At least for my generation the picture above is immediately recognisable.
It is my favourite comedian John Cleese advertising a sketch titled the ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ in a Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show in 1970.
Over the years I have followed Cleese in print and on video. He starred in ‘The Life of
Brian’, a send up of the life of Christ, (labelled blasphemous by some), produced by the Monty Python crew. Frequently the Python sketches mercilessly mocked the church, principally but not only, the Church of England, its ministers and its services. Cleese follows this same theme in his writings and interviews.
Recently I viewed an interview with John by a Canadian TV station, WT5 which went to air in April of this year.
During the course of the interview he was questioned about his views on religion. In response
he said this: “Christianity has so little to do with what Christ taught. I am 100% in favour of
Christ. In fact, he is quite a good friend of mine. The problem is organised religion.” ***
Wow! That’s what I think too!
The Jesus ‘industry’ is one of the largest enterprises in the world. The Jesus ‘brand’ is
personally adhered to/owned by 2.2 billion (2010) – 31 % of the earth’s population. The total
wealth of its properties and holdings is beyond estimation.
All of this originated from a man who had only one garment. He was an itinerant teacher who
famously said of himself. "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man
has no place to lay his head" (Luke 9.58). He was not concerned that the magnificent
temple of his day would soon be destroyed. However, over the centuries hundreds of
giant, ornate structures have been built which could be described as temples
dedicated to him.
I have worked in this industry, with this brand, for various branches of this enterprise
for over 50 years. I ask myself am I just another cog in the wheel, another brick in the
I started off believing that amongst the multitude of groups claiming Jesus as their
foundation, mine and mine alone was the only one had it ‘right’. Since then I have
come to realise that this is precisely what the other Jesus affiliates believe of
themselves. Amongst the myriad of groups who claim ‘in the cross of Christ I glory’
there are numerous territorial disputes and fissures. In some cases these are great
chasms, which set at odds one Jesus brand from another.
I am glad to say that in my lifetime there has been a breaking down of many barriers
within the Jesus industry. In the countries within which I have worked there has been
the growth of acceptance and respect between Roman Catholic and protestant.
None the less, many of the major divisions remain and the disputes are still in place.
The Monte Python send ups often focussed on the dress-ups and mannerisms of
Anglican clergy. Amongst the skits I can never forget, I remember Michael Palin (part
of the Python team) in full priestly gear leading an obsequious prayer along the lines
of “Well God, we know you love to be praised so how about this. God you are super-
duper, fabulous, terrific, smashing, awesome” and on and on with a string of pop
The dress-ups (holy clothes), artefacts (holy objects), ceremonies, candles and
processions amaze me. How did the followers of the friend of sinners and
reprobates ever get to this? Jesus broke down barriers. He crossed the dividing lines
of his day between races, between men and women, ignored class differences,
religious differences and even welcomed children as teachers. Where is this
reflected in the myriad enterprises which claim to represent him?
To be fair, I must acknowledge that the churches have established many social
services and promoted significant social reforms. And partly because of their
interest in pomp and ceremony , the churches have enabled magnificent art and
glorious music. Scientific exploration, though often opposed, by church authorities,
somehow came to life from church-going thinkers.
However, at this point I feel compelled to say why despite my misgivings, I have
given my life to working in one branch of this gigantic flawed enterprise.
My wife Pauline and I have, more by chance than design gathered a collection of
miniature churches. I often look at them and I find comfort in doing this. The reason
for this is not because of their shape or colour – some are sublime some are non-
descript, but because of what they represent to me.
Over the years our work has taken us into many different church buildings belonging
to different denominations in a number of different countries. We have worked in
rural chapels to towering cathedrals. What I have noticed is this. Wherever and
whenever Jesus is the focus of a group of people then a spirit of warmth and
hospitality is nurtured. This is also true for individuals. Being open to Jesus and his
spirit makes people kinder, more loving and more generous. It doesn’t seem to
matter how this exposure to Jesus takes place, be it through preaching in a Bible
Chapel, praise in a Pentecostal gathering, or ceremonies and smoke in a high church
setting, if the central focus is Jesus then some positive result will follow. That is
what I think about when I look at our multitude of varied model churches. Love is
nurtured not because of the buildings etc but because in these spaces people gather
with the purpose of thinking about and communicating with Jesus. This thought
warms my heart.
I have ventured into the world of education, politics and the arts. But while these are
interesting and important spheres none of them touch me in the way a focus on
Jesus does. So for me, the most valuable thing I can do with my life is to keep on
learning about him and commending him, pointing to him.
In my opinion when John Cleese, the Pythons and the like poke fun at things about
the church and the Christian religion they are doing us a favour. I note that they make
fun of the pretentious, the pompous and the dogmatic expressions of clergy and
church life. None of these characteristics have any relationship to the historical
Jesus, his work and his words. And yet we (Christians, Church leaders) can so easily
adopt these modes. These behaviours can infer and confer status and make good
impressions within the church and in the wider world. For centuries in many cultures
church leaders have been at the top or near the top of the social order of
communities large and small. There can be no denying this is a comfortable place to
be and it probably seemed only natural to dress appropriately.
Comedians also poke fun at Jesus and often ridicule his actions. I have no objection
to this. There is nothing anyone can do to put Jesus down or humiliate him that has
not already been done. That’s the point of his life. That despite the worst we can do
God still loves us. His love for us is unbreakable.
A major temptation that confronts the Jesus industry, from tele evangelists to
Eastern Orthodox and everything in between, is to make Jesus in their image. Every
affiliate takes the Jesus story and endeavours to shrink-wrap Jesus into the exact
shape that fits their enterprise. Along with this goes a proliferation of ‘we are right
and they are wrong’ thinking. I’ve been there and done that.
The truth is God cannot be defined by language. The Jesus story and the Jesus
presence is the divine gift of himself – a revealing of the source of the universe and
the centre of all things. We rejoice in these glimpses we have of him. In particular
we celebrate the gift of Jesus teaching, his stories, his life, death, resurrection. But,
there is always more. The gigantic Christian enterprises and our local churches do
much to praise him but we can never contain him. It is wrong when we give the
impression that we do. We know just a little and the best we can ever say is ‘thank
you’. And we say thank you by welcoming others and pointing them to Jesus and
sharing the Jesus spirit.
As I write this I am wondering however did I get to this?. Thank you John Cleese for
silly walks and for reminding me that Jesus is different and more than the church;
hmm, and that includes my church!
*** The John Cleese interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1foufgg0X0