Songs of Malaise: I know just the Reverend to revive our ailing church

This type of vicar is more likely to appear on Gogglebox than encourage everyone to be baptised via total immersion

Rosie Millard
Tuesday 16 September 2014 17:44
Revved up: The series’ co-writer and star Tom Hollander
Revved up: The series’ co-writer and star Tom Hollander

It’s as bad as getting a ticking off from Mary Berry. Songs of Praise, the weary religious programme on BBC which has been going into (weirdly full) churches for decades and filming smug-looking people forcefully singing standards from Ancient and Modern has been likened to “a piece of soggy quiche” by that sparky vicar on Gogglebox, the Rev Kate Bottley. There’s more. The show “feels nostalgic for a post-war era that was never that great,” she continues. “It’s not all harvest festivals and cheery smiles.”

The Rev Bottley’s view will chime with many viewers, I suspect, whose immediate reaction from seeing Hyacinth Bucket types warbling hymns last heard at school is to reach for the off switch. It’s just that hearing it from a woman of the cloth is impressive. Certainly there is a strain of vicar at the moment who are clearly fed up with the status quo, what one might call the Songs of Praise rigor mortis, which, when the cameras aren’t there, one suspects leads to congregations dwindling from the vanishingly small to the non-existent.

This type of vicar is more likely to appear on Gogglebox than encourage everyone to be baptised via total immersion; I am referring not to Alpha Group leaders here but C of E vicars who, alarmed by the current sogginess of things, want to spice them up a bit. The Rev Bottley is not alone. There are others, people like the Rev Neal Barnes, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Hull. Holy Trinity is the biggest parish church in England; commissioned by Edward I it is a glory of slim pillars, giant windows and Gothic architecture. Only not many people knew that. When the Reverend Barnes arrived, four years ago yesterday, only about 50 people ventured into it of a Sunday.

A former engineer, Rev Barnes is clearly something of an operator, and immediately set about restoring this beautiful building into a place central to the lives of people in the city. He invited rock groups into it, and put on a music festival. He allowed Hull Fashion Week (yes, I was surprised too) to take place in the nave. There was a beer festival, supported by 4000 enthusiastic beer drinkers who managed to empty every single barrel in the place. He staged art installations over Remembrance Sunday, and put the resultant exhibition on to Facebook. The church even has a Twitter account. The congregation? Tripled in size.

Perhaps the most glorious innovation Rev Barnes has organised is Holy Trinity’s Live Nativity. Every Christmas, there is a giant procession through the city, made up from congregation members and “local characters” wearing long robes and teacloths on their heads. Donkeys, sheep and goats troop into Hull’s Victorian squares and through the shopping centre. Camels are hired, from a local wildlife park in Doncaster. Real camels. Walking through the streets of Hull. Occasionally, the man chosen to play Joseph will knock on the door of one of Hull’s numerous pubs. “No room here!” yells the innkeeper, to giggles from the crowd.

Last year, the young mother playing Mary brought her real-life baby along as the Baby Jesus; as the nativity scene progressed into Holy Trinity, the chap playing Joseph (in a departure from the Bible, he was indeed the actual father), became clearly overwhelmed by the whole event. Kneeling down, he proposed to her amid loud cheers. They were married in the church a few months later.

Maybe the producers of Songs of Praise ought to take advice from the likes of Rev Barnes and Rev Bottley, and rip up the decades-old programme guide. If you have to have religious programming on the BBC, then a ban on people in hats singing “Praise My Soul The King of Heaven” might be a start. Bring on the live camels.

House swap blues – do we have too many stairs?

It was always going to happen. Having been extremely smug about our wonderful house swaps, casually trotting around the place annoying the neighbours with chat about Mexico this and Seville that, we managed to swap with someone who DID NOT LIKE OUR HOUSE. I know, amazing.

The people with whom we swapped in a certain Spanish capital were less than chuffed with the deal. They left a horrid email saying things like: “There are too many stairs in your house. It is nowhere near the city centre. There is no front garden. Your furniture is old.”

What? Ooh, how that last one stung. Old! Do these people not understand retro when they see it? Do they not understand the middle class glory that is shabby chic?

Mr Millard was most disgruntled, largely since he was responsible for the clearly erroneous online description of Chez Millard which starts off with the hilarious phrase “Our magnificent family home.” Well, maybe it’s karma. We promised too much, I suggested. Then we started sadly walking around our magnificent family home (not). What if the Spanish lady was right? Not much you can do about stairs, bar install a stair lift, but what if we really do not live centrally? And what if our house is full of old furniture? Perhaps it was a good lesson. Not everyone outside London thinks London is the sine qua non of residential places. “Maybe just calm down on the marketing push,” I said to Mr Millard. He went sadly off to the computer. “Lovely family home,” the ad now reads. Which it is, honestly.

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