Sunday, 24 April 2011

Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic Church, 27 Middleton Rd, Hackney 17.04.11

Pentecostalists know how to party, their service does not have time for spiritual reflection, quiet prayers or sermons on society's ills instead they are too busy singing and dancing enraptured at the transformative glory of God. Ever since the minister of Faith Tabernacle Church of God told me to come again and bring my friends for some "pure spiritual worship no strings attached," I have been eager to re-join the Pentecostalists for some tambourine bashing and awkward arm waving. The Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic Church on Middleton Road did not disappoint, similar in spirit but far larger in size; the service consisted of a succession of bluesy gospel hymns only interrupted by some raucous evangelical testifying at the greatness of God/ Holy Spirit / Jesus / the pastor / the choir / the congregation / anything good or bad in the world (it’s all down to God after all). The service felt like a free inclusive party (if you ignore the piles of notes that overfilled the collection plate) where any stranger could walk in and be accepted into the throng of the worship. The only problem I had with the service was my enjoyment had very little to do with God and more to do with the excellent celebratory atmosphere.
The congregation would argue that God created such a magnificent atmosphere but I have more faith in people’s ability to have fun and get along than I have in one omnipotent being. I can identify three key elements that created such a welcoming Sunday service: the church, the clothes and singing. This week we don’t have time for theological debates instead I am interested in what makes this Sunday service seriously rock.
            Atmosphere does not come from people alone but from buildings and their surroundings as well. The Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic arrived on Middleton Road in 1972 and bought the building outright in 1974, before, they were situated in a hall on Whiston Road in East Hackney. Sadly I have not yet located the history of the building; the congregation members were unclear on the faith of the church before its spiritual conversion to Pentecostalism. Unlike Anglicans, Pentecostalists are far less interested in the history of their buildings and church and instead focused on the now which was reflected within the service’s overriding desire to summon the Holy Spirit instead of spiritually reflect. Despite the castle like entrance, inside there is new varnished wood panelling, clearly Pentecostalists are not interested in restoration but more for recreating an idyllic church interior, an interior more commonly found across the Atlantic. The small wooden booths and surrounding upper tier force interaction, bunching the congregation into a crowd to help lose any inhibitions. Sandwiched between families it would be rude not to take part and I think I was accepted despite being the worst dressed man in the nave.   
Most churches would applaud a young man in a blue suit, shiny shoes, and an open top shirt with cuff links but I was still short of a tie, waistcoat, and jacket with fine embroidery to equal the Pentecostalist’s Sunday Best. The smartest of the smart were a male group who led the worship under the guidance of Pastor Elaine Douglas.  The group would sing, clap and rabble rouse in front of the congregation as the queen grandmother remained seated behind them on her wooden throne. Rarely standing for the majority of the service, she would look over her congregation with microphone in hand and occasionally add a “praise the lord,” or “hallelujah.” Pastor Douglas’s chosen men were identifiable by their elegant attire: all dressed in three piece cream suits that sparkled with sequins. In full song it was like watching a service delivered by The Temptations. I was even tempted to shout out for requests of My Girl or Ain’t Too Proud to Beg but the only words the congregation were willing to hear was “Praise the Lord,” or one of its many variations. If the men were hierarchized by who had the sparkliest suit, it was size of the hats/crowns/headdresses that ranked the women.  Pastor Douglas did not disappoint with a shiny white high bowl crown hat and larger double brim, decorated with an extravagant net bow that provided a wave like peak to one side. The hat was so large it cast a mean shadow and dwarfed the young women wearing fascinators or cloche hats. The congregations’ style took you to the classic clich├ęs of the American deep south but the congregation were from the Caribbean not North Carolina.  However the music did have similar rhythm patterns, both cultures hymns’ share a simple diatonic chord progression. It was this recognisable rhythm that really got my feet moving.
Since the beginning of my non-religious pilgrimage I have kept my faith through garnering an interest in American Gospel. Recently my music collection has been filled with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Sister Rosetta, Pastor TL Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir, The Staple Sisters, The Soul Searchers and many more. The music gives inspiration and encouragement when I struggle to find a reason to wake on a Sunday morning. Arriving at the church I was so excited by the sound of the choir booming out of the large red doors, I felt my prayers for a service of early gospel (without African rhythms) had been answered. Hackney Pentecostal church did not have the complete gospel back catalogue and the hymns could be delineated into two groups, the ballad and the ensemble. Music is always incredibly hard to describe in words, it would not have the ethereal power it holds over other art forms if it could be put into words. So I am very lucky that the Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic Church are web savvy and enjoy self-publicity, below is the video of Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic Church performing He Arose  in full swing during Convocation 2010.

The video not only touches on the infectious atmosphere generated by the congregation. You can also see how the golden uniform of the female choir (which was replicated by Pastor Douglas’s cream suited men during my visit) clearly separates them from the crowd. Notice that the serious theatrics centre on the audience at the front of the ministry, like any gig the most fanatical have pushed themselves forward. The sound is not great on the video but you can hear the cacophony of “praise the lords,” and “hallelujah,”at the end of the song which frequently abridge the majority of the hymns. In contrast to the ensemble partying is the soulful ballad, though I was not lucky enough to see Sister Lynch (featured in the video below) I did see a certain minister croon his way through a hymn reawakening the spirit of Marvin Gaye as well as raising the Holy Spirit.

The ballad did give the audience time to take a breath and rest their feet but for the majority of the service the attendees were forever standing. The service running for two hours would make you imagine that the elderly members might grow tired but the music clearly provided an adrenaline rush and a feeling of rejuvenation all in the name of the Holy Spirit. Despite my enjoyment of the service I was concerned that my lack of spiritual faith did somewhat tarnish my experience.  Church is not a club or a music venue, there is no door charge but a spiritual one and therefore I was definitely free loading.
After the exhilaration of dancing and singing in the aisles I inevitably felt isolated during some evangelical testifying. The testifying reminded me of when I had been at a dancehall gig and the DJ shouted some misogynistic line and I would automatically be deflated not having the music to drown out the offensive content of his lyrics. It might be a contrived and wild comparison but my love of gospel is similar to my love of dancehall. In both genres I do not share their ideological and cultural discourse but I can’t help but move my feet and sing and clap along to the rhythm. In retrospect after my second visit to the Pentecostal church I did worry if I was any clearer on the nuances of their faith. Researching the Pentecostal church (highly diverse and a growing faith) all groups seem to adhere to the prosperity gospel and are more often described as awaiting the arrival of the second coming and a day of judgement on all non-believers. So after my research the Pentecostalists seem a little more exclusive than they may first appear on Sundays and do share some conservative beliefs just as shocking as Dancehall culture of casual misogyny, homophobia and gun toting lyrics.  It just saddens me that the church I have grown most fond of through a shared love of gospel I can’t frequent weekly because of some spiritual differences and some omnipotent being called God.
 “Pure spiritual worship no strings attached,” I wish.

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