Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Open Door Baptist Church, Downs Road, 19.06.11

I have a theory that if you believe in God you’re more likely to support a football team, have political affiliations, and vote on X factor. My theory is that these commitments indicate you’re interested in contributing to a larger state of consciousness; you want to be part of mass culture. Obviously some Christians are not interested in such false idols but I would argue that the majority of Christians want to celebrate similarities and create an inclusive community. The desire to belong, to be part of a larger sense of community has led Christianity to adopt non-religious celebrations and adapt them for Sunday worship. This Sunday The Open Doors Baptist Church allowed the sectarian celebrations of Father’s Day into their service to be Christianised. The congregation celebrated with such passion a more passive thinker like me had to run home and check that Father’s Day did not have any biblical foundation.
Quick internet research (Wikipedia) told me that Father’s Day is an American creation that did not become a permanent national holiday in the States till Richard Nixon signed a proclamation in 1972. The history of the creation of Father’s Day includes various people and events from the plans to commemorate the death of 210 fathers in the Monogah Mining disaster in West Virginia at the turn of the century to the independent rural celebrations of the patriarch in Spokrane, Washington; however there is no evidence that Father’s Day has any religious heritage. Unlike America’s history which provided some historical context to Father’s Day, such celebrations in the UK have no history and therefore (in theory) should have no future. Father’s Day, as I had feared, was a product of global marketing that projected superficial values and material celebrations onto our society that could only be best described in a gift card. But to The Open Doors Baptist Church Father’s Day provided the opportunity to inject some Christian substance into the self-promoting commercial holiday.
Besides our heavenly father, who was alluded to in the projected text that accompanied all the church hymns, who was mentioned at the end of every prayer and whose name decorated the church nave. Besides our father of all fathers, Pastor Ghann (a big bear of a man but with a very soft voice) wanted to focus on the men of the congregation’s role as spiritual leaders.  The majority of the congregation appeared to be first and second generation Ghanaians with a few West Indians, a single white lady and a very cross looking Asian man. The undercurrent to the very jubilant celebrations was that men could do a lot better; Pastor told the predominantly black male group that our children were suffering. Clichés with the support of statistics have often portrayed black men as absent fathers and the pastor was eager to counter these stereotypes with a display of black male pride in the form of an all-male choir. The male choir was made up of strictly fathers but there were too few, so the Pastor invited all the fathers in the congregation, again the numbers were too small and so all the men were eventually invited (including the kids and myself). What followed was a well-intentioned badly executed rendition of a hymn I have never heard (and don’t believe the majority of the singers had) which displayed an image of male solidarity but also indicated a lack of thought, planning and commitment (the very criticism the Pastor had made in regards to common attitudes to fatherhood). The shambolic but celebratory performance contained all the positive sentiments and lack of depth of Father’s Day.
The reason behind my cynicism of adopting Father’s Day as a template for the service was the unintentional negative effect it had upon the congregation. The sermon lacked Bible passages and replaced them with personal accounts of the ills of male youth delinquency which was attributed to a lack of a father. As Pastor Ghann listed several horror stories of male youth misdirection from other congregations he had visited he intentionally celebrated the role of the father but unintentionally undermined the role of the single mother. Pastor Ghann stated that without a father figure the youth was lost and that despite the best efforts of the mother the youth needed “male spiritual leadership.” Pastor Ghann and listed their admirable charitable work with the youth and it became clear that they were self-appointed surrogate fathers to the spiritually orphaned. Not that Pastor Ghann’s spiritual leadership was restricted to the local congregation or even restricted to London or the UK. The Pastor’s reach was international as use the sermon to raise his concern about the lack of bibles in countries he had visited: Philippines and Zambia. Ironic that the raising of money for these two international Baptist ghettos by Ghann mirrored the work of their colonial fathers.
Academics have spent years debating the main contributing factors behind colonialism: did it come into existence by pure economic expansion or born out of desire to spread religious control. Obviously the two factors are bound by culture and history and one clearly could not ignore the other. But I would argue that slavery would never have survived as long as it did if Christianity had not created a paternalistic attitude among the oppressors towards their slaves. My lack of Christian belief and love of history did create a smug smile as members of the congregation stood to donate to the Bible plight of the Philippines. A Bible costs £2.50 in the Philippines and members were asked to donate enough for four Bibles (£10) or eight (£20). The charitable exhibition appeared strategically devised to reward those rich enough to give and humiliate those unable to provide, highlighted by Pastor Ghann separating the two donating groups (a needless exercise). Maybe I am cruel to criticise such acts of altruism but I was raised that money should never be given and taken too easily and knew that my father would never have approved. My distrust of these spiritual fathers was typically a product of my lack of faith that had become apparent earlier in the service.
After the sermon the congregation had gathered to share testimonies, one elderly female member declared that earlier during the children’s parade of thanks for their fathers she had seen Jesus appear and fire a white light into the entire congregation. Now clearly no one else experienced this revelation but everyone applauded with the exception of my cynical self. The congregation clearly saw the elderly lady’s experience as a genuine supernatural encounter that was exclusively hers. I am all for people having religious visions but not when I am in the room. By having a religious vision in you presence you feel spiritually inadequate. As a non-witness I was pissed off and jealous, unlike the faithful congregation.  Further testimonies left me equally unimpressed as more Holy visions took place in the most everyday surroundings and spooky coincidences became divine interventions. My personal favourite was a testimony by Pastor Ghann in which he claimed that a broken brake in his car that had almost caused him to crash was actually caused by the devil but he was so glad of this as it demonstrated that the devil wanted him dead and therefore God must have something really important planned for him. I do not doubt the man’s sincerity and honesty but I would not trust him to spend my money wisely.
I don’t see a supernatural world, I can’t give money to a need I can’t see or don’t know, and I don’t feel the need for spiritual fatherly guidance. Similarly I don’t celebrate father’s day, I am scared of affiliating myself with a political party and I don’t watch the X factor. I would say I don’t feel the need to belong to a mass culture and that I am scared it would reduce my individual identity but actually I do love Arsenal football club. And more importantly I love football to my father’s disgust.  We all individually decide the beliefs we care to share and celebrate but to try to compress something as vast and complex as the Bible into the thin and incidental concept of Father’s Day is to warp and distort the former and ingratiate and indulge the latter.

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