Cutting off heads is just one method a Midlands scripture teacher uses to grab children's attention. Pamela Coleman joins his magic circle
Howard Worsley was strolling through the park one sunny afternoon when he came across two soapbox orators competing for the attention of passers-by. One, an old-fashioned preacher ranting and raving about hellfire and damnation, was being largely ignored, while just a few yards away a conjuror held a crowd spellbound. At the end of his act the conjuror addressed his captivated audience, who listened attentively to what he had to say.
For Mr Worsley, a former English and PE teacher then working for the Scripture Union's schools department, that chance encounter was a revelation. "I thought, 'This is effective, this is a way of getting the message across'," he recalls.
Inspired, he bought himself a few props, put in many hours of practice and built up his own repertoire of conjuring tricks, which he has been using ever since as teaching aids.
From humble beginnings - his first trick was with lengths of rope that he cut and magically joined together again - he has progressed to being able to eat fire and chop the heads off volunteers, all in the name of education.
After four years as the Scripture Union's schools officer in the north-west, Mr Worsley was ordained and three years ago became vicar of St Peter's Church, Radford, in Nottinghamshire, taking his original teaching aids to new audiences. Now he uses them when giving scripture lessons at two local primary schools. He also teaches religious and personal and social education at secondary level, and gives talks to local youth groups.
Like the man in the park, he uses his magic purely to attract and hold attention, and he relies for maximum effect on the element of surprise. Despite frequent entreaties to put on magic shows, he insists on using his illusions purely as mnemonic aids.
"I view my vicaring here in teaching terms," Mr Worsley says. "I love young people and I feel I am a born teacher. One day I may well return to teaching full-time."
Older children are impressed by his more dramatic props: "Fire-eating always goes down well," he says. He picked up the technique from a street entertainer and claims it was not difficult to learn. He only had to overcome the psychological barrier of putting fire into his mouth and know just where the hottest part of the flame was. To get it right, he practised every night for a fortnight before performing the trick in public, although he admits to singeing his whiskers a few times in rehearsal.
He finds primary school children and children with special needs love his puppets. Even those who have difficulty communicating with adults seem at ease when they can talk through a puppet. He has found it a particularly effective way of raising the topic of single parents, and it has been helpful when trying to ease the pain of a child whose parent is dying.
Rather than take classes in magic or conjuring, he has instead persuaded those who can do tricks to share their secrets with him. "Whenever I see somebody doing something I can't do, I ask them how to do it. It's a good educational ploy," he explains.
Mr Worsley also uses a number of self-working props which, he says, come with easy-to-follow instructions. He makes some simple gadgets himself, or has them made for him by friends and relations, often as birthday or Christmas presents.
The most difficult to master has been the eight interlocking rings. "That one really worried me. I was given them one Christmas and it took me ages to get the hang of it. You have to bang the rings together and they join, and when you pass them to someone else they separate.
"Eventually I took them with me on a weekend away, and on top of a cliff on the north coast I finally worked it out. I didn't realise it at the time, but I was being watched by an intrigued passer-by!" When going about his daily duties as vicar, he invariably has a silk handkerchief or a magic dice tucked away in his waistcoat pocket ready for action. He keeps the fire-eating for when he is teaching older pupils and is always careful to warn the school beforehand of his intentions. The Bible is full of references to fire, he points out (such as the story of the burning bush and the Holy Spirit appearing as tongues of fire). When he brings out his flaming props he is guaranteed the full attention of his class.
By far Mr Worsley's most popular prop is the head chopper (another teaching tool he would never use with primary children). "They absolutely love it from Year 9 upwards. I use it when discussing the concept of trust and there is never a problem getting volunteers."
It worked well, too, when he was called in to a youth club to address a group of young people who had been very unpleasant to a previous speaker. Worsley's brief was to get his reluctant audience to consider aspects of faith.
He brought on his head chopper, first cutting up carrots and joking with his audience before asking if anyone trusted him enough to put their head on the block. He had several takers. "You always get a few who are showing off to their friends and will volunteer, as long as you talk to them in the right way."
The eldest son from a family of five children, he spent many hours teaching his young sisters. He read English at Manchester University and taught in Egypt for a year before joining the staff of Dukinfield High School near Manchester.
He always intended to go into the church, he says, but thought that to be effective he needed wider skills and experience. He is married to Ruth, a former nurse and now curate at a local church, and the couple have three young sons. Benjamin, aged five, is already following in father's footsteps and can manipulate a matchbox with a secret compartment into which coins disappear.
Several of his pupils have also been inspired to take up magic. They take their Paul Daniels sets into school and from time to time proudly show him their new tricks. "Only yesterday a little boy gave me a magic safety pin," he says with a smile.
All the children in a class, from the naughtiest to the quietest, respond equally when confronted with the unexpected, Mr Worsley has found. He sees himself first and foremost as an educationist and second as a magician.
"The magic is just to attract attention; what I say is much more important. I am convinced children want to learn. All human beings want to learn; we are developmental creatures. But sometimes people get so hurt, they get stuck in life. People like teachers and vicars have to win the right to be listened to, and make sure that listeners enjoy the experience."
He is studying for a doctorate in education, theology and psychology at Birmingham University and has been known to take along one or two of his props to liven up seminars. "Sometimes academic discussion can get so heavy you need to free it up a bit."
Wherever his studies lead him, he will certainly take his magic along. Soon he will need to find a replacement for one important piece of equipment - his head chopper. It has been used so often it is beginning to wear out and recently stuck, giving the game away. The power of illusion depends on tricks working every time.
For a catalogue of easy-to-use props with full instructions contact: Repro Magic
46 Queenstown Road London SW8 3RY Tel: 0171 720 6257
89 Clerkenwell Road
London EC1R 5BX
Tel: 0171 405 7324
Supreme House, Bideford Devon EX39 3YA Tel: 01237 424455
A simple magic rope trick costs around pound;3-4, a vanishing bag pound;10 and a vanishing box about pound;20 For advice and to contact fellow magicians look under "Entertainers" in the telephone directory.
Jeff Atkins, secretary of the International Brotherhoodof Magicians, can tell you how to contact your local branch of the CentralGuild of Magicians.
Tel: 01703 813869
The Christian Conjurors group can offer advice to those who want to use conjuring as an aid to religious teaching. Contact Tony Maidment 28 Castle Grove Oldwinsford, Stourbridge West Midlands DY8 2HH Tel: 01384 378613
For experienced performers there is the Magic Circle, where meetings of seasonedmagicians are held on Monday evenings. Contact co The Victory Services Club, Seymour Street, London W1