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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 April 2004, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
The gospel according to an old rocker
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

Why is a rock legend, who has lived a life of such excess that he suffered three heart attacks by the age of 26, on the look-out for Jesus in a secular society? For some never the twain shall meet - but not for Rick Wakeman.

Rick Wakeman, about to embark on a Yes world tour
He is most familiar to television viewers for his jokey turns on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Banzai.

But Rick Wakeman's latest project is a departure from tongue-in-cheek game shows and Yes reunion tours. In a BBC One documentary, the legendary keyboardist explores whether Jesus's message can still be heard in an age when for many Easter is more about confectionary than crucifixion.

For Wakeman himself - a committed Baptist since his youth - the hot cross buns and chocolate eggs now filling the shops have always had symbolic significance. Not so for many others in an increasingly secular society.

"If you ask the average person what Christmas celebrates, 99% - regardless of religion, race, colour, or creed - will be able to tell you," he told BBC News Online.

"Easter is different because it's not a big party time. There's some hilarious research in which kids were asked about Easter. One girl said it's when you nail bunnies to the cross; another said it's when Jesus brings Easter eggs."

In a similar exercise, Wakeman criss-crossed the UK with a poster van emblazoned with Biblical passages, asking passers-by if they recognised the sayings. Some knew; one mistook the phrases for snippets of Monty Python scripts.

A life well lived

While Easter has always been relevant because of his faith, at times he says he's taken the Christian calendar for granted.

I lived by the rock 'n' roll bible for quite a few years, but I always felt God looking over my shoulder
Having attended South Harrow Baptist Church from the age of four in 1953, he was baptised 15 years later to show his faith - and as a spiritual insurance policy as he got involved in the music world.

"Perhaps it was a bit of protection for me. I lived by the rock 'n' roll bible for quite a few years, which wasn't very clever," says Wakeman, reflecting on the hedonistic lifestyle that almost killed him - two bottles of brandy a day led to three heart attacks by the age of 26.

"But I always felt that God was looking over my shoulder, saying 'never mind, I'll wait' - and He did."

In the 1980s, Wakeman and his then wife, former Page Three model Nina Carter, moved their family to the Isle of Man and immersed themselves in the local Baptist community.

Easter Egg Tree, picture courtesy of FreeFoto.com
Is this what Easter means to you?
"Everyone has an individual walk with their faith, and in these busy hectic times, it can easily be filed away. Doing this programme has reminded me that even at the times when I do file it away, it's important to open that file now and then."

For many Britons, that file remains firmly shut. What with one million fewer bums on pews than 15 years ago - not to mention rows about gay bishops and the ordination of women - does Wakeman fear for the future of the Christian church?

"What worries me is that there's a huge separation now between Christianity and religion. The church has got an awful lot of work to do. In part it's in keeping up with the times. But I'm not sure the church as a whole knows how to deal with people expressing their faith in whichever way they want to express it."

Out of touch

He believes too many people who profess to be Christians try to distance themselves from those who are not part of their world. Yet the Bible tells of a Jesus who spent his life mixing with those others shunned.

The Passion of the Christ
... or is it this?
Wakeman is inspired by those who embrace the real world, such as Sister Frances Dominica, the Oxford nun behind the world's first children's hospice, whom he met during filming.

"She epitomises everything good and caring that a Christian should be. Here's this woman surrounded by sadness - young people taken from this world before they should be - and she has this remarkable gift of knowing exactly how to deal with everything."

He recounts how during a guided tour of the hospice, Helen House, he was shown the bar.

"A bar in a nunnery? Sister Frances told me she had asked the kids what they would like, and they said they'd like a bar. She said she warned one of the boys that they would have to be careful, and he said 'please Sister Frances - how can we get legless when we're all in wheelchairs?'"

Another eye-opener was how a church could have importance beyond the faithful. In Wales, he visited a village fighting to save its chapel. The post office, pub and shop had all closed down; the only vestige of community life left was the church.

Come one, come all

The flipside to this freedom of expression is the rise of so-called designer religions, created to suit a particular lifestyle.

The Vicar of Dibley, Wakeman's favourite TV show
Jesus Who? screens after his favourite show, the Vicar of Dibley
"We've always had this to some extent - the Baptists never condoned drinking or smoking or gambling - but the Americans are unbelievable at it. If you've got some guy who likes drinking whiskey and sleeping with goats but believes in God, they'll start up the St Vitas Church of Goat Sleeping and Whiskey Drinking, and all go along.

"With many of these churches, God doesn't make it into the car park, let alone the building."

Wakeman has himself once briefly toyed with a switch to suit his lifestyle. In his teens, he had a Catholic girlfriend, and used to visit her church after Sunday services.

"Many a time I sat with one of the priests having a fag and a Scotch. Once I thought 'maybe God wants me to be Catholic'. Obviously not, because she dumped me the next week."

Jesus Who? was broadcast in the UK on BBC One on Tuesday, 6 April at 2305 BST.


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