A skeleton in the pulpit…
Today being Hallow’een prompts me to write about the time a skeleton once delivered a sermon from the pulpit of Gloucester Cathedral… in front of 500 witnesses! Yes really! I know – because I was responsible for it happening! Yet this is not a just blog about that strange occurrence … it is actually a blog about “being memorable”… !
First – some background….
In the early eighties I was Head of PE at The King’s School , Gloucester. The school was one of the seven “King’s Schools” established by King Henry VIII in 1541 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. King’s Schools were often associated with Cathedrals, with King’s Gloucester being no exception – having close ties with Gloucester Cathedral, one of the Anglican faith’s great outposts, and a pillar of the Church of England. Much of school life centred around religion, and daily worship took place for the whole school every day with morning assemblies being held in the Cathedral. While being a beautiful and spectacular setting, it was nevertheless ironic that a member of the staff should be a self-confessed free-thinking humanist and atheist – i.e. me!
Because of its close ties with the Cathedral, the school had a “chaplain” who oversaw daily worship and the general spiritual well-being of the pupils. Although he was the principal leader of morning “chapel” – he would often ask other members of staff to take charge and help him out by likewise leading a service – usually with a traditional format – prayers, a bible reading, a hymn and a “sermon” based around a moral message from the day’s religious text. It was inevitable I would be asked to help out!
Luckily for me… the chaplain and I got on well… we were the respective coaches of the school 1st and 2nd Rugby teams – and consequently spent a lot of time together. Not only that – but he was a progressive and forward-thinking member of the staff, open to new ideas and ways to engage the pupil’s interest and stimulate discussion. So when I said “OK – I’ll lead a service – but I’m not religious – so it won’t be what you’re expecting” he said “That’s fine – as long as it has a “moral” and makes them think – I’ll trust you!”
I started from the standpoint that the “traditional” services had no effect on the pupils – it seemed to me they switched off their critical faculties when faced with the same-old same-old rhetoric they had heard before. No-one seemed to speak afterwards about the topics raised at morning chapel. So I decided it was time to push the boundaries and do something that would shake them up! Thus it was that I became known for delivering what could only be described as “whacky” services. Three in particular stand out.
My first attempt was based on my interest in magic – I decided that I would do some tricks in the pulpit! So – in my track suit (ready for my first PE lesson) I mounted the steps with some rope, scissors and a pack of cards…. and yes – some trepidation – knowing that a few hundred years ago I could have been strung up for heresy, blasphemy and sacrilege – or all three!
I performed some tricks as best I could – and took as my theme the “miracles” of Jesus… putting forward the possibility that they may have been early forms of the illusions we see entertainers perform today. “Could Jesus have been the first member of the Magic Circle?” I asked them to consider (while waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike me down!). After all – when you see the amazing feats of “psychological illusionist” Derren Brown today – this is not such an outrageous question to ask! (Well – back in 1983 it was – especially from the pulpit of one of Christianity’s great strongholds!). Suffice to say – there was an enormous amount of discussion afterwards – not only from the pupils – but also from the staff! I knew I was on to something – so my next foray into the pulpit pushed the boundaries even further!
The Lent term was nearly over, and the Easter holidays beckoned, at what is a time of great significance for the Christian faith, so I decided to take the skepticism of “Doubting Thomas” as my theme.
Picture the scene … Mr. Simonett is in the pulpit…. he announces the first hymn and the pupils dutifully look it up in their hymnbooks … the great organ starts to play and the first verse is piously sung. Suddenly – during the second verse… a gorilla steps out from behind one of the stone pillars and shuffles to the centre of the main aisle – faces the congregation – beats his chest – and slowly walks off to the other side and out via a side door! Bedlam ensues! The kids were giggling and laughing – the singing of the hymn forgotten – though the organist (who was not in on it) played on!
I completely ignored it as if nothing had happened – and after the hymn asked one of the prefects to give the reading – which featured the description of Doubting Thomas at the time of the resurrection (Easter – geddit?!) – who famously refused to believe Christ had risen from the dead because he hadn’t witnessed it himself. (Good for you Thomas!)
So after the reading – I asked “did any of you see anything unusual during the hymn?” Of course a forest of hands went up! “Well” I said, “What I want you to do when you go home is to drop into a conversation with your Mums and Dads about what happened in school today is that during morning chapel a gorilla walked across the front of the Cathedral during the hymn! Then come back tomorrow and tell me if they believed you!” My point being (and cleverly made I thought!) was that – like Doubting Thomas – sometimes things that seem impossible could actually be true…. and just because you haven’t directly experienced them yourself doesn’t mean they didn’t happen – you have to seek evidence for your beliefs!
The response was amazing – the next day I was inundated with pupils coming up to me telling me the reactions of their parents… some who didn’t believe them – and some who did – especially those who had asked if it was “one of Mr. Simonett’s services” – my reputation by now had started to precede me! (By the way… the “gorilla” was a colleague from the PE Department who had been press ganged into helping me out – in a fancy dress costume I had hired – and thus equally culpable of heresy!)
Emboldened by this…. in my last term as a teacher at King’s I decided to go out with a bang…..
I was racking my brains for “something spectacular” for my final service… and it came to me during a biology lesson (I also taught Human Biology) in which I had been using the life-sized plastic skeleton to discuss the workings of the human body. It struck me that it would make a great prop in a service! This was only the germ of the idea – at first I just thought it would just create interest – but I had no “motivation” or moral story to use it with.
Then I came up with the idea of it being an “old boy” of the school – who had wasted his opportunities at school – and look what had become of him! Then – bingo – because the jaw was attached to a spring that would close the mouth if you opened it… I thought – why not find a way to animate it – make it talk – and give the sermon? I just had to find a way to do this unobtrusively…! Nylon fishing line was the answer! So I bought some of the thinnest fishing line available – and attached it to the bottom jaw – pulling the line made the skeleton appear to speak…. so far so good. Then it came to me that in fact – the nylon line could turn it into a virtual “puppet”!
So picture the scene once more: The congregation is hushed in reverential silence under the soaring vaulted ceiling of this centuries old centre of Christian worship. Mr. Simonett walks up the steps to the pulpit, in his track suit. It’s his last service…. Summer Term 1985. Hymn. Reading (can’t remember what!). Then me: “Boys and Girls – today I have asked an old boy of the school to give the sermon on my behalf. Here he is”. With that I bent down and picked up the skeleton (which had been lying on the floor of the pulpit) and hooked the top of the skull onto it’s metal frame which I had positioned behind me, wheeled it forward, and flopped the two bony arms over the ornate bible stand, a bit like the Prime Minister at PMQs! I said nothing more – just went back down the steps – leaving the skeleton “in charge”! To say there was bedlam in the Cathedral is an understatement… a great buzz of conversation went up – with the kids wondering what the hell was going on!
As the buzz died down…. there was a dramatic pause – then suddenly … the skeleton moved! It turned to the left and looked at one side of the audience for a few seconds – then turned to the right to look at the other half! I can still hear the laughter that this bizarre sight created! Then… it started talking – with the jaw moving up and down – and in a creaky, spooky voice told them how he had failed to make the most of his time at school – and that they should all realise that time is precious and they would soon be moving on… and to make the most of their preparation for life in the wider world… otherwise you could end up like him!
Yes you guessed it – it was all done with the help of my trusty PE Department colleague again! I had control of the jaw with one hand, with a nylon thread running down the stairs to under the pulpit where I crouched with the pulpit microphone in the other hand – timing my script to pulling on the thread to make the skeleton “speak”! My colleague was tasked with making the skeleton “move” – with two threads attached to the shoulders so pulling on one made it turn to the left – and vice versa! It was all rehearsed late the night before – after Evensong – with the two of us hoping none of the Cathedral staff would ask what we were doing in the pulpit with a skeleton!
My script was played for laughs if I remember – full of dreadful puns and plays on words to do with bones and dead bodies! (The only one I remember was related to the Australian rugby playing brothers of the time – Mark and Glen Ella… my opening words being – in my best imitation of a spooky quavering voice – “Good Morning Boys and Girls….my name is Pat Ella….” (I doubt any of them “got” the pun – given the consternation that pervaded!). The best compliment I had was from the Headmaster himself – who said to me afterwards “John – that was brilliant. It’s the only time I have ever felt like leading a round of applause for a sermon in the Cathedral!” As it happened – he didn’t – but it was praise indeed1
So was it a powerful message? Err… no. It was a “bit of fun”. Was it memorable? You betcha! To this day I meet former pupils – say in a supermarket – in their 40’s – with kids in tow – “hello Sir!” they say (don’t call me Sir – please!) “How are you?” they continue… and often “I still remember your skeleton sermon – how you got away with that we never knew!” They’re right – in today’s world of social media – someone would have taken a picture with a smart phone and tweeted it – and I would have faced the sack – and eternal damnation!! But at least it would have been memorable!
And that’s my point.
Maybe there were the beginnings of my quest to be a “memorable” speaker in my post-teaching career. Not just a competent, slick and professional speaker – that’s what an audience expects – but a memorable one! One who’s different, one who finds ways to engage an audience’s imagination, one who pushes the boundaries – and one who’s not bland or boring! In fact it applies to everyone – we should all make the most of every opportunity to create “moments of magic” that will linger in the memory long after the event. Sometimes these are called “flashbulb memories” – usually associated with major news events where we all remember “what we were doing at the time we heard about it”…. but why not try and create such moments ourselves?
I love the slogan of an American I.T. company at whose conference I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at in Cyprus – they are called Extreme Networks – and their slogan is simply “Be Extreme!”. That’s a good motto to live by – don’t be bland – be memorable – Be Extreme!
It’s a theme I will examine in future blogs!
If you are looking for a speaker or conference host who is “memorable” and can ensure the success of your next event – please get in touch!
Likewise – if you are a King’s School Gloucester pupil from the 1980s and can remember any of my “whacky” services – please leave me a comment below!