Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Mission of Faith Christ Gospel Ministries, Dalston Lane, 16.01.11,

What makes a Church? The Oxford English Dictionary provides a standard but broad definition.
Church.  Noun. 1. A building used for public Christian worship. 2. A particular Christian organization. 3. Organized Christian religion as a political and social force.  
In contrast the forever evolving definitions of Wikipedia offer 5 subcategories of the use of the word.  1. Religion 2. Name of people 3. Name of places  4. Popular music  5 .Other.  The word church despite its overriding religious meaning has been adopted and used to describe a wide range of subjects in the ever expanding world of Wikipedia, from an Australian cricketer to a fictional character from a Stephen King novel. Religious and non-religious churches are always being created, which leads us to this Sunday’s church, The Mission of Faith Christ Gospel Ministries situated on Dalston Lane.
The Mission of Faith Christ Gospel Ministries sounds like a made up church. The name contains too many nouns; its convoluted title is so long that you have forgotten the name as soon as it leaves your lips. Such a grandiose name merely hints at its own insecurity and sadly undermines the faith of its overtly friendly congregation.  For the sake of my word count I will rebrand the Mission of Faith Christ Gospel Ministries with a trendy acronym MFCGM, which is still too long for an acronym and sounds more like the latest NHS ward disease than a place of worship. The unintentional negative connotations of the church’s long name does also indicate the more positive attributes of its ministry, the ambitious name has a genuine innocence and passionate belief which is present in the congregation.  Unlike more established churches the MFCGM are interested in forging a new religious identity for its predominately Nigerian émigré congregation. The MFCGM’s Nigerian émigré perspective provides a unique mixture of Old and New Testament scripture with political and social messages.
In tone and structure the MFCGM’s service was more similar to the passionate Pentecostalists than the more formal Anglicans and Catholics but unlike the Pentecostalists who preached “pure spiritual worship no strings attached,” the MFCGM’s sermon had more fire and brimstone to balance the euphoric hymns, parroting prayers and occasional tongues that made up the service.  MFCGM used the bible in a very creative way to relate to a modern émigré perspective, a good example was the minister’s use of a passage from the Book of Obadiah.
And saviours shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau ; and the kingdom shall be the lords.
Obadiah, passage 21. 
 The minister drew comparisons to God’s judgement of Edom (a mountain dwelling nation) and its founder Esau’s unjust behaviour to outsiders with the coalition government’s recent introduction of an immigration cap. Focusing on the rhetoric of one kingdom under God he called for the end of all principalities and preached that the Lord would rise again to correct the inequality caused by national borders. I guess the minister did not mention God ending all war, famine and poverty as that would be too clichéd. Other creative uses of scripture during the service was to compare Jesus’s strife to the stigma of illegality,  the inability to find a job during the financial crisis or just not being able to afford a Mazda MX -5 (I later learnt that was a type of car). The modern comparisons marked out the route of social acceptance for the recently arrived Christian émigré, starting with the predicaments of fresh off the boat illegality to the fast car dreaming of a model citizen. Complementing the creative use of scripture was an adoption of biblical language and phrase, the minister frequently referred to “to defeating ones enemies” and “accepting the Lord.”  The lack of detail as to who were the congregation’s enemies and who was not accepting the Lord (besides me) did create a more paranoid and defiant atmosphere, luckily offset by some joyous singing.
The participatory nature of MFCGM made the Pentcostalists seem tame. All prayers were recited standing and then repeated again and again until the congregation were in a frenzy that occasionally might spill into tongues.  It was not just important that you vocalised your prayer with the full breath of your larynx but that you also physically displayed your faith so God cannot help but see you as well as hear you. I felt fairly trapped by the congregation’s faith with shouting prayers suffocating all other thoughts and the fierce hand movements invading my space. Despite the aggressive nature of worship everyone was unbelievable friendly and the tiny congregation (30-40) welcomed me with open arms. I not only got an introductory blessing but also a chaperone in the form of Sister Blessing (she declined to tell me her maiden name claiming this was the name on her passport). Sister Blessing was a beautiful middle aged woman dressed in smart black; her whole body seemed to smile at the glory of god, from her large mouth of pearly teeth, past her mothering chest, all the way down to the defined curves of her hips. She was my personal hymn book and would mouth the songs and prayers to me so I would not have the option to be silent in polite ignorance. Instead her large eyes were forever watching me on behalf of her god in the hope that my inhibitions would disappear into them so I could fully dedicate myself to the ceremony.   
The soft love of Sister Blessing was matched by the hard love of the headmaster styled minister. Dressed in pin striped Sunday best with a more measured and restrained style than the younger minister; his baritone voice did not need to be raised to be heard. The Headminister was a cool customer but like the church’s title he seemed too self-important and therefore too insecure. Often telling the congregation he was disappointed in their prayer, the Headminister on occasion would refer to “someone in this room,” to indirectly criticise the congregation. For example
“Someone in this room needs to accept God and if they accept him now they will be happier then they could ever believe”
“Someone in this room needs to believe before they pray.”
  “Someone in this room needs to be closer to God.”
Naturally being the uninvited, lone, white agnostic I thought the “someone in the room,” was me. I think most of the congregation if asked to name someone other than themselves they would also have pointed the finger at me, but am I being victim of my own ego? The rhetoric the minister employed was deliberately vague not out of politeness to myself but vague so any individual who may doubt their faith would feel guilty. The unconscious guilt trip would lead any doubters amongst the congregation to presume that the great holy and omnipotent Headminister could see that their faith was faltering.
The unconscious insecurities of the sermon, the louder than loud prayers, the church’s convoluted name, the relating of scripture to British immigration policy all outlined the infancy of the ministry. The most clear example of the church’s youth was the building itself.  Number 83 Dalston Lane was not built as a church, in contrast to the previous weeks architectural musings the noticeable features were the generic office woodchip ceilings and an open window door entrance more commonly found in shops. The space could be rented to any commercial venture but it just happens to be a Church. Like any small business the church is still getting its feet on the ground but it remains legitimate. Despite the lack of a steeple or cloisters the MFCGM demonstrated all the definitions of the Oxford English Dictionary of what defines a Church.  Unlike the Pentecostalists, Anglicans and Catholics, the MFCGM was not lost in ritual but explicitly demonstrated itself as an “Organized Christian religion as a political and social force. “    The politics and social beliefs of MFCGM may be limited by its diaspora perspective but the use of its church to help construct a community identity after displacement is impressive. MFCGM highlighted the durability of the Bible not just as a sacred text but as a text that can be used for modern situations and dilemmas.  I struggle to find how the  Bible relates to my everyday existence, put it in my hands I would most likely use it as a door stop, put in the hands of a member of the  MFCGM congregation and it becomes an essential survivors guide to a foreign land.
Still struggling with technology, hope to have photos for next week’s post.

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