Dearly beloved, eyes down – let us play!

It was revealed last week that more than half the people in this country couldn’t give a fig leaf about religion. And yet, despite the biggest drop in church affiliation being in my age group, a few Sundays ago I found myself in a temple – and it was far from under-attended. I had been recruited by some friends who seduced me with tales of spectacular riches, rhythmic chanting and the occasional moment of vocalised epiphany.

Am I describing a visit to an evangelical chapel? No, I went to the bingo. And this was no amateur seaside game for kiddies and tourists having a flutter with their holiday spending money. This was serious stuff. It’s possible that my fellow bingoers didn’t have a religious bone in their bodies; yet here we all were re-enacting the rituals of generations before us. Instead of a church porch, we gossiped in the Leo Leisure vestibule before picking up our numbered sheets and entering the nave-like space of the hall proper.

Facing us, a long low ‘altar’ had been laid out with buffet nibbles, like a harvest festival catered by Iceland. Taking our seats, sitting side by side as on a pew, we spread out our bingo cards on the table in front and unsheathed our dobbers.

Soon we were exhorted to turn to game number one in our sheets. A hush descended as, along with the rest of the congregation, I got my eyes down as if in prayer. We listened intently as the caller intoned, “For-an-too, forty-two. Three-an-seven, thirty-seven. On-its-own, number five.” Blimey! There was no mucking about – he was in like Flynn! Just about keeping up, I dobbed out the digits on my card in syncopation with the voice’s steady delivery, like that of an experienced but careworn vicar reading out hymn numbers.

A shout went up and the game stopped, breaking the spell. But with barely a pause we were thrown headlong into the next game. A woman near me was like a machine – fists pumping; at one point scanning two cards, obliterating the numbers with her fat felt pen.

During the interval a chap dressed in nothing but a plastic coconut bra and a grass skirt hoved into view. My religious analogy may have faltered at this point but soon we were back on track as one of his colleagues came around with the communion alcohol; a free tot of rum-rich pina colada delivered not in a blessed silver goblet but a tall tube with a crown, not of thorns, but plastic palm leaves and a straw through which to suckle the cocktail.

Alas I won nothing – but I left uplifted. Formal worship may be on the wane, but take heart; people have found an alternative church in which to commune on Sundays. A safe space where they can meet friends, be soothed by a form of liturgical incantation, and have the chance of winning the evening’s syndicated eye-watering prize of £21,000. And all for a fiver? I’m converted.

This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 21 September 2018, and also online.

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