So it’s done. The final part of Priest Idol aired tonight. Let me put you out of your misery now — the ending was upbeat and hopeful. The congregation had risen from the ten or so they began with to 52. Success.
The programme began with the ad-men pondering on the campaign they were about to launch in the village: “I’m pretty sure it will do its job - get people to the church with an open mind”. But the big question was could the church deliver the goods once the people were over the threshold?
Longstanding church members were unconvinced and bewildered. The ‘reflection zone’ being put up in the church was met with a resounding lack of enthusiasm from most. They didn’t like the “Church Lite” marketing campaign any better; they seemed sceptical that people might be brought in by it.
One of the wierder (or so it seemed to me) marketing gimmicks were the “Calming Spritzer” bottles of water, useful for providing a light and refreshing spray. Whether these ever played any significant role in the eventual launch of “Church Lite”, I couldn’t say: they seemed to disappear from view. Maybe they didn’t ‘fit’ in this former mining community.
Much better were the light bulbs in specially printed boxes being given out as invitations to the launch party. My only criticism was that they were conventional tungsten bulbs, not modern low energy units (but you can’t have everything!)
Members of the church were given sales training as part of their preparation for taking out the invitations. One instructive exercise was the brainstorming (I know: I’m not supposed to say that any longer. So sue me) of reasons for going to church and reasons for not going. The negative list turned out to be much longer than the positive.
I was quite impressed with the attitude given by the sales trainer. It is true that British Christians need to learn to be much more positive when speaking about their faith. Even so, something about the emphasis on “sales” made me uncomfortable. Inevitably, it was all about “blessing” rather than “challenge” and I wonder: Is Christianity without challenge still Christianity? This was brought home when the local stand up comedian came in to give some last minute advice to Father James: “Talk about them all the time - that’s all they’re really interested in.” Of course, it is entirely possible that the programme misrepresented what happened. After all, in all the sales talk there was little sign of anyone praying and I find it hard to believe that many hours were not spent in prayer.
And so came the launch. A big party in the church grounds, with barbeque, entertainment and fireworks. The Sunday Service was attended by a record congregation of over 200. Singing was accompanied by a gospel choir (specially imported for the occasion) and the guest of honour was comedian Jimmy Cricket. (I don’t know how well known he would be beyond these shores, but trust me: he’d be the ideal choice for this Yorkshire village) Even the marketing men emerged from the service visibly moved.
After the launch, things settled down of course. Congregations were running at around 50, remarkable achievement in such a short time. The old members had been won over and it seemed that the church in Lundwood had indeed made a new beginning. Whichever way you look at it, that’s success.
But, I wondered. Did the programme accurately reflect what happened in the campaign? I contacted a Methodist colleague in a neighbouring village. He was broadly-speaking positive about the programme. Months on from the filming of the show, the “Chuch Lite” notices are still around the village, unsullied by graffiti. (That is remarkable in itself) The congregation of the church has been sustained, and the effects of the “church lite” campaign and the airing of the programme are being felt in neighbouring churches. So far, so good. What upsets my colleague is the way that the former vicar of Lundwood, Father David, is presented in the programme. He writes: “He is a decent man who is being painted in a particular light by the media. The man I have got to know and the one on the TV seem rather different characters.” This is a view that I’ve heard from other folk who know Father David, and it does seem unfair that he was presented as something of a pantomime villain. It made “good television” but it seems it was less than truthful.