The preachers they can see are evangelical Christianity's equivalent of stadium rock stars. There is Rodney Howard-Browne, the pudgy South African who exerts almost magical control over the crowds who flock to see him, and whose "Toronto Blessing", a form of worship that prompts whole congregations to bark, howl and roll around on the floor laughing, has spread to hundreds of British churches. His rival, Benny Hinn, diminutive and unprepossessing in white suit and slicked back hair, has only to throw his arm out for devotees to collapse around him like ninepins, and claims to heal people through the medium of television. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, proponents of what is called "prosperity theology", deliver homilies from their kitchen table on how to come closer to God and grow rich at the same time; one senior British theologian has condemned their strikingly materialistic interpretation of God's mercy as heretical. And there is the grand-daddy of them all, Morris Cerullo, who on his mission to London last year appalled many British people of every religious persuasion, including evangelists, both by his wild claims to be able to heal the sick and by his outrageous fundraising drives. (In one such campaign, he promised that for every pounds 10 sent to assist the conversion of the Jews in Israel, a family member would be saved from hell.)
American television audiences have been subjected to such hysterical blandishments for years. But in Britain, religious television still means the sober proprieties of Songs of Praise. The established churches are bitterly opposed to the opening up of Britain to an influx of televangelism, and, as a pre-emptive strike against it, had planned to launch in the spring of next year a cable channel, Ark2. Backed by the Church of England, the Catholics, the Methodists and other denominations, it will present the safe, responsible, balanced face of mainstream British Christianity.
Now their plans have been spoiled. Two young charismatic Christians have come out of nowhere and accomplished the thing the churches dreaded most. They have enabled the televangelists to get a foot inside British television's door.
Their names are Rory and Wendy Alec, born-again Christians who arrived in the UK from South Africa four years ago. Their baby is Christian Channel Europe (CCE), and it arrives on British screens by courtesy of Astra, the television satellite company. It is the first dedicated Christian channel to cover the continent of Europe, and has beaten Ark2 to the punch by several months. The Alecs are charming, but even before transmission began they had incurred the wrath of the religious establishment. The sweetly reasonable Ernest Rea, head of religious broadcasting at the BBC, though quick to acknowledge the rising influence of charismatics on the established church, said, "It's a very unwelcome development. British evangelists" - presumably he means those within the mainstream - "have very clearly decided not to repeat the US televangelist experience - not to exploit the vulnerability of viewers, not to proselytise overtly. If this lesson hasn't been learnt by this organisation [CCE], it's a very unwelcome sign." Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Wakefield and the chairman of the Church of England's Communications Committee, pointed out in a terse faxed comment which contrived to avoid mentioning the new channel's name that Ark2 (with which he is closely associated) "has set its face against American-style TV evangelism and is opposed to the manipulation and mass hysteria often associated with that approach. Hyped-up claims to heal the incurably ill and to bring financial prosperity are far removed from the authentic Christian message..." Such rebukes do not faze the Alecs. "We are going to put on the men of God and women of God that God has called us to," Wendy declares. "We must be obedient, and we know we will get persecuted. Jesus was persecuted," she adds.
"Who was Jesus persecuted by, Peter?" Rory Alec demands.
Wendy: "The pharisees and the sadducees!"
Rory: "The religious of the day!"
Wendy: "He wasn't persecuted by the ordinary people! They loved him! If someone is desperately ill and they watch Benny [Hinn] on television, and because of the anointing that comes through they're healed - that makes everything worthwhile. Everything worthwhile."
WHEN I meet them, Rory and Wendy have less than two weeks to go before the launch of their channel, the biggest event in their lives so far. The office space they have rented in television studios outside Maidstone in Kent is still almost bare: just two or three staff dot the large room. There are no corporate logos on the wall, no expensively bronzed receptionists, no studio even - just a rented editing suite, a stack of videos, and about pounds 140,000 in escrow accounts in Luxembourg to get the thing rolling.
Yet though they walk through the valley of the shadow of panic, Rory and Wendy fear no evil: they bubble with confidence and missionary zeal. They have come a long way, but their eyes gleam with the certainty that the journey has only just begun.
They remind you of the double acts that advertise in the back pages of the Stage: they might be a country and western duo, or a slightly unconventional conjuror and his assistant. They catch you in the beam of their warm and tender eyes and hold you fiercely, in the way of showbiz people who have not quite made it yet. They are all teeth and smiles. Rory is 30 going on 15, bouncy and puppy-like in sweatshirt and 501 Levi's, so that when his gaze turns righteous and he begins quoting Ezekiel or Revelation it's a bit of a shock. Wendy is a little older, petite, dark (her father is Jewish), and with her back-combed black hair falling over her shoulders she still looks like the night-club singer she tried hard to become years ago back in Durban.
They have been together for 10 years, ever since meeting on stage at a charismatic meeting in a small town in South Africa. Now, with the innocence of sincere missionaries, they have landed in Britain, envoys of an evangelistic tradition that, in South Africa as well as the United States, has been sweeping all before it. South Africa in the Eighties was the ideal environment for a movement like charismatic Christianity to take root: a country so anxious about its split identity and fearful about the future that many people were desperate for something to believe in. Starting from small independent churches, South Africa's religious revival has grown so fast and so far that it has touched every denomination in the country. Young, gifted and fanatical, the Alecs are its perfect exemplars.
"We just believed ever since we met that we were called to media for God," Wendy explains. Educated in a convent school, Wendy was racked by the rebellious urges that afflict convent girls everywhere, but equally felt tugged by God. "I'd been to all the Billy Graham Crusades when he'd been in Durban, and I'd gone forward at the altar call every time, but the next day it wasn't there for me." One day, in the midst of the phase in which she was, she says, "living in clubs", with a personal life that was "pretty erratic", she went to the ladies in the place where she was singing, and saw Jesus in the mirror, his eyes full of tears. "I just got caught," she says, "and I went to a meeting at a big church in Durban and went up to the front and re-dedicated my life."
Rory, raised a Catholic in the platinum mining town of Rustenburg, also had a born-again experience, in his late teens. Then, in 1985, Wendy was on tour with a multiracial music group, "ministering all round the country, singing in churches and city halls in front of thousands." One day they rolled into Rustenburg, played a set which Rory accompanied on keyboards - "She liked my music," he says - and the two of them never looked back. Two years later they were married.
With their music and their faith, they were a natural fit, but the path that led from the stage in Rustenburg to the television studios in Kent has been a tortuous one, with numerous disappointments and false turns. For, while their evangelical motivation is strong, it is not the only thing that drives them. Not only do they yearn for God, they yearn also for showbiz success.
This double longing makes them gleam with ambition, but it gives them a touching diffidence, too. Harping on the Gospel and the prophets, they can be as tiresome as anyone you might find on the doorstep. But then they recite the litany of their flops and follies, and it is almost as if I am hearing their confession.
Their first big idea was a rock opera. "Music was the beginning, the cornerstone," Rory says. "We spent a lot of energy writing a rock opera, and we were going to open in the West End..." Wendy chimes in: "We found producers for it who sent us to London to watch rock operas, to get some experience..." But it was not to be.
"What happened was, the producers got greedy," says Rory.
"We were naive little artists then - a thing you grow out of," Wendy says. "We really believe God dipped us in the glitz of the industry for a bit, then said, 'OK guys, now you've got to learn to walk, get trained up, I've got other things for you to do, and if you don't get trained up, you blow out, 'cause you don't know how to handle anything.' And that's really true."
The bid for glory temporarily shelved, they threw themselves into advertising: she wrote copy, he wrote jingles and produced commercials, BMW, Colgate, the new South African police. After work they went to pentecostal bible school - but when their fellow-worshippers suggested they get involved in the bible school's arts group, which was making religious television programmes, they were sniffy. "We were never interested in religious television," says Rory.
"Ever, ever," echoes Wendy. "We thought Christian television was the pits. Our heart was more to give a gospel message in a now, extremely contemporary way to people who wouldn't even go into a church."
The way they planned to do this was cosmically ambitious: "We had high aspirations to do grade A Hollywood film productions for God," says Rory. Once again they boarded the plane for London, this time with pounds 750, a bag full of godly film scripts and a three-week-old baby. They settled down in a one-bedroomed flat in Thames Ditton, but the scripts went nowhere, and they found themselves in for another bout of disillusionment.
The Alecs went to church - the church in Esher run by Gerald Coates, one of the leading figures in Britain's charismatic movement - and once again the subject of Christian television cropped up. This time they paid attention. "God turned us around," says Wendy. "He said, listen guys, you're putting the first last and the last first. Change your project."
"At the church they had begun to develop a television department," says Rory. "I said to them, 'Guys, there's no point in you making TV programmes if there's nowhere to put it out. So I started investigating outlets in the UK and Europe. And there weren't any: nothing in terrestrial or satellite, pockets on cable, the local channels - and that was it! And while I was going through this process, this still, small voice said, I want you to launch Christian television into Europe. I said, that's not God, that's me: you have to confirm this beyond reasonable doubt."
Right on time, a prophet appeared: a guest preacher who had never met them and knew nothing about them, and who suddenly interrupted his sermon to give them an urgent message.
"We were in church, right at the side," says Wendy, "when the prophet said, 'There are people in this place who are going to raise a television network as never before.' And then he started to go back to his sermon, but he couldn't, and he said, 'Those involved in television stand up', and we stood up, and he turned straight to us and he started prophesying over us, saying God had brought us to Europe and that we would have influence over Europe and Russia... It was profound."
Armed with prophetic confirmation, the Alecs did the rounds of the cable operators. "They all said, yes, it's wonderful, but none of them would actually sign the letters of intent," Wendy recalls. "We just talked to the Lord and said, Father, you confirmed us..."
"What's happening? Give us directions! And he said - Astra!"
"We thought, oh no! Astra? Everybody said it was impossible..."
"So then we got a second mortgage, raised pounds 9,500, bought Satellite Times, went through all the leaseholders looking for space, telephoned each leaseholder throughout Europe - and Sky came back and said, 'We'll talk to you.' "
WENDY and Rory were two young nobodies from South Africa, with no connection to the established churches, little money and no experience in launching or even working for a television channel. All they had was faith, and an overwhelming hunger to succeed. Why had Sky decided to talk to them?
Religious broadcasting has for years been the most stagnant pond in British television, sadly husbanding its paltry God-slots, striving to pep them up without losing sight of the religious message altogether, resented by the terrestrial companies on account of their lowly ratings. Ark2, which will be transmitted 12 hours a day, seven days a week on cable, is being touted as significantly livelier: it remains to be seen whether this will be the case. But, in the meantime, the American televangelists have perfected a downmarket approach that can garner enormous audiences. And the grace of God - or possibly the mischievous whim of Rupert Murdoch - has ensured that in Europe Rory and Wendy Alec are to have the first bite of the cherry.
The agreement with Sky gave the Alecs two hours per day for October - from 5.55am to 7.55am - and three hours per day from November onwards, though at the even less social hours of 4am to 7am. They are starting CCE on one of the shortest shoestrings in the history of television. This is possible because, at least at the outset, all the programming will be prepackaged, and most of it American, a mix of preaching ministries, Christian music from gospel to hip-hop via hard rock, and children's cartoons. And much of this material will not cost them a penny; on the contrary, the Alecs will be paid for transmitting it. So keen are America's televangelists to spread the word in Europe that they will pay CCE for the privilege, and by this means will make a major contribution to keeping the channel afloat. How much they will pay has not been divulged, but, clearly, they view this as a reasonable price to pay for daily access to the 20 million dish owners within Astra's European footprint.
The Alecs are not in the least shamefaced about appearing in this way to be the tools of Morris Cerullo and the rest. Together we watched clips from some of the videos that they will be broadcasting, and though they must have seen them numerous times before, Rory and Wendy sat wide-eyed and rapt throughout.
At Birmingham Conference Centre, for instance, Barry Hinn confronted a youth who had felt impelled to join him on stage.
"What do you feel, young man?"
"I've got a tinglin' in me 'ands!"
"That's the power of the Holy Ghost!" Hinn bellowed, then threw out his arm like a pocket Mussolini, and the youth collapsed on the stage like a block of wood.
Rodney Howard-Browne, a South African preacher with the look of a particularly intimidating prop forward in a double-breasted suit, spoke to us from his church in Louisville, Kentucky. "One minute with God will change you for eternity," he declared, then presented for our examination a formerly sceptical pastor who stood tongue-tied, struck dumb, "slain in the spirit" as the jargon has it, for five or 10 minutes while the vast congregation rocked with holy laughter.
Cut to the cosy kitchen of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, where, in front of the wood-burning stove and a rack of wooden spoons, Kenneth talked in downright fashion about debt and prosperity and how to get from one to the other by means of God's word, "a blood-sworn oath from God."
Such stuff is not going to help an Anglican rector's Corn Flakes go down, but there is little doubt it will find an audience. Keith Ewing, spokesman of the Evangelical Alliance, disapproves of Morris Cerullo's latest antics and admits that some Britain evangelicals believe Rodney Howard-Browne to be satanically inspired. But he points out that evangelical Christianity is seeing explosive growth. "In the Forties and Fifties, only seven to 10 per cent of ordinands into the Church of England were evangelical," he says. "Now the figure is 56 per cent... Things like the Toronto Blessing have now affected more than 200 churches in Britain. It shows no sign of fizzling out."
Evidence of Britain's nascent charismatic revival is to be found on all sides: in the 5,000-strong congregations that pack into Sunday services at Kensington Temple; in the charismatic movement centred on Holy Trinity, Brompton; even in Chris Brain's "Nine o'clock services" in Sheffield. Ian Cotton, author of a recent book on the rise of the new Christians entitled The Hallelujah Revolution, confirms this impression. "According to American research, at the beginning of the century, less than one per cent of the Christian community would have been of this type. But now it's 25 per cent of the world Christian community, and heading towards 30 per cent around the year 2000."
Rory and Wendy Alec are sure that they are the pioneers in Europe of a full-blown charismatic revival, and you sense the impatience of missionaries hacking their way through a particularly recalcitrant part of the bush. "In South Africa people are born again in the Catholic Church, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal, everywhere. Revival has hit that country, and everyone's for it or against it. It's the same in the States. It's not hit Europe yet: this is the beginning, it's just starting."
Why, I wondered, was it happening so much later in Europe?
Rory gave a strange, short laugh. Wendy took a deep breath, and with the air of someone long-sufferingly instructing a child, said, "Because it's the last move of God, and the last days. I believe God has his eye on Europe for the last move of God, the last outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the New Testament, it is continually announcing that Christ will return. No one knows when. But there are seasons that you can watch for - rumours of war, nations fighting with nations - Israel becoming a nation. And the European Community is extremely important, though don't quote us on this."
"You mean," I said, "that the European Union is another sign of the last days?"
"Oh it sure is, right."
Rory says, "The 10 nations, yeah."
I point out, "It's more than 10 already."
Wendy says, "Two will drop away, and when it's 10 and has been 10 for a while, then..."
Rory: "...We're very close."
And here we get to the nub. For although they are a little coy about spelling it out, the real reason the Alecs are happy to be in Europe is because this is where the prophecy of "the last days" spelled out in Revelation is shortly to be realised; and they believe that God has a special role for them to play in it.
Earlier, they had told me about the film project they brought to London with high hopes of eventual Hollywood production four years ago. As it happened, it was on precisely the same theme. "It's a thriller, a prophetic thriller, a sort of Die Hard based on what we believe," Wendy had said. "Jeremy Irons, someone like that, being the anti-Christ in the European Union, and a journalist, the Tommy Lee Jones character, unveiling it... There is going to be a confederacy of 10 nations in the last days out of the European Mediterranean area, and out of that comes the anti-Christ, and there will be a unified monetary system..."
Rory butted in: "This is in Daniel, in Revelation, in Ezekiel - basically a confirmation of many different areas of prophecy in the Bible." And then he changed the subject.
The arrival of Christian Channel Europe, then, is, as the Alecs see it, both a portent of "the last days", and, because it will win more adherents to the cause, one of the events that will help to precipitate them. No one could accuse them of being short of ambition. Cecil B de Mille was content merely to make a film of The Ten Commandments. Rory and Wendy want not only to make the film of Armageddon, but also to help bring it about. !