Does having God in your life make you a better singer? Let me rephrase that for all fellow agnostic readers! Do the best singers believe in a God or some form of higher power? Now the logical atheist answer is no. Where is the scientific fact that a belief can improve your vocal range? However I would argue that if you went across the many different cultures of the world and asked a wide range of societies to name their best singers, the majority of singers named would have some form of faith or spiritualist background. I have no research to back up such a sweeping statement; however in Western Society I can’t think of many great classical/gospel/opera singers who did not have some form of religious influence in their singing. For the record I don’t class punk, rock or pop as great singing. Only folk and jazz singers appear to have a vocal range on the level of classical, gospel and opera. Similarly when I think of the traditional non Western singers I think of tribal chanting and prayer calling which are all linked to a belief in a high power. I am not claiming that every religious person is a better singer than a non-believer but I am merely stating that great singers have a certain level of spiritualism. Not religion but spirituality. After this week in which I visited The New Testament Church of God Clapton, nestled in the corner of Hackney Downs I can say for certain that evangelists are far better singers than Catholics or Anglicans.
As the wondrous voices of two girls singing a duet filled the gian,t grand wood panelled nave you could feel a communal elevation come across the congregation. Their voices merely confirmed my past experience that Evangelists understand singing in ways Catholics and Anglicans have never dreamed of. Evangelists are less confined by set rituals and empowered by a firm belief to proclaim the word of God : it’s this informal manner that blesses their singing performances. Evangelists are all about showing their faith off in the form of loud prayers, even louder testifying and boisterous singing. The formal harmony of other churches is overshadowed by the Evangelical churches greater emphasis on rhythm with less formality in the song. Evangelists more modern gospel sound stems from a belief that to be more contemporary and to bring God into the here now instead of linking him to traditions and rituals. Attempting to sing about God with a more modern musical arrangement can sound disastrous (Cliff Richard!) but it also opens the door for great voices to flourish, not restricted by rigid harmonies, the good singer’s personality can pour out. I am not naive that classical music is hugely inspired by Christianity and that Mass and Requiems were written for the Catholic and Anglican church but such music does not reside in the East End and they are not representative of the common church worshipper. When the two girls started to sing, the shock at the sound of the sincerity of their voices blew me away. As the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention I looked across the nave to see members of the congregation weep with joy. The pure level of emotion, or spiritualism as my hosts would call it, comes from the Evangelical roots of Christianity and away from more rigid religious institutions.
Researching evangelical churches is difficult as they are not interested in their own church’s past but instead focus on the here and now and its relation to The Bible. Arguably Baptists, Methodists and the Sally Army are evangelical churches who have set traditions but those traditions are not essential to a definitive form of worship like the Eucharist is for Anglicans and Catholics. Yet Baptist, Methodists and the Sally Army do have a desire to appear modern and to spread God’s word which they share with the newer evangelical churches. The majority of new evangelical churches in the East End are Pentecostal not that they like to be seen as one large movement. The New Testament Church service never mentioned following a Pentecostal movement but neither did Christ Apostolic Church or Sight of Eternal Life Church, who both I later learned like The New Testament Church are part of a large Pentecostal organisation. The reason the churches do not want to associate themselves with other Pentecostal Churches by name is they desire to be viewed as new, modern, free and the true church of God. Evangelical churches, lack of historical records could be interpreted as an unconscious decision to remain forever young in their perspective and worship and not jaded by its own history. In a Pentecostalist’s eyes the only valid historical document is The Bible and in general they are not interested in praising their churches past glories but concentrating on preparing for the return of God (in heaven or Earth). So when I embarked on finding the origins of The New Testament Church I was not surprised to find that the website offered little information on the church’s history but plenty on their interpretation of The Bible. I was saddened that I could not find from the website or from the few congregation members I talked to, a history for this medieval styled church building (I did not need to research to realise it did not date back to the dark ages). The church’s interior décor did reveal the organisation’s American roots with a large Southern Chapel fittings but I would have liked to know more. The only piece of information I could find on the history of the church in the UK came from the website bio of Dr Oliver Lyseight and his work to help found The New Testament Church in the UK. Interestingly the American church was adopted by recent West Indian migrants in the second half of the 20th century not for religious differences but for racial ones.
Despite Evangelists belief in the now, the great singing of The New Testament Church of God comes from a certain cultural tradition. The majority of congregations I visit each week are predominantly black but while the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Baptist are more racially mixed, the Pentecostalists are 99% West Indian or West African. The reason is that so many black migrants who arrived in Post-World War Two Britain were rejected by the more established churches and black Christians looked to American organisations to help preach the gospel. Dr Oliver Lyseight arrived in the United Kingdom in 1953 and was instrumental in setting up The New Testament Church in the UK .After the racism he and others had received when trying to attend church he led the founding of a British branch of The New Testament Church. Already established in America and Jamaica The New Testament Church helped promote a loud and proud Christian form of worship for its predominantly black oppressed congregation. The history of racial opposition and cultural persecution of the congregation can only have provided motivation in the singing of the gospel; a tradition that I feel was still present last Sunday and a tradition that has little to do with Holy Scripture and everything to do with social history.
Anticipation filled the church like any good concert but outside the divine duet the star of the show was naturally the Reverend, Pastor Brian Robinson. To state that Pastor Brian Robinson stood out from the crowd was an understatement, in a sea of black congregational members he was whiter than white. His hair and eye brows glinted in the sunshine pouring in from the church’s long arched windows so that you would have to wear sunglasses to recognise the features on his face. As the crowd raised The Holy Spirit, Brian Robinson oversaw the proceedings sitting on a leather arm chair more like a rural English granddad than an inner city Pentecostal pastor. Further into the service Brian Robinson proved his preaching was worthy of his congregation with one of the longest sermons I have ever heard. Robinson was a vintage performer, he had all the theatrical gasps, he could raise his voice to sound gruff, had self-deprecating jokes about his inadequacy as a husband, rants that drew no breath, and the most bizarre accent. Brian Robinson did not sound like a white Caribbean, his voice seemed too mannered and English with a hint of a Lancashire accent but when occasionally preaching he launched into a contrived elderly Caribbean accent. It was not patronising but highly effective in getting a laugh of acknowledgment from his crowd. Pastor Robinson was either a white Caribbean who sounded very English and had spent his life in England or was an English man who spent a lot of his life with Caribbean people. It was not only Pastor Robinson’s voice that intrigued me but the words that came from his mouth especially in regards to The Holy Spirit.
For evangelists it’s essential to raise the Holy Spirit through singing just as Communion is integral to Catholic and Anglican Sundays. Pastor Robinson recognised the importance of the singing but he also felt it essential to outline the other facets of the Holy Spirit as he declared “The Holy Spirit did not just come to speak in tongues.” Pastor Robinson drew from the book of John, chapter 15, verse 5, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” The parable was used by Pastor Robinson to outline how Jesus, God and The Holy Spirit are extensions of each other. Attacking what he called “people who believe in God for spiritual insurance” he asked the congregation to recognise that The Holy Spirit lives in all of them not just inside the church. Pastor Robinson felt the congregation needed to reflect The Holy Spirit not just in church but outside during troubled times, he claimed like parable of the vine “we must be extensions of God. If you upset me you meet Jesus.” A plea for tolerance and acceptance within the church should always be commended but I did think the facets that Pastor Robinson outlined as the true fruits of the Holy Spirit are actually at odds with the attributes of raising The Holy Spirit. A blanket response to the troubles of the world in the guise of what Jesus would do breeds conformity but the raising of the Holy Spirit through singing is a communal act that also celebrates the individual’s voice. Music and singing is the rare form of expression that demonstrates how an individual voice can form a communal partnership with others to create a unifying state of grace that needs no dogma. Music is ethereal and a far more spiritual expression than replicating the egocentric dogma of another even if that another is Jesus. I don’t disagree with Pastor Brian Robinson that treating others as Jesus would is not an essential facet of Christianity however the reason the congregation come to church week in and week out is not to practice being Jesus but to celebrate The Holy Spirit.
Singing is not a form of sacrifice and therefore it importance seems to be disregarded by more intellectual sides of Christianity. Members of The New Testament Church cannot disregard singing because it’s infectious even to a non-believer like me; it may lack the self-reflection but understands the emotional importance of being together and brings the congregation closer to a sense of grace than any form of morality. What has Christianity given us? Great architecture, classical art and the foundation of Western moral philosophy are the staple answers, or alternatively Christianity gave us spiritual vocies of Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Juinor Murvin, Staple Sisters, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Ottis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Cliff, The Gladiators, Abyssinans, The Heptones, Burining Spear (but I will say againthis is all about personal taste).