think it opens hearts and minds. I call it a ‘heart warmer.’” These days, with fears and worry running high about the COVID-19 pandemic, Doctor has been sharing funny memes, jokes and cartoons to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) Facebook group, which has close to 900 members. “I think they are being more appreciated than before.”

Humour was part of life when Doctor was growing up, she says. “My Mom and her gang sat around the kitchen table and talked about troubles and joys; there was always a lot of laughter. It was their way of coping with life on a reserve.

“Our ACIP meetings are filled with humour and it makes our work easier. Many of our members have experienced [the] trauma of residential schools and other atrocities. But, they are still able to laugh and as long as we can laugh, we will live!”

‘It’s part of who we are’

For the Rev. Art Bass, a deacon of the US-based Episcopal Church who serves at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, humour has long been a part of his ministry.

Bass has run the Episcopal Church Memes Facebook page since 2012. Since COVID-19 hit the States, Bass says he’s been sharing quite a few coronavirus-related memes on the page. “Of course, that’s what’s on everyone’s mind right now. So you’re seeing just an avalanche of COVID-19 memes on social media, and Episcopal Church Memes is going right along with that.”

The jokes have been popular—one image of the last supper as a Zoom meeting (with a window reading, “Judas has left the chat”)—garnered more than 4,000 likes.

Humour has an important role to play for Christians, Bass says. “It’s a part of who we are—it’s an essential part of our makeup. I like to make the point that, according to Scripture, we were created in the image of God. So if we have humour, then God must have humour, and I say that he has a divine sense of humour…. And here, during the pandemic, and especially here at Easter time—we are a resurrection people. We are about life, and we should be about celebrating life, not getting mired up in despair. So I think humour plays a very important role right now.”

One of the reasons Bass started doing the page was as an effort of digital evangelism, he says. He loves to get messages from people who have seen his posts and been drawn back to the church. “Even though our main focus is church humour, we do try to put things out there that also convey a little church history, a little theology, a little spirituality…. It’s the humour that draws people in, but they like what they see there, and sometimes that draws them into the church.”

Bass points out that levity has long had a place in the church, throughout its history. The Sunday after Easter, which just passed, “besides being known as Thomas Sunday…it also has a history in the past of having been known as Bright Sunday, or even Holy Humour Sunday…. [G]oing back centuries ago, I understand that not only was levity popular among Christians on this day, but maybe a few good-natured pranks as well. And the whole idea is that when Jesus rose from the dead, he laughed in the face of the devil.”

‘What’s the thing that everyone in your audience is going to recognize?’

For the Rev. Jay Sidebotham, humour is a valuable tool, but one that can be difficult to wield in a dark time.

Sidebotham is a priest in the Episcopal Church and works as director of RenewalWorks, a ministry of Forward Movement. He is also an artist, illustrator and cartoonist, and draws monthly cartoons for church clients, calendars for Advent and Lent, and recently wrapped up a book series called Drawn to the Gospels, which features cartoons for every Sunday of the Lectionary.

Sidebotham has so far created two COVID-19 related cartoons, the first of which he posted to his Facebook page on March 21, and has been shared more than 300 times.

However, he says, he finds it a difficult subject to tackle in cartoon form. “I get ideas, and then I run it by my wife and she says, you can’t do that, it’s not funny, or it’s not a funny topic,” he says.

“I haven’t quite nailed it. It’s such a hard time…. What I might show to a limited group I might not want to necessarily share broadly. Because you just don’t know what people are experiencing, you know?…. It’s just so different, from home to home, from city to city, from state to state, from region to region,” he says. While Sidebotham lives in a relatively remote area in North Carolina, for instance, his children live in New York—the epicentre of the virus in the U.S. “They’re like, this is totally a crisis, and it’s not funny,” he says.

“I try in a cartoon to say, what’s the thing that everyone in your audience is going to recognize and go, ‘Yeah, that’s true’?” he says.

Still, when he can find those touchpoints, his cartoons have seemed to resonate. “The [one] I did…people loved it and they shared it,” he says. “If you can find the right message, people welcome a lighter touch.

“My favourite quote—I have it on my wall [in my] office studio—is from G.K. Chesterton. He said, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.’”

Sidebotham is seeing the silver linings, too. He says he has been encouraged by churches’ ability to foster community through livestreaming, phone trees, and video meetings.

“I’ve been interested to see how many people say, ‘I miss going to church,’ because quite often as a priest I often felt like we were, I don’t know, bugging people. Making them come to church. You know? People sort of said, it’s something I have to do, or a duty or something, that they feel guilty if they don’t do. But it’s been interesting to see that…people realize now that they actually derive a lot from it. That’s a good lesson.”

“Every so often in my social media scans—probably about one in every 20-30 posts—something makes me chuckle,” says Alicia Brown, lead, social media and projects, communications and information resources, for General Synod. “And I think that’s really important. With everything sitting a little heavier in our hearts and minds these days, a smile can be really difficult to muster…. In that Facebook scrolling, something catches you off guard (like a cat in a window conjuring up the idea of a feline nun in quarantine, which has gone on to outperform any post the national church has ever published, by sixfold), and you just can’t help but smile or even chuckle. And it feels good.”

Brown, who manages the national church’s social media pages, has noticed lots of Anglicans and parishes sharing jokes and memes on social media. However, she notes that it can be difficult to determine which humourous posts would be appropriate to share.

“A joke is never meant to upset someone, and I tend to be pretty conservative in what I’ll share on our national accounts—we have a really diverse range of opinions and beliefs among our social media audiences,” she says.

When asked if she has tips for Anglicans running social media accounts for their churches or using tools like livestreaming, Brown suggests that authenticity is key. “Audiences are savvy and can sense when something smells fake. It’s good if we try not to take ourselves too seriously, and have humility and grace for mistakes, which are bound to happen at some point. And that’s where humour comes in. Humour has excellent potential on social media.

“Having the space to chuckle at yourself as your makeshift ‘MacGyvered’ tripod (smartphone duct taped to a hockey stick, anyone?) starts to ever-so-slowly tip over as you’re mid-livecast? That’s where the opportunity for connection lies. You can be mortified, or you can laugh…and what could be more perfect than connecting in a laugh with others, while we’re feeling disconnected a little more often these days?”

Humour is “essential in living the life of Christ,” says Koyle.

“One of my favourite images of Jesus is a picture sketched over forty years ago now. It is called ‘Jesus Christ, Liberator.’ It depicts a long-haired Jesus with his head tilted back in full-throated laughter. It is such an image of joy and delight…. It seems to me that with a gospel that is paradoxical to its very core, and Scriptures loaded with satire, irony and surprise, it goes without saying that humour plays an important role in our formation as Christians.

“I am not talking about humour simply meant to entertain or ingratiate, of course, or that is cruel or destructive. I speak of humour that edifies. I think humour has the power to transport us to a vantage point where we can take in a new or challenging perspective, unstop our ears so we are more likely to hear difficult truths, in a relatively non-threatening way. Ultimately humour can nurture in us the humility to better understand ourselves, the honesty to perceive the world in light of the gospel and the hospitality necessary to live into the community we are in Christ already.”

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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