It's enough to make an atheist cry `Hallelujah!'

Mark Steel On Location
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN A theatrical show in which the performer asks the audience to clap and shout, it usually takes several goes to get a response, and yells of "come on, we can do better than that", while half the audience mutters "um ber ahub", painfully embarrassed. But at the London City evangelical church service in Notting Hill, everyone leaps up, sings, claps and waves furiously from the start. God, whether he exists or not, is a master of audience participation.

The second song was clearly a favourite, as everyone cheered after the opening bar, the way a Barry Manilow audience would for "Mandy". The words to this jolly, clappy sing-along came up on a screen: "The Lord reigns over us / He burns all his enemies/ And the hills melt like wax/ La la la la la."

If evangelists want to set the Bible to music, it might be more fitting as a series of heavy-metal songs. The riff from Black Sabbath's "Paranoid", for instance, springs to mind as perfect backing for the line, "People say he's vengeful because he has drowned the human race."

After three songs came a session of topical prayers. A preacher, contorting and undulating with emotion, implored the congregation to pray to the Lord to help the people of Colombia as they suffer from that earthquake. The room became filled with whoops of "amen", "oh yes", and "we pray to you Lord". Suddenly you couldn't help feeling humble. Whether or not you believe that these prayers would achieve anything, here were hundreds of people selflessly reaching inside themselves in the sincere hope that their pleading would be heard. Which has to have the edge on glancing at the news, saying "Oo, isn't it dreadful" and turning over for the snooker.

Kosovo, too, got a lengthy mention. Then Bill Clinton - "Pray, oh pray, we pray to you, Jesus, to bring peace unto that country and their President as they face difficult times." Strangely though - and a little unfairly, I thought - there was nothing for Monica.

What happens to this section of the service, I wondered, in weeks when there isn't much in the news? Does the preacher say, "We pray, oh Lord Jesus, we pray for the Undersecretary of State for Agriculture, rumoured to be facing demotion in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle"? And with their inside sources, you'd think they'd have known in advance what was coming to Glenn Hoddle.

Next came a solo from an excellent soul singer, and then the announcement: "And now for this week's offering." I can't be the only person who's been at their first evangelical service, heard this announcement and thought, "Bloody hell, they're going to carve up a goat."

It turns out to be the collection. But even this part of the service reveals something of the Pentecostal church's appeal. The money bag is handed around amidst a fiery philosophical sermon, dealing with the nature of giving and Abel's self-centred offering to God. Whereas Church of England collections involve a bald vicar asking whether you could stump up a bit extra this week, as he had to call the plumber out to fix the boiler during coffee morning.

The whole show crackles with passion. Whereas God must look at the Church of England, its groaning suburban hymns, turgid sermons and twee parish newsletters, and think "Is that it? I created the world and heaven and destroyed cities and burned my enemies, and you think you can impress with a jumble sale and a harvest bloody festival?"

Preacher Colin Dye steams through a 50-minute sermon, using jokes and impressions, not failing to include in his performance a TV camera, which beams the service across Europe. He never stumbles, and he uses no notes and no autocue. If he were to change his subject matter, the BBC would surely sack Carol Vorderman and offer him any show he liked.

Many are puzzled that so many people seem convinced by the apparently irrational arguments of evangelical Christianity. But the first part of Colin's sermon confirmed Marx's view, that religion's appeal is as the "heart in a heartless world".

Colin spoke of Saint Peter helping a beggar, adding that for Christians to win over the poor spiritually, they had to want to help them financially. True Christians always assist the poor and the sick, insisted Colin. What a contrast to around the corner where, within testifying distance of the church, lives a recently deposed Cabinet Minister, whose sermons argued that for New Labour to win over wealthy businessmen spiritually, they had to want to help them financially. Which led the minister to pour scorn and contempt upon the poor, even secretly borrowing much gold to purchase a temple.

So it could almost make an atheist believe... When lo, the very temple from which he preached did smite him down and now it's up for sale again.

After the service there was coffee and biscuits for potential converts. My first question was: "Those prayers for Colombia, wouldn't they have been more useful last week? You know, before the earthquake happened?" The woman I was asking walked off.

Then I spoke to Marie-Anne who, with great zeal and charm, tried to convert me, plucking quotes from the Bible for every occasion. Sex outside marriage was sin, because God created Eve for Adam. And all the dinosaur fossils and big bang theories in the universe wouldn't shift her from that.

It crossed my mind to try and argue that the laws of the Bible were products of their times, that rules forbidding pork, for example, weren't there because of a holy squirminess on behalf of pigs, but because it was unsafe at the time to eat it. It would be like starting a religion with the rules of today, and in 2,000 years' time people still saying, "Verily thou shall not partake of English beef on the bone, for the cow's moo is the moo of the devil..."

Instead, I asked Marie-Anne what would happen if she failed to convert me. "Phoooo," she said, nodding her head and pulling a face like a car mechanic about to tell you the whole gearbox has to come out. "Then I'm afraid it's Hell."

"What, for ever?" I asked.

"I'm afraid so," she said, sympathetically. Then she added, "You see, God might be lenient on souls who have never heard His word. But you've been here now, so for you still not to believe means you've rejected Him."

"Blimey," I said. "So now I'm in an even worse state than before." She giggled a bit and said "I'm afraid so" again. Then she prayed for me.

But does Marie-Anne really believe it? I'm not sure. Because if you did believe that, you wouldn't inform someone they were going to burn in molten damnation for all eternity by giggling and going "I'm afraid so". But if she's right, I'm going to find Saint Peter bureaucratically carrying on with his paperwork and signalling the bouncers to take me away, while I blubber, "Look, check your records. I only went to do an article for the Independent newspaper.