A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Normal service will be resumed…

With ears ringing and head banging Neil Pickford returns to the subject of the Minster of tomorrow.
I have just left the company of 20,000 like-minded individuals who had each paid at least £40 for a two-hour session of being dominated by six German entertainers.
No, don’t leap to the wrong conclusion. It was a rock concert, nothing more perverse than that, but you’ve got to be impressed by how many people were that keen to be in a huge room listening to a faraway bunch of performers singing songs in a foreign language for one night in Manchester. In our case, also travelling 100 miles each way for the privilege.
Twenty thousand! It didn’t take me long to work out that that was roughly 16 times our capacity in the Minster – I know a lot of them didn’t have seats but even if we stripped out our pews I doubt we could get more than 2,000 in there – 2,500 at maximum. And we rarely fill those. Blimey, what’s the secret?
That was as far as the clever, observational and calculating part of my brain got before the “industrial rock” power juggernauts Rammstein came on stage. As soon as they started their brilliantly choreographed mixture of songs, rhythm, musical textures, volume, stage props, lights, flame and black humour (oh, and a rubber dinghy – don’t ask) to grab us by the wotsits (obviously, I meant ‘throat’ just then – I couldn’t recall the word on the spur of the moment, that’s all) they were determined to entertain us – and they did.
I emerged at 11pm in Central Manchester and drove the party back to Beverley, still thoroughly entertained. Maybe not life-changing but definitely a happy memory to recall in the years to come.
And then, as I do, I started to ask questions. Why don’t we get numbers like that in the Minster any more? We used to.
Once upon a time the seating capacity in the Minster could be counted in the thousands. For anyone who knows the present layout of the building it might come as a surprise to know that the 19th century church, before the organ was extended, had roughly 600 seats around the small-ish quire area alone, raised in tiers just as in a theatre.
The same was true in the nave in an earlier century – you can still see a line in the wall where an upper level of seating was located above the north (pulpit) aisle of the church and these extra seats were packed out by a full audience (sorry, congregation).
Actually, using theatrical terms in connection with the Minster is absolutely appropriate. The whole magnificent structure was built as a form of showbiz, after all. This wasn’t intended to be an ordinary church when it was designed in the 12th century. No, it was a theatre that contained the bones of a bona-fide, premiership league saint. You didn’t come to the Minster for your normal bit of parochial worship and comfort but for the experience of a lifetime.
If you entered from the west end, having already been impressed by the two towers (serving exactly the same advertising purpose as the frontage of a decorated theatre or playhouse,) you would look down the enormous and radically high nave towards the stage – the altar- where the gold-plated reliquary representing St John of Beverley rested in pride of place.
This was where your focus was directed – afterwards you might very well go and worship at one of the 16 permanent or the many less permanent altars – spending some of your pilgrim money while you were there (which strikes a chord after my experience of the merchandising booths at Manchester Arena last night), but it was what was on the stage that had brought you there in the first place. And the place would be packed.
That’s how it used to be – vicars preaching to full houses all around the country, congregations crammed in and hanging on every word. Back in the 18th century John and Charles Wesley, who founded the Methodists while still Church of England clergy, didn’t even need church buildings. They preached in the open air, particularly near Bristol where they attracted several thousand battered and tired coal-miners to their sermons – sometimes in the pouring rain. Most modern preachers would be delighted to address one tenth of that audience in far more comfortable surroundings these days – and as for them listening carefully?
And yet the hunger among the audiences is still there. A recent survey of churchgoers by Durham University found that: “Fully 96.6 per cent of those surveyed “look forward” to the sermon, with 60 per cent saying it gave them a sense of God’s love.”
But these days many pews are often empty during services. So how did the old-timers pack in the crowds?
Obviously there was no competition from TV or the multitudinous other modern distractions, but the secret is not just in the message, but the way it was presented. 
One early report of Charles Wesley addressing over 1,000 people described how: “His preaching at his best was thunder and lightning,” Joseph Williams of Kidderminster wrote: “He preached about an hour… such a manner as I have seldom, if ever heard any minister preach; that is, though I have heard many a finer sermon according to the common taste, yet I have scarcely ever heard any minister discover such evident signs of a vehement desire or labour so earnestly to convince his hearers.”
In other words, it’s not just what you say but the way you say it. It’s showbiz.
So this, in my continuing (sometimes slightly tongue-in-cheek) series of suggestions on how to bring the crowds back into the church in 21st century Britain, is my latest conclusion.
Bring back the passion, bring back the impact. Adopt modern methods of presentation that have proved to work in a shrieking, distracted world. That’s what we want today – and if the material then gets you all excited and wanting to learn more then we must follow it up with appropriate support and, perhaps somewhat perversely, a place of peace to contemplate it all.
I’m sure that the Rev. Jeremy Fletcher will be up for it. He’ll grab any opportunity to strap on his guitar and play some rock and roll.
And we virgers could try and provide the peaceful place – our office would be a good place to start once my head has stopped ringing. 
By pure coincidence it is being publicly announced today that we will be returning the Minster to its original showbiz function later this year. The BBC is coming to record one of its Antique Roadshows from our nave on Friday, 14th May. We expect several thousand people to come through our doors between 9.30am and 4.30pm on the day and millions to watch when it’s finally broadcast.
It’s a huge exercise in logistics and I’ll keep you informed of progress as it happens.
For reasons that I’ve already mentioned above, no one on the staff finds it an inappropriate thing to have in our church. In fact, you could say it’s what it’s meant to do.

First published January 2010


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