Perfect love casts out bitterness

18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

That escalated quickly.

How was morning prayer?

James asks me, less than a week later. James asked me on Monday if I wanted to lead Morning Prayer on Wednesday, so I did. I prayed with one of the Curates; James was not there. As I was leaving Church, I spotted something that needed dropping into the Church office. I take it over and stick it through the letterbox. James opens the door, and asks how it went.


I say dryly, and shake my head laughing apologetically

I’m sorry.

There were more emotions packed into those twenty prayerful minutes than can be unpacked on the Church office doorstep. Humour as defence. I am still processing.

I feel as if I have to keep explaining myself. It happened the day before, too, first thing. One of the Curates asked how 2024 had been going for me. I replied nonchalantly


When I failed to get the job at King’s last year, the feedback I was given included that in the interview I went too deep too quickly. They expressed concern I would not cope with small talk in the Chaplaincy. Indignant in various ways at the time, I am starting to wonder if they might have had a point. Church life seems to involve a lot of conversations about the weather which read as purposefully benign.

I explain, then, something about humour and my professional background. Comedy among statisticians is particular. Statistician humour blends intellectual prowess, technical expertise and rapier wit. It is a form of in-group bonding, within-group jousting. Starting a story in the middle of it, a pattern of speech I am prone to, fell in well with this. It asks, can you fill in the blanks? Can you keep up?

Statisticians care little for the priors of those emotive biologists. No wonder when I had designs on starting a consultancy, I dreamt of calling it

Nihilism and Graphs.

If you can’t keep up with me, you can’t do anything at all.

Statistical humour is great, if you get it. It can be truly funny. Statisticians joke with plenty of innuendo (lots of references to posteriors), and a surrealist philosophical bent. Reductio ad absurdum a specialty. The joking a form of release, because statistical consulting is relational work and emotionally draining. But the pattern of joking – and more meaningfully, the motivations underlying it – do not translate to the Church.

Competitive banter can become compulsive, even habitual. The consulting statistician has to be careful always and considerate. If you say to a scientist client, deadpan, that to carry out a useful experiment they are going to need samples in the unfeasible millions, and they are used to you jesting, they might feel as if you are mocking both them and the hard work they are putting in. When to you, that is just what the data say.

But statistician-to-statistician, crossed with corporate cut and thrust, the whole thing can become cruel, fast. I am not what you might call a statistician’s statistician. My heritage is biology, not math, and I was not allowed to forget this. My PhD is technical enough but my spirit is applied. So when my boss described me as

not a statistician, but from the point of view of a biologist functionally equivalent to one

she was right, and as a true statistician I ought to get the joke. However if you look closely this is a joke that is doubly hurtful, yet the expectation is that I laugh. Perhaps in the long run it is for the best that corporate life gave up on me.


Being in discernment makes Church life weird. Every opportunity feels as if I am being tested, a sentiment both true and a hangover from corporate days. I feel as if I am always on show. When discerning-me puts on a front, she echos back to my corporate life, and, especially under stress, gets quippy.

The first time I met James in person, I was stressed and going a bit quickly. I had just had a garbled conversation with one of the Curates, and when James asked over post-Sunday-service-coffee, how I was doing, I confessed

I think I might have scared Freya

When he tried friendly reassurance

She’s very unflappable

I deadpanned unthinkingly

There’s a challenge.

James looked more shocked than I have seen him before or since. But to the statisticians I worked with that shock factor is the victory.

Perfect love is not very trendy

One of the people I have supporting me lives outside of my parish entirely. During one of our early email exchanges, they explained

Overall I think one key issue is that Christianity itself is kind of naff. Like, being too genuine and too innocent—that’s always kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?

I disagreed in my reply, but a year on, I can see how naïve I used to be. They are right. Back then, I did not know enough of His love, yet. I had grasped not the depth, height, width, vastness. Paradoxically, I fear that I still have not.

I am trying to draw out the contrast between corporate comedy as thinly veiled combative tussle, and the self-deprecating, forever gentle laughs that land well in Church settings. I pray, sometimes, for faster formation, because I feel as if I keep putting my foot in it.

Because one thing Christianity isn’t is a club. It is not an in-group for those in the know. You do not have to make the room laugh and admire you to garner a seat at the Lord’s table. Throughout the gospels, and on the cross, Christ’s arms are wide open for everyone. Whether through prejudice, or physical barriers, or misunderstanding, or fear, or, as in my case, with the witticisms which I know to be ego and my own terror, we must not hurt, we must not mock.

We can joke, but only in love.

A favourite Christianity-related joke.

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