Getting into the spirit

While traditional churches face dwindling congregations, Britain's black-led Christian worship is flourishing. Roy Kerridge found out why
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The Independent Culture
to be possessed, or "filled", by the Holy Spirit is the final proof of God's grace. In Bishop Noel's Mount Zion and in the Celestial Church of Christ possession comes easily, at every service. Not only the Comforter Himself but angel powers of other kinds may descend. But in the Church of God, as in all Pentecostal Churches, for all the races of mankind, the Comforter, Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit descends occasionally, conferring a great blessing, even on those who do not fully feel His Power. Some attend church for a lifetime and are never "filled", only "sanctified", the first sign of the Holy Spirit's presence in a person...

Nowadays, the first sign of sanctification is often identified as a convulsive jerking of the backbone. Complete Holy Ghost possession manifests itself by "tongues" and holy dancing, leaping, running or shaking on the spot. Such is "extreme possession" - for others the Comforter arrives and comforts quietly.

As He spreads His way from person to person, until the church is in an uproar, the Comforter is greeted with joy. Sometimes He appears at the climax of an emotional Message, forcing the preacher to run from the pulpit and leap into the air. At other times, He appears when a driving, searing song coaxes His presence, first noticed when screams ring out among the congregation...

One night, not long ago, Brother Clarendon was playing the drums, young, fervent Florence Spring played the keyboard, and the rest of us sang a song from the hymn book...

At this moment, there was a scream, and elderly Sister Hamilton cried "Oh Glory! Glory!"... Singer after singer succumbed to the Spirit, and shouted aloud in tongues, ran on the spot, shook, juddered stiffly or wheeled around with angel-wing-arms outspread...

"It was like a rushing wind!" Pastor Spring breathlessly remarked afterwards. For twenty minutes, Holy Ghost pandemonium reigned, a misty, tragedy-laden phenomenon, where through a fog I could vaguely see Sister Spring... fervent-eyed, tapping on a tambourine and chanting...

Finally the Comforter left for His home Above and things slowly returned to normal...

Who is the Comforter? Is He the Holy Ghost, or an outbreak of mass hysteria, or both? Scholars often point to the similarity of Holy Ghost possession with the "possession by spirits of the ancestors" that is a feature of most African religions. Those of African descent certainly find it easy to experience Holy Ghost possession. Are invisible ancestors present when the Holy Ghost descends? My friend Evangelist Steadman, once a pupil of Bishop Noel, claims that when she speaks in tongues, West Africans can understand her. She implies that she is speaking in the forgotten language of her forefathers. It would be interesting to learn whether or not the oft- repeated Comforter phrase "Shula Mamai" occurs in a West African language. Although I feel the presence of Another when tongues are spoken, one could just as well say that when Africans think they are possessed by their ancestors, they are really being possessed by the Holy Spirit.

Holy Ghost possession was noted by Wesley, and has occurred in England long before the arrival of West Indian and African immigrants. Charles Dickens mentions an English "jump up" church in Dombey and Son.

"...The admonitions of the Reverend Melchisedech had produced so powerful an effect that, in their rapturous performance of a sacred jig... the whole flock broke through into the kitchen below and disabled a mangle belonging to one of the fold."

All religious belief assumes the existence of a spiritual realm invisible to most mortals. Does the Comforter come from within or does He enter from outside? The same question could be asked of Good and Evil...

Such problems appear never to perplex Pastor Spring, for every month he fills in a printed form, to send to his bishop (or "overseer"): "New members. Saved, 4. Sanctified, 3. Filled with Holy Spirit, 2." Then he signs it and posts it on its way.

Taken from `The Storm is Passing Over: A Look at Black Churches in Britain' by Roy Kerridge with photographs by Homer Sykes, published by Thames and Hudson (£12.95)

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