Sunday, 20 March 2011

Upper Clapton Reformed Church, Upper Clapton Road, 13.03.11

From the outside Upper Clapton United Reformed Church looks beyond average. It has just enough brown bricks to make the roof seem more pronounced than the local neighbouring terraces. An arch window above the church door is the buildings most religious and decorative feature, yet it lacks stained glass or any decorative designs to make the local Londoner notice its nondescript entrance. You would be easily fooled into thinking that the congregation is small; dying away, like so many churches within the area, however appearances can be deceptive. In full attendance the Upper Clapton Reformed Church had easily a hundred people filling their aisles, my largest congregation by a long way. Clearly the congregation do not come for the architectural design and the shabby poorly kept garden, the main attraction for these followers hides inside the building.

Walking into a brightly lit nave the room was bursting with a stinging glow from the morning light reflecting off the whiter than white walls, meanwhile my ears were confronted with the sound of the booming gospel choir. In these conditions I had no choice but to wake up from the drab exteriors and my own hangover to the voice of God. Luckily this Sunday God’s voice was great, I did not agree with everything he had to say but the sound of his choir I could listen to all day. The choir was clearly the crown jewel that brought the crowds and I am sure God does not mind sharing some limelight with such an amazing company of singers. In past instalments I have raved about the sublime singing from various Church choirs and I guess this comes from not being aware of what is the expected standard of church choirs in the east London area. In Upper Clapton United Reformed Church choir I discovered the gospel pinnacle from which other choirs should be measured by. Besides the brightness of the walls and the sound of singing the Tardis sized church (smaller on the outside bigger on the inside) had no special architectural qualities. All the notable features within the nave had a direct relation to the choir, wide plasma screens on both sides of the sanctuary provided the hymns’ lyrics and grandiose inter titles, a live three piece band of bass, guitar and keyboard gave musical support and a sound desk made the entire visit an audio visual experience. I was not going to church I was going to a concert.
Evangelicals love to party and pray and more often than not they will be doing both at the same time. I have never prayed in my life and if I do party it’s often under the influence of some unholy substance therefore I was at sea with this large crowd of church goers.  Like any large concert you might find at the O2 arena the crowd like to do a lot of swaying, opening their hands in the air, clapping, banging the seats, dancing in the aisles, singing, whooping, whaling, praising, testifying and spontaneously fainting all of which made me feel like I was watching a Westlife concert with a large group of hormonal adolescent girls. Instead I was mainly surrounded by black women (appeared to be mixture of African and West Indian across all age groups), a large amount families, a few lone dapper looking black gentleman and a white elderly couple who stuck out from the crowd more than me (I have got dark hair and a fading tan and I have been told I could pass as a Turk).  I did not feel threatened by the fever of the crowds but I did feel like I might be bringing bad agnostic vibes to God’s party and felt guilty for perhaps messing with everyone’s Christian mojo.  As much as I clapped, sung and occasionally swayed to the choir I was never going to feign enough interest to be carried off into the corner because I was speaking tongues. You can’t fake tongues, I have tried.
My biggest embarrassment was during the group prayer exercise (luckily no partying was included) in which every member of the congregation held hands with the person sitting on both sides of them. Our group’s chain linked three rows crossing at least three ethnicities, many generations and a lot of different nationalities; it would have made a brilliant T-Mobile advert if we had all been better looking. After our hands were tied we were told to recite the priest’s prayer while gazing into the eyes of the person to our left.  Her name was Ariel and I hope she forgives me. I told her the reason for my visit but only after we shared the prayer. I felt like a spiritual adulterer when I confessed my flirting with atheism. For a sense of clarity I have written her a letter that she is very unlikely to read.
Dear Ariel
 If you are reading this and did write down the web address please accept my apology. It would have been more honest to recite the prayer with my eyes closed and my mouth shut but I was too much of a coward. I think you could hear the forgery in my voice and see the lies in my eyes but you were too polite to confront me. Apologies again, I have learned from my experience and next time I will make sure I find a blind and deaf person to hold my hand.
Yours Faithfully
In all seriousness I don’t know what the correct behaviour is in such a situation. You can adopt customs to make your host feel comfortable but ultimately you may mislead another into blasphemy (not that I am worried but they might be). In my defence the shame I felt was an intentional tactic by the evangelical church. If I who has never believed in God felt guilty during the group prayer how is a person who once believed in God and is now struggling with his or her faith going to feel. As much as the atmosphere can be euphoric surely it has the capacity to feel the same intensity but in a negative effect, a bullying effect. The man in charge of the show’s ambience was the stage compere or Priest as they are called in Evangelical concerts.
Reverend John Macaulay was one of God’s best showmen. From the sound of his West African baritone voice (I would guess he was Nigerian or Ghanaian) he had a wide range of deep tones. Dressed in a grey striped three piece suit he belonged to the new type of 20th century Priest. The name Preacher seemed more fitting than Reverend with a large cross and swagger, not a dog collar or cape marking out his importance. Like any good showman he started slowly with a soft prayer put to a live keyboard melody as he did his best Barry White impression but by the end of his sermon he was dancing on his toes like James Brown and testifying to the lord at such a high pitch all the dogs in the area could hear.  It was an impressive performance that you would imagine many would pay to see and many people do. According to the Upper Clapton United Reform Church newsletter the last Sunday’s attendance was 149 and the offering totalled at £1,146.96, that’s just under £7.70 per person. I am fine with churches making money as long as paying is never compulsory but you would think they could have at least spent the money on some stained glass. Naturally that’s a joke and I hope the money does go to more worthy causes and not my worst fear that it funds another three piece suit for the honourable Reverend. The Reverend had such an impressive choir behind him that his histrionics seemed entirely justified, he significantly contributed to orchestrating such a euphoric atmosphere but he was merely the face to a larger plan.
Evangelicalism is great at selling itself, it may feel like a pop concert inside the church but the preparation for such drama begins in the marketing.  Outside the church a bright yellow poster laid out the themes for each service of the month, below I have listed the themes for all four Sundays of March.

March 6th Theme: Wise or foolish journey?
March 13th  Lent 1 Theme: Who are we you really?
March 20th Lent 2 Theme: Can I understand?
March 27th Lent 3 Theme: Are you talking to me?
The list of open questions could also be titles to pop songs, so prevalent and vague their meaning they can be easily acculturated like any good form of mass communication. As much as the themes relate to Lent and personal sacrifice before Pentecost they are part of a larger structure. The Upper Clapton United Reformed Church has a 2011 theme entitled “Evangelism Arise and Go.” My flatmate joked that the year before it was “Arise Evangelism and Go,” and the year before that it was “ Arise and Go Evangelism.” So uniform are the titles that their desire to speak to everyone makes them empty to cynical snobs like me and my friends. The crass nature of the church’s marketing is given more substance when attending a sermon but some of the content is more worrying than the church’s publicity campaign.
In-between the hallelujahs and praise the Lords, Reverend Macaulay delivered a sermon focusing on passages from the bible that featured the theme temptation. From the Old Testament he drew from the book of Genesis and in which the serpent tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden and from the New Testament he drew from the book of Mathew and the last temptation of Christ. Careful to sidestep biblical controversy Reverend Macaulay managed to defend the latent misogyny of Eve’s fall from grace by stating her fall was not due to her sex and that men are equal victims to the  sins of the flesh. Reverend Macaulay’s sexual politics were modern but then one of the oldest of religious hatreds reared its ugly head during in his sermon (or did it). When listing the many false idols of modern day consumerism that tempt Christians away from God he called for an attack on modern the modern media run by sorcerers, witches and “jew jew,” men. I had never heard that specific anti-Semitic term in my life but I have still got an overriding hatred of the word. Shocked at Macaulay’s casual and ancient racism I began to worry about the congregation that surrounded me, however I should have been worried about the prejudice inside of me.
Talking to my mother she asked could “jew jew,” men actually mean “ju ju,” men. The Ju Ju religion is followed by Yoruba speaking people of Nigeria, it has similarities with Santeria, Palo Mayombe, and Abaqa (found mostly in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Miami), Macumba, and Quimbanda (found   mostly in Brazil) as well sharing gods and goddesses with Voodoo. In the context of the sermon my mum’s interpretation seemed more accurate but it does not make the sentiments less offensive. Surely real Ju Ju people should equally not be persecuted but for some reason I did feel relieved that the Reverend was not anti-Semitic but was more focused on local prejudices.  I was so quick to disregard the joyful concert for appearing to have Nuremberg undertones as it reinforced my outsider superiority but really I was looking for pigeon holes to understand or reject the church’s faith. Ironic that my own prejudice led to me miss the church’s real prejudice.

 Appearances are deceptive but they are also indefinite, forever changing from your first impression. Meaning and intentions always seem to be lost within the euphoria when visiting Evangelicals. The whole experience gave me the impression of visiting a pop concert in which the crowd may sing along to the lyrics but without necessarily understanding their meaning. It seems a fitting failure of understanding that the words used for this Sunday service’s theme asked its congregation “Who Are We Really?” I am still waiting to find out.

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