Evangelical worship in London
A world away from sombre sermons, evangelical worship is a dramatic, noisy and moving spectacle – and attendances in the capital are on the up. Time Out bears witness
Members of the KT congregation
Halfway through the ceremony, the man next to me started quietly murmuring to himself, a long string of garbled sounds that seemed to be flowing unconsciously. Like a fire, it spread through the congregation. Hands were held up high to the Lord, his name praised in whispers and wails. The room felt overcome by this powerful phenomenon. Some faces were ecstatic with joy, others showed a more violent, painful, tear-sodden reaction.
That was my first experience of charismatic religion. It was in 1991, when I was in the final year of a religious studies degree. While writing a dissertation on the role of direct religious experience I visited the Kensington Temple (KT), a Pentecostal church in Notting Hill. It was the first time I had witnessed glossolalia – speaking in tongues – and it had a profound effect on me. Was it really the Holy Spirit communicating through these people? Or was it a form of mass hypnosis, a collective manifestation of an inward desire to have a personal experience of God?
While for years church attendance figures have been falling steadily, Pentecostal and the more evangelical branches of Anglicanism are bucking the trend. There is something about these groups’ emphasis on experiential worship that’s winning hearts, minds and souls. According to the English Church Census of 2005 carried out by Christian Research, Pentecostal churches have seen a 34 per cent rise in regular attendees since 1998. They’re rapidly scaling the Christian denominational charts, now at number three. This puts them ahead of the Methodists, with only the Church of England and Roman Catholics above them – though for how much longer is uncertain, because the top two churches’ numbers are steadily eroding.
The congregation is led by Colin Dye
So what is Pentecostalism and why is it attracting so many converts? I decide to make a renewed pilgrimage to the Kensington Temple in search of answers. ‘It’s about 100 years old,’ Colin Dye, KT’s senior minister tells me. ‘It takes the church back to the original experience of the day of Pentecost, which is recorded in the Book of Acts when the Holy Spirit came upon the very early church. One of the things that happened was that they spoke with new tongues and out of that came a whole range of charismatic gifts.’
These ‘charismata’ include miraculous healings, prophecy, exorcism, discerning of spirits and words of wisdom. They all crop up regularly in the Bible, but what place do they have in the twenty-first century? For many middle-class white people such highly visible protestations of faith can feel exposing and even embarrassing. We find it difficult to tell our own families we love them in private, let alone exclaIming ‘Hallelujah, Jesus!’ in front of hundreds of strangers. That might be one reason why only 11 per cent of the congregation are Caucasian.
Dye came to England in 1971 to study at the Royal Ballet before giving himself full-time to the Lord. ‘As a young ballet dancer there was something so expressive about the charismatic forms of worship which connected with me,’ he declares.
I know what he means. Before interviewing the pastor I attend two of the Sunday services and the place Is full to bursting. As a child I had been dragged to cold, empty churches. These experiences were always dull and distinctly devoid of God – the antithesis of KT’s
high-impact religion. We pray, listen to a persuasive sermon, dance and sing along to catchy gospel music. It’s like a religious line of cocaine.
‘It started as a movement for the working classes in America,’ says Andrew Walker, professor of theology and education at King’s College. ‘There was a large desire to be entertained, which is understandable in times of depression. That loud exciting music and repetitious singing leads you off somewhere away from your worries.’
There are distinct differences between the services I attended 16 years ago and the current ones. Back then the whole place was awash with glossolalia and much more obvious possession of the Spirit. The fervour is still there but there’s much less speaking in tongues. I ask Walker why that might be. ‘It was very big in the ’90s, but what people often don’t realise is that religious movements are as much subject to fashion as anything else. These things spread like a Mexican wave, then fade.’ Dye has a different take: ‘There was a lot of singing in tongues that seems to have receded. Tongues can be over-emphasised. We are more consciously aware now of how the Holy Spirit works in different ways.
'Speaking and singing in tongues is a wonderful experience and it has its place, but we like to see the same people out there serving the community.’ The trance-like states and rocking rhythmical body movements remind me of ecstatic rituals I’ve observed in some African religions. Does Pentecostalism have its origins in this earlier form of worship? ‘Not really,’ Walker replies. ‘It’s a bit like jazz. That owes something to its African roots but it owes equally as much, if not more, to Western influences.’
A more striking difference from my last visit manifests itself in the regular references to Islam in the sermon. We’re all invited to attend a course entitled ‘Engage with Islam’, which is designed to help Christians understand what Muslims mistakenly believe about Christianity. ‘We believe that it is the right of every religion to be able to proclaim who they are and what they believe and to seek to persuade people of that point of view. Buddhism in its purest form says there is no god, Hinduism says everything is god, Islam says there is one god but he’s not the father of Christ, and Christianity says there is one god and he is the father of Jesus. Clearly they can’t all be right,’ Dye says with a candid honesty.
This sect’s embracing of the new – in the form of technology and music – contrasts with what many would term an old-fashioned morality. Walker says, ‘Pentecostals are very modern in the way they’ve embraced technology, even though their ideology may be seen as very primitive.’ He’s referring to the hard line taken on issues such as homosexuality, adultery and abortion. All are seen as sins punishable by an eternity in Hell. An unpalatable attitude in a modern liberal society, but the irony is that its very strength of stance makes it appealing to many followers; it is not wishy-washy. It’s easy for the non-religious to assume that people who hold unfashionable or outdated views and belief systems are either uneducated or stupid. ‘There’s not a special psychological type who joins,’ says Walker. ‘The idea that only thick people join
Pentecostal churches is insulting, uncalled-for and just plain wrong.’
More than 51 per cent of the KT congregation have degrees and a further 19 per cent are studying at that level. Walker sees it playing an important role as part of the social glue of society. ‘A lot of these churches could be seen as an arm of the social services. They look after people who slip through the net, like the mentally handicapped, physically disabled, people with dementia, recovering alcoholics, divorcees shunned by the Catholic church. They can play a very significant role in caring for people who are often forgotten. There is a lot on offer for people who are needy.’
As an atheist I have serious problems with the church’s views on many areas of morality, yet they do reach into the community and offer help and comfort for many lost souls. They were also some of the most welcoming and generous people I have spent time with. I believe they are wrong, but I admire their strength of conviction. They are acting out of a bona fide passion and love for the truth they believe has been given to them through direct experience of the divine. Watching these people transported to other realms you realise that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are missing the point. For these people it is not an intellectual argument – God is as real to them as you and I. They know he’s there because they experience him. They know Him. As Dye says, ‘If you say God’s alive then it makes sense that there would be some direct access to his presence.’
‘A lot of religion is terribly boring. It offers you no wonder and very little meaning,’ concludes Walker. That’s why Pentecostalism is growing daily. It is anything but boring. Like it or not, to those who believe, it offers amazement, miracles, meaning, exhilarating gospel music and the added bonus of a golden ticket to Heaven.
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