The Greatest Story Ever Told Songs of Praise


The Greatest Story Ever Told

Diane Louise Jordan discovers how the story of Christianity is portrayed through the ancient tradition of the Chester Mystery Plays.


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Transcript


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I bid you all warmly welcome to the ancient and beautiful

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city of Chester, home of the world-famous Chester Mystery Plays.

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This is the cathedral city of Chester,

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which has been steeped in Christianity for nearly 2,000 years.

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It's also the home of the ancient Mystery Plays, which,

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as you can hear, is being announced by the town crier.

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Every five years, the stories of the Bible are re-enacted

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in a huge community production with scores of volunteers,

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both on and off the stage.

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Thousands have seen it over the past couple of weeks

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and we are going to get a taste today on Songs Of Praise

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as we celebrate the greatest story ever told.

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I'm going behind the scenes during the final rehearsals,

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meeting the man who plays God

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and the playwright bringing the age-old stories to life,

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and, of course, we've timeless hymns telling the story of salvation.

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Chester is one of Britain's oldest cities.

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In fact, there was a Roman settlement here

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only 70 years after the birth of Christ.

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These city walls were built after the Normans' arrival,

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around 1000 AD, and then, in the 15th century,

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an ancient tradition began, which has been going strong ever since.

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The Chester Mystery Plays

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predate the first English translation of the Bible.

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It's the story of mankind and man's redemption,

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from the creation right the way through to the last judgement.

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In the past, the plays have been performed entirely outdoors.

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This year they're moving indoors to Chester Cathedral.

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There is just something very beautiful

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about being in the nave of the cathedral.

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It's almost a real genuine community that you are a part of.

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You become aware of hundreds of years of devotion, really,

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on stage, and to be part of that is extraordinary.

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At their heart, they still remain plays by the people for the people,

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a coming together of the whole community,

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and that is what our first hymn is all about.

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It was actually recorded here at the cathedral

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with congregations and school choirs gathered together

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to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

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In 1951, the Chester Mystery Plays

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were updated for the Festival of Britain.

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Since then, they have been performed every five years,

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continuing an ancient tradition

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where local guilds or community groups

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perform the great stories of the Bible.

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For 2013, they have been adapted by writer Stephanie Dale.

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I'll go hence and trace my path...

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I think the most important decision that we made very early on

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was that we wanted to work

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with the local community as much as we could

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and what was important to us was to find a way

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of updating the guilds, the people who would

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put on the plays now - the teachers, the commuters, the tourists,

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the gay community, the homeless community.

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So, for example, creation,

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the most logical thing to do with creation

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was to give it to the teachers

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and so the teachers' guild is now performing creation,

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which is a lesson to year four.

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At my bidding, may it be light!

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Light is good, I see in sight.

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Did you ever worry about it being a little bit irreverent?

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I think we have tried extremely hard to look at each individual play

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and look at the tone of it.

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THEY SING

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I didn't want to create a piece of museum theatre that people think,

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"What has this got to do with me now?"

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I wanted it to feel very sort of 2013 and we are in Chester.

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Equally, I've been very careful, so, for example,

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plays such as the Passion, I've left very much alone.

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The Paschal lamb must be as the Lord doth command.

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-The Paschal lamb is made ready.

-It was made hours before.

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It's a drama, it's a play,

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but underpinning it is that spiritual tone.

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How does that affect you?

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I think it's been very, very moving

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and particularly when we have been coming into the cathedral

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and I think it is extraordinary to think that we are actually

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in the space where the monks would have translated these plays

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from Latin into English hundreds of years ago.

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You do find yourself thinking, "What would they make

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"of where we are now and how we are, you know, retelling these stories."

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And as a writer, do you think this is the greatest story ever told?

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I think it has to be, doesn't it?

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Because there are just... Each play, the play is about love,

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about jealousy, about hate, about revenge

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and I think, whether you have religious belief or not,

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I think, how can these stories fail but to move you?

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40 days and 40 nights it shall rain...

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For the actors involved in the Chester Mystery Plays,

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it's a chance to tell the stories of age-old biblical characters

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in a historic and holy place.

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The building itself and the sort of

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hundreds of years of spirituality in the place,

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come to be part of the production as well.

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In a funny kind of way,

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the building becomes a character in the play as well.

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I hear the angel and Lucifer.

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Actor Nick Fry is a member of the cathedral congregation

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and has perhaps the most challenging part of all.

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The kind of premise of the play is God's workshop

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and so it's creating the world and then sort of setting it off.

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-What are you doing in there?

-I'm playing God.

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-SHE LAUGHS

-Yes, I know.

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I... I create the world and it's wonderful, the power!

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I mean, that's quite daunting.

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You can't get anything more daunting than playing God, can you?

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No, especially in a cathedral.

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The scary bit is trying to come up with a character

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because it's quite easy to be a bit distant and sort of just be,

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you know, the man in the clouds sort of shouting at people.

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Adam! Man! Also I say to thee...

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What characteristics are you giving him?

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As an actor, what you do is look for humanity,

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so when God sort of expels Adam from Eden,

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you kind of ask, well, how did God feel about that?

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Was he disappointed, happy, sad?

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And that's what you look for,

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those sort of human characteristics you try and latch on to.

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So has this experience

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brought you to an understanding of God's humanity?

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Absolutely, yes.

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As a person of faith, that reveals something to you

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that perhaps you hadn't expected to discover.

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That sense of seeing God as a person, not just as a concept

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or as an abstract being, but as an actual person, is quite interesting

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and it's something, actually, I hadn't expected to have happen.

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It is for your sins I behight to make reckoning of the right.

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'When you think of approaching the divine in terms of humanity,

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'of course you think of Jesus, and perhaps God is not necessarily

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'seen as that human a figure, but when you start thinking about it,'

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man was created in God's image, so there must be humanity there

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and when you go and look for that and you find it,

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that's quite revealing, actually.

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# God so loved the world

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# So loved the world

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# God so loved the world

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# So loved the world

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# That he gave his only begotten son

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# That who so believeth

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# Believeth in him

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# Should not perish

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# But have everlasting life

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# Everlasting

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# Everlasting life

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-# God so loved the world

-God so loved, God so loved

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# The world, the world

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-# God so loved the world

-God so loved, God so loved the world

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# That he gave his only begotten son

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# That who still believeth Believeth in him

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# Should not perish

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# But have everlasting life

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# Everlasting

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# Everlasting life

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-# God so loved the world

-Everlasting life

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# God so loved the world. #

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A key ingredient in the Chester Mystery Plays is music.

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Local composer Matt Baker has arranged the score

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for musicians of all abilities.

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It's wonderful to be able to work with all the people

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who are performing it.

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There have been people turning up out of the woodwork -

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wonderful singers, brilliant violinists, a didgeridoo player,

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a hurdy-gurdy player, and that's been exciting

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because I've been able to compose for so many different instruments.

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And what about writing what is reputedly

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the greatest story ever told? Is there an added pressure on that?

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Well, yes, because you've got to meet expectations.

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There's the expectations of those people who are coming to witness

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another interpretation of that greatest story,

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but there's also those people

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who perhaps are going to see it for the first time

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and there's the entertainment value, there's wanting to be relevant.

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# Full of Grace God is with thee... #

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Gabriel, for example, when he talks to Mary

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and says that she is going to have a baby,

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it's done to a kind of 1940s Frank Sinatra swing style.

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# ..Bo-o-o-ody! #

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And all the adults get thrown into the mouth of hell

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to the sound of a rock guitar, you know, in a kind of almost

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Bohemian Rhapsody type thing, so it's a real mixture.

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ELECTRIC GUITARS WAIL

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Matt, when you're writing,

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particularly for something that has this spiritual theme,

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how does that affect you?

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Well, it may not necessarily affect me when I'm composing.

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It might be a performance,

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it might be ten performances in and suddenly I'll see it all together,

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I'll see it in the context of the whole story

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and that connection is made

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and I might suddenly become very, very emotional

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and that is from a very deep, spiritual level.

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The passion is being re-enacted in the Chester Mystery Plays,

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right from the Last Supper to the crucifixion

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and in that particular part of the story, I haven't used any singing,

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but just drummers,

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and the drummers create this real pervasive rhythm.

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As soon as the crucifixion happens and we see Mary, mother of Jesus,

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then it becomes a very simple melody.

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HE PLAYS PIANO CHORDS

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As Jesus is being put into the grave.

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# Sister, yet hope I

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# Sister, yet hope I

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# Sister, yet hope I

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# That your son will rise again. #

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This cathedral is the birthplace

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of the first medieval Chester Mystery Plays,

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but they haven't been performed here for over 60 years.

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Over the past few weeks, the clergy have seen the nave

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transformed into an auditorium fit for a community production.

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'The Mystery Plays, I think,

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'have been great for engaging the local community.

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'There's people drawn'

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from all around Chester into North Wales into Liverpool

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and from the cathedral's perspective,

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I think it's really good that we are part of that.

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'One of the big things, I think, in faith is how we step aside

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'and let God do something and I think here at the cathedral,

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'everything is very formulaic, very rhythmic, very ordered

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'and I've had to step aside from my order'

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in trying to keep the cathedral running in a very ordered way

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and just allow something new to happen

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and that is both exciting, but it's also challenging.

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-ALL:

-Ego sum Alpha et Omega...

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'Hearing all the different bits of rehearsal going on

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'and some of those stories,

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'you just suddenly get the glimpse of something

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'or you hear a sound of a text'

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relating to a particular biblical story

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and you stop and you hear it fresh, it's spoken in a different way,

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and that breathes a whole sort of breath of life

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into the cathedral in a new way and that's been really good for us.

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Having finished this weekend, the Chester Mystery Plays

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now move on to Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral in October.

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For the hundreds of local volunteers,

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it's been a long-term commitment

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and a chance to play their part in telling the great story.

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There's a massive range of people involved in the production.

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There's teenagers and such, there's people younger than me,

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five to ten-year-olds,

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who play the parts of the animals in Noah's scene,

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and there's people who are, like, 50 and above.

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It just fills all the community of Chester. It's quite fantastic.

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To see my son here, I kneel before.

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Tugged, bloodied and all too torn.

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One of the parts I'm playing is older Mary in the Passion of Christ,

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the crucifixion, and it's brought it home really, to me,

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more about her personal life and, in fact, what she did go through,

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so it's a good learning curve if you like.

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It's really taken us on another journey.

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-God's son in majesty, come down.

-JEERING

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Many of the volunteers like Jeff McLaughlin

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have never performed on stage before.

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I have learned a lot of new skills by being on stage.

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They've helped me to be able to tell the story

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to those people who I meet on an everyday basis in a simple form.

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And...when I contemplate the writing of these plays,

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which is 200 years before Shakespeare was born,

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and they are still being performed every five years in Chester

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and the word of God is being spread around.

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The story is the same story,

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but it is relevant to everyone today as it was 2,000 years ago.

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It is my will.

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And university student Jessica Lane

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also brings her faith to the performances.

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I value the fact that I can spread God's word through drama.

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It's the first time I've ever done something theatrical that is

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also about God and about the Bible.

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I will not go with that animal!

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'Doing the plays has really helped me to see

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'the Bible in a different way, actually doing the shows and seeing

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'how people are reacting to it

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'has changed my perspective on the stories.

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'I've started praying now. Praying through the shows is something'

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that I have started and will continue to do.

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# You knew me at the start

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# You know me at the end

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# Dreams and realities

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# And everything in between

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# Jesus loves me

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# This I know

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# For sure

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# Oh, how he loves me

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# This I know

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# For sure

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# This is the life you made

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# And journeyed with all the way

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# Dreams and realities

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# And everything in between

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# Jesus loves me

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# This I know for sure

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# Oh, how he loves me

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# This I know for sure

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# Oh, how he loves me

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# This I know

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# For sure. #

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'Lord, thank you for the Gospel and the power it has to change lives.

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'Thank you for bringing people together

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'in a spirit of unity, music and song.

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'Thank you for speaking to us all in your still, small voice.'

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And bless us as your story unfolds in our lives day by day.

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Amen.

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APPLAUSE

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Well, the performances may have come to an end,

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but the ancient and timeless story of the Bible

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continues to be told in churches the length and breadth of the country

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and, of course, it's also told in song,

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so we end with a hymn that reminds us of the greatest story ever told.

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Next week over on BBC Two, another chance to join

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Russell Watson in his native city of Salford.

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He'll be meeting people along its 30 miles of waterways

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and introducing hymns from St Peter's Church in Swindon.

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Subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing by Red Bee Media Ltd

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Diane Louise Jordan discovers how the story of Christianity is portrayed through the ancient tradition of the Chester Mystery Plays, in which hundreds of local volunteers become cast and crew. Hymns from around the UK also reflect the gospel story, including In Christ Alone and From Heaven You Came.


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