Thank heavens for reality TV: 'Priest Idol' show helps to save church that didn't have a prayer

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The Independent Online

There are no audience votes and no Friday-night evictions on Priest Idol. No one has to pray in front of a caustic panel of judges. But, like all reality TV, there is a central conceit: how to save a dying Anglican church.

And there is also a leading player, a new vicar, the Rev James McCaskill. Most importantly, there is a team of experts charged with turning the church around.

The television cameras followed the trials of St Mary Magdalene's church in Lundwood, Barnsley, from September 2004 to September this year.

In past decades there had been as many as four thriving churches in Lundwood. But, in the early 21st century, the future for Lundwood's Christian community looked bleak. In September 2004 St Mary's church was regularly attracting a mere seven worshippers on a Sunday morning. A year later, the church is thriving. Now, as many as 50 parishioners stream through its doors.

The project began last year, when an independent production company called Diverse became interested in seeing if a new priest could turn Lundwood around. Diverse approached the diocese of Wakefield with their proposition and the diocese, aware that St Mary's was struggling, accepted. But an advertisement for a new vicar in The Church Times garnered only one application, from a diminutive, softly spoken American.

Mr McCaskill said he accepted the job after visiting the church. "I was interested in going someplace where the church could make a big difference in the community," he said, "and the advertisement read in such a way that I felt like the diocese was going to help me out."

He used to work in a church in a rich suburb of Pittsburgh and, when he arrived in Lundwood, he had problems acclimatising. He did not understand the Yorkshire accent and he had no congregation to speak of. The church was suffering from dry rot and graffiti such as "Fuck God" and "White is Right" adorned its walls.

The vicar lobbied the community to give his services a try, but to no avail. "A lot of people had goodwill towards the church", he said, "but they had no desire to come in. Walking down the street, they'd ask me how it was all going, and tell me to keep up the good work. But they'd say: 'You'll never find me in there.' Somewhere in the English mindset, people have been inoculated against church. I don't know whether that was at Sunday school as a kid, or whether it's the Church of England as an institution that's put them off, or whether they see church as a place for old folks - cut off from contemporary society."

Priest Idol's producer, Jane Beckwith, said she was worried about the presence of her cameras. "I was concerned a 'Songs of Praise effect' would kick in," she said. "That the church would fill up with TV wannabees. But I needn't have worried. Nothing, it seemed, was going to get people into church."

To help Mr McCaskill make St Mary's relevant to the community again the television crew brought in two experts - a singing coach and a comedian - to add pep to his sermons. His archdeacon, Jonathan Greener, also got in touch with Propaganda, a Leeds-based marketing team.

"Without a shadow of a doubt it was the marketing brief from hell," Steve Dixon, executive creative director of Propaganda, said. "Many people have tried and failed to successfully market the church. We were a bit frightened. This was God's last stand in Lundwood."

Mr McCaskill and the marketing team found that the community had grievances ranging from the building's shape, to incomprehension of the liturgy, to dislike for religion. Propaganda decided to rename St Mary's "CHURCHLite", with the strap: "It's better for you." The tactic succeeded, increasing congregations by 800 per cent in a year.

Howeverthe church is still not attracting teenagers. "This is a generation in England who have never stepped foot inside a church. It's a scary place to them," Mr McCaskill said. "I think I've been building good relationships with teenagers. I've been amazed by how many of them knock on my door for a chat. But I have nothing to invite them to. I'd like to do something with light and sound, something that reflects the fact that their lives are dominated by pop culture."

Mr McCaskill said: "I'd like to change when services are, what we do on Sunday morning, what people see when they come in off the street. I want to say it's not church as usual - because church as usual doesn't work."