Let me state the obvious. This is one of those stories that people would worry about if it ran at a satire-news website like The Onion or, especially, The Babylon Bee.
It would fit either place since it combines British humor, pop culture and a 12th century cathedral.
But, no, this report is from the venerable BBC. And what a wild story it is, combining outlandish visuals with a solid hard-news angle that is perfect for religion-beat coverage. The only problem is that BBC totally missed the serious-news content in this strange story. The headline states, “Norwich Cathedral: Bishop delivers sermon from helter-skelter.”
Helter skelter? No, we’re not talking about The Beatles song and there’s no link here, obviously, to the Manson Family. No, this is a story about a painfully hip bishop (#IMHO) and an oldline Protestant institution that is really, really anxious to pull a few people through its doors. Here is (hang on tight) the overture:
God would be "revelling" in the joy a "glorious" helter-skelter has brought to Norwich Cathedral, its bishop has told his congregation from its slide.
The fairground ride had been in the nave of the cathedral for 11 days. It was intended to give people a different view of the building, although some accused the cathedral of "making a mistake".
The Bishop of Lynn, the Rt Revd Jonathan Meyrick, delivered his sermon from halfway up the ride.
"God is a tourist attraction," he told his congregation during the cathedral's final service with the helter-skelter as a backdrop. "God wants to be attractive to us. ... for us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world around us and this glorious helter-skelter is about just that."
The bishop had climbed to the top of the helter-skelter before edging halfway down the slide, where he stopped to deliver his sermon. He then received a loud cheer as he whooshed to the bottom.
On one level, this strategy worked, since cathedral officials noted that about 20,000 people paid a visit between August 7-18 and about 10,000 newcomers chose to slide down the helter-skelter.
The online version of this news story also did include a tiny note, and a quick hyperlink, to a traditional Anglican response to this rather unique approach to evangelism.
Last week, the Rt Revd Dr Gavin Ashenden, former chaplain to the Queen, said the cathedral had been unprofessional and was "poisoning the medicine" a church offered.
The pop-culture reference? A cutline for one of the many digital images with this story noted that the Anglican shepherd who calls himself the “singing bishop” (no, that isn’t him in the YouTube just above this paragraph) reached back to The Sixties for another element of his sermon.
The Bishop treated the congregation to a rendition of the Bee Gees' song Words as he reflected on the importance of smiles.
So what is the hard-news angle that would have added some meat to this cotton-candy story?
Well, for starters, how is this cathedral doing these days in terms of membership, worship attendance and, well, money? Was there a serious reason to stage this obvious attempt for publicity and visits by people who rarely if ever frequent a pew or the Holy Communion rail?
After all, the Church of England faces some truly horrifying math these days linked to demographics, birth rates and members hitting the exit doors. Here is a solid chunk of a recent story in The Independent that includes a few statistics that I think needed to be summarized in a BBC story on this topic. The headline: “Church of England staring at oblivion as just 2% of young Britons say they identify with it.”
Smile, we’re talking about an “unrelenting” slide toward “oblivion”?
The number of people who identify as belonging to the Church of England has dropped to a record low in an “unrelenting decline” that could threaten the denomination’s future, research suggests.
CofE affiliation has fallen to just 2 per cent among adults aged 18 to 24, while the majority of every age group now has no religion, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey found.
The number of Britons who describe themselves as part of the church has more than halved since 2002, from 31 per cent to 14 per cent. The number who actually attend sermons is far lower.
Well, things will get better when Brits hit the serious mid-life years. Right?
The sharpest drop was among 45- to 54-year-olds, only 11 per cent of whom identify with the CofE compared to 35 per cent in 2002.
Now, I get the fact that this BBC story was supposed to be lighthearted and fun. What unique and even silly visuals!
But, in this case, there was a serious subject hiding, ghost-like, in the details. Why not include a paragraph or two of serious news?
FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from the BBC television report.