IT ALL BEGAN, as things so often do, with Fr Geoffrey Kirk. It was four years ago, in May 1996, that he first suggested to me that we should hire the London Arena in order to celebrate the coming millennium. I must have looked sceptical, because he picked up the ‘phone, spoke to them and asked for details to be sent of charges, facilities and the like. A letter came back, addressed to Mr Geoff Kirk (a form of address I treasure to this day), setting out the information we needed and suggesting that we might perhaps contact them again sometime. The clear sub-text seemed to be that the writer felt that he had better humour us; after all, who in their right mind would think that a church organisation could possibly afford to hire, let alone be able to fill, a prestigious venue like the London Arena? But Fr Kirk had the bit between his teeth. Next, he rang to enquire about availability on Saturdays during the year 2000; the arena was, he was told, available on only 52 Saturdays in that year and perhaps he’d like to be in touch with them again a bit nearer the time. But he was not about to be deflected. A meeting at the arena was what was called for, at which point I ventured the notion that the Forward in Faith Council might be afforded the opportunity of talking about his idea before we went too much further.
Accordingly, the Council spent some time in earnest debate as to when precisely the new millennium was to begin and then gave us the go ahead to make some more enquiries. It was at this point that we brought into the discussion Canon Beau Brandie and Geoffrey Wright, veterans of the great Festival of Faith at the Wembley Arena back in 1992. And it came to pass that the four of us took ourselves off to the London Arena to meet one James Rees, who had obviously drawn the short straw and been selected to humour the delegation. About five minutes into the meeting, Fr Brandie suddenly said in a rather accusatory tone “You used to work at Wembley”. A weight visibly lifted from James’ shoulders as he remembered that he had been the Operations Manager on duty at the Festival of Faith and that we were “the guys” (his words) who had run that marvellous “gig” (his words again). The realisation that he was dealing not with a group of escapees from who knows where, but with a group of people who were entirely serious in their intent cheered him considerably and we got down to business.
We already knew from our experience in 1992 that it would be necessary to engage a production company for the event: one which would take, as it were, the blank canvas of the Arena – normally the venue for concerts, for exhibitions and Company AGMs – even for Ice Hockey! – and create for us a setting worthy of the celebration we envisaged. We turned without hesitation to Pandora Productions of Wembley, whose proprietor, John Montier, had served us so well back in 1992. We met with John with just one question uppermost in our minds: what would it cost?
The first draft of the budget made depressing reading. On one side of the equation was the cost of the Arena, the production costs and all the other costs: hiring an organ and maybe some musicians, advertising, transport, printing Orders of Service, posters and all the rest. On the other side was the income, which would comprise ticket sales. How much to charge? Well, one just divided the total expenditure by the number of seats and there was the answer! But, if truth be told, no one would have come, with the possible exception of Forward in Faith members employed in the financial services sector, who might just have been able to arrange the necessary mortgages. The sums simply did not begin to add up. Tickets would have cost a fortune. It was then that Fr Tim Bugby, Superior-General of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, called into Faith House, with an offer to make available what one might call serious funding. Suddenly the sums added up and we were back on track. We made the firm booking, engaged the production company and told the world what was planned.
The next item on the agenda was the music. Around that time, the name Ronald Corp was becoming a very familiar one to listeners of Classic FM. His CD of British Light Classics had topped the classical charts and he was much in demand. But he was a member of Forward in Faith, in training for the Non-Stipendiary Ministry, a respected choral conductor and a friend from way back. I met him for lunch and asked how his diary was for June 2000. Thankfully, he was enthusiastic and another piece of the puzzle fell into place. By now, the Archbishop of York had accepted our invitation to preside and other bishops were being invited. The Bishop of London was invited to preach, accepted, found himself double-booked and supposed to be in Russia on the day in question, withdrew, untangled the problem and accepted again. By now, confidence was beginning to grow – to the extent that we made no attempt to find an alternative preacher during the time that Bishop Chartres thought he would not be able to be with us! Tickets went on sale and some were sold. Weeks went by with no sales. Paranoia began to set in.
We pressed on. By now, other Catholic Societies were offering to share in the great event. The Church Union would pay for all the bread and wine, for candles and incense; ACS would produce a Prayer Card; SSC would raise the money for chalices and ciboria. Other Societies simply gave money. Without all their help, we might never have made it. Wiltshire, the Bristol printers who print New Directions each month, offered to print the Orders of Service as their contribution and Avon Direct Mail, who distribute it for us, agreed to deal with the much of the ticket distribution. Sales picked up, but were still too slow. Paranoia increased.
We pressed on with the arrangements: there were vestments to beg, thurible and processional cross to borrow, nerves to steel. Music was commissioned and composed, singers recruited, rehearsals scheduled. A children’s choir was suggested and likely schools were canvassed. The icon of Christ our Future was painted, servers were chosen, stewards were press-ganged. Four pages of advertising in The Church Times had to be booked, designed and paid for. Flowers would have to be arranged, in more senses than one. A Novena of Prayer would be necessary: Forward in Faith member Harold Holwell was duly volunteered to arrange it and exceeded our wildest expectations by recruiting over 400 parishes to take part. Sales took off. Paranoia retreated.
Surreal shopping lists emerged: 20 galvanised buckets, 30 plastic buckets, 15 polo shirts, 250 sets of coloured crayons and a small privet hedge. Tasks were shared out amongst concelebrants and deacons and notes to tell them what they were to do were written, edited, discussed, changed, printed and distributed. The ‘phone started to ring and then, for a month, barely stopped. The Box Office began to run out of seats and we began to release to the laity seats we had reserved for the clergy. More clergy rang to book and we agonised about whether we had transferred too many seats to the congregation. (If only they’d booked earlier, our task would have been that much simpler, we said to ourselves, without any hint of rebuke.) A meeting to discuss coach parking with the Metropolitan Police and the Arena made it clear that the Isle of Dogs was not designed for as many coaches as would be coming. Sales reached towards our targets. Paranoia disappeared.
Until the 1,492 days were reduced to just 14 and I sat down to do the Editor’s bidding that I should tell you a little about Christ our Future. I’ve only managed to cover but a fraction of what has happened; but the rest you know.
Stephen Parkinson is National Director of Forward in Faith.