`And then came the writhing, the touching of bodies, the music'

Esther Oxford relates her experience of the Sunday service at St Thomas's
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The Independent Online
It looked like a homely little church: cute stone walls, small, intimate. Walk into the entrance hall and there was the air of a clinic waiting room: plush, full of leaflets, anonymous. But walk a bit further and the scene changed.

It was like descending deeper and deeper into a murky cabaret act: red lighting, smoky clothes, an air of expectation. This was St Thomas's Sunday service in 1989.

I went with a Jewish friend. We had heard about "things going on" - about the dancing and the chanting. About the spectacle. And we were not disappointed. My friend came out full of talk about the "Facist" connotations: the black uniform of the stagehands, the people planted like pillars to "guard" the congregation, the eagerness of the congregation to bow to the charisma of the "leader" and to chant slogans, chant their love for God.

I noticed the language of the so-called hymns: how God was portrayed as a presence to be feared, how his image was built up as a fierce devil- like creature who growled with anger if his words were ignored, who wore armour, who saw his children as an army, rather than a flock. A kind of monster to be admired, but also feared.

The sense of occasion was fabulous. We were arranged around a stage planted square in the middle of us. We sat on the floor aware of the heat, the breath, the smells, the sweat of our fellow worshippers. This was to be a sensual experience, hot and red. We were to be taken back to the womb.

We were being manipulated. But it was a joy to succumb. We sat in darkness, mere earthlings - students, drug addicts, homeless people, "normal" people. Our speaker was "a presence": fiery, angry, then gentle, loving.

Only the most cynical could keep at a distance: you could spot the "tourists" - arms folded, sceptical looks. The rest of us gazed at his face bathed in a sharp white light. When his words became blurred, when his unrelenting pounding just became a noise, we took joy in examining his face: the fierce eyes, the cheekbones, the sheer intensity of his performance.

When the tension became too much, when you felt that you would have to stretch out and gasp or you would burst, we were all ordered to stand up. Then began the writhing, the touching of bodies, the pounding music.

The lyrics to the hymns were shone onto a wall. Other slides were projected onto every surface of the room: images of crosses, of pain, of colour were welded together. A collage. A piece of artwork. Around us stood the "guards": static, straight-backed, expression- less, anonymous. Keeping us under control.

It was cruel when it ended. The end of a dream, out in the bright natural light of day. We came out shaking, sweating, eyes dilated, stomachs sick. We felt embarrassed by the occasion.