Saint Michael must be having a laugh. On Wednesday a spokesman for Springboard, the Evangelical support group jointly set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, suggested that the Church of England's image, ratings and customer base might be improved if it took a few tips from businesses such as Marks & Spencer. Certainly, if I went to church as often as I go to M&S I would be in line for beatification, but getting congregations into pews isn't quite the same as getting customers into shops.
Or maybe it is, and the sooner my vicar realises that those time-honoured retail staples, choice, friendly service and value for money, are what we all want, whether we are looking for salvation or a pair of pants, the fuller St Mary's will be. But the last thing I want in church is friendly service. Would all those medieval pilgrims have traipsed thousands of miles to Paris to hear Peter Abelard preach if all he was offering was a cosy chat on the lines of Thought for the Day and an invitation to join him for coffee and biscuits in the vestry afterwards? I don't think so. They wanted fire and brimstone and thundering theological dialectics about eternal damnation, and so do I.
Alas, there is very little of that in St Mary's. Our vicar leans more to the chat-show presenter style of sermon. He no longer stands in the pulpit, he walks up and down the aisles singling people out, mostly children, asking what they had for Christmas and where they are going for their summer holidays, then weaves their answers into some sort of modern-day parable. Last time I went, the organist had been replaced by a man with a guitar.
I am all for using M&S as a role model, but wouldn't it be quicker to go directly to the man who turned the company round? It was only two years ago, if you remember, that St Michael's shares were plummetting and City analysts were talking about the firm going the way of Rolls Royce and the dodo. I refer, of course, to David Beckham (the footballer), who declared undying loyalty to M&S, as did his lovely wife Victoria (the singer), who had herself photographed coming out of her local Manchester M&S laden with carrier bags.
What about a photo opportunity of Posh and Becks emerging from their local church next Sunday morning, laden with prayer books or hassocks or bibles, or even trays of coffee and biscuits on their way to the vestry? Another idea. The new range of M&S boys-wear, DBO2Casuals, designed by Beckham, has been wildly successful. Maybe he could try his hand at a new range of vestments, baggy cassocks and sarong-style surpluses? I am sure there is room in there somewhere for a David Beckham thong book.
With all due respect to the C of E, there are those for whom M&S is a religion in itself. My friend Carol, for instance, who serves ready cooked M&S food at dinner parties and pretends she made it herself.
"But it must have taken you all day. You are wonderful, Carol," the men enthuse, while their wives, who know the score, grind their teeth in fury.
Years ago a friend took me to dinner with Miriam Sacher, née Marks, daughter of one of the founders. She lived in a sumptuous flat in Grosvenor Square, with almost as many Monets in the dining room as they have in the National Gallery. From her drawing-room window, Miriam could just make out the corner of the Marble Arch store, which used to be in the Guinness Book of Records as the retail outlet that took more money per square foot than any other shop in the world. Whenever she felt depressed, she said, she would lean out of the window and look at it. On Saturday evenings at her country house in Berkshire, the butler would come in during dinner and give her a list of the week's takings from all the M&S's in Britain. That also cheered her up.
Personally, I'd be happy if all the C of E took from M&S was a lesson in quality control. If it applied the same rigour to its sermons as M&S does to its pork pies, I'd be content. I was once invited to sit in on a pork-pie quality control tasting at head office, and it was awesome. A team of white-coated, serious, silent men cut open pork pies at random and measured the viscosity of the jelly, the pinkness of the pork, the crispness of the pastry. What happened to the rejects, I wondered? The producers would be contacted, questions asked and head would roll, they said.
Come on Christians, that's the spirit.
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