The Broader Picture: Deliverance on the day-trip

ONE SUNDAY every summer, a hundred or so Londoners of African origin gather outside a church in Islington; a few arrive with picnic hampers and ice-boxes, while othersmatter-of-factly carry heavy brass crucifixes, enormous handbells, or tom-tom drums. Most are dressed in gleaming white robes.

They're members of the Cherubim and Seraphim Holy Temple Church of Christ, and they're making their annual pilgrimage to Margate. Now, it's easy to be suspicious of a church that in the past frequented Brighton and Southend, and has settled on Margate because of the softness of the sands, but the visit has a two-fold religious significance. Members of the church believe that beaches are spiritually significant - Jesus having preached on the shores of Galilee - and they favour full-immersion sea baptisms.

Last Sunday, three coaches departed, and within half an hour they were filled with the joyful sound of gospel singing, stuck in a traffic jam on the A2. At the front of the first coach sat the leader of the church - a harassed-looking man known as either the Prophet Alabi or The Reverend SB Alabi. He founded the church on coming to Britain from Nigeria in 1985.

The Cherubim and Seraphim Holy Temple Church of Christ is one of dozens of churches in Britain under the umbrella of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, which has its headquarters in Nigeria and was founded there in 1916 by St Moses Orimolade Tunlase. The Reverend Alabi explained the robes by referring me to the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7. Here is mention of 'people of all nations . . . kindreds and tongues', wearing robes, which made them 'white in the blood of the lamb'. The robes are worn with coloured sashes denoting the different 'bands' into which the church is divided.

The Reverend Alabi's church meets in a hall in Islington, and has been a great success - it now has a congregation of more than 200. According to the Reverend, the reason for this is simple. 'Only God can revive us; without knowledge of God we can't make it.' He paused thoughtfully before adding: 'And we have music.'

The arrival at Margate beach was dramatic. Sunbathers all around moved towards the Prophet and his flock; children even stopped bouncing on the Bouncy Castle. A small shrine was created of candles, water bottles (which would later be blessed) and a crucifix. Then two hours of prayers, singing, dancing and lesson-reading got underway - all conducted in either English or the Nigerian language Yoruba, and with the big wheel turning in the background.

Comments from dazed onlookers were overwhelmingly approving, but a sunbathing vicar from Battersea took a coolly professional attitude: 'What's this then? Baptisms? Better watch out - sea's full of condoms.'

After the service, Reverend Alabi asked those who required baptising to follow him, and he walked towards the sea. Fully berobed, he and two assistants waded out to waist height, and an orderly queue formed in front of them in the water. The baptisms were accompanied by much whooping and giggling, although the three baptisers looked rather intimidating as one tolled a bell and another balefully shouted 'Next]'. Particularly nervous church-entrants received an encouraging smattering of applause after each of the three duckings (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). One young woman, half stumbling, half frolicking back to the shore, shouted 'Man, that water is so salty]' The vicar from Battersea looked on. 'It's very un-Church of England,' he mused, water lapping at his shoulders.

The baptisms were followed by a beach lunch of orangeade, dried fish and rice, during which the Reverend Alabi expressed mixed feelings about Britain. On the one hand, he thinks too many people 'get courage here by going to the pub'. On the other hand, he admires this country for having sent missionaries to Africa ('They did a great job.').

After lunch, the plates were cleared away and, with the sun still high in the sky, and long before the Reverend Alabi's trousers could dry, it was back on the bus and home.

(Photograph omitted)

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