Stepping into the Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE) at the vast ExCel arena in London's Docklands is oddly like entering a mind-set I used to know in my childhood, but which I believed had been consigned today to limbo. Back in 1970s Liverpool, my Catholic parents were very keen indeed that, wherever possible, we should give our custom only to fellow believers. Hence their choice – on the grounds that they were Catholics – of slightly dodgy dentists who have left me with wonky adult teeth, and their unwavering patronage of what they called the "Catholic garden centre" (not its real name), despite the fact that it sold half-dead plants.
There was, for many Catholic communities back then, a strong sense of sticking together in the face of a world that was, in some scarcely articulated but strongly-felt way, against us. And that world view extended to commerce as well as worship.
Looking back, I'm not sure if it was caused by real prejudice or just paranoia, but as I grew up it was already fading fast. So how curious to find that same embattled spirit alive and well at the CRE, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. Under its umbrella, God-fearing visitors can, for example, give Cadbury's chocolates a wide berth and indulge themselves instead with products made by fellow Christians at the Meaningful Chocolate Company. Why bother with Hamleys, when there is Playful by Nature Christian Toys?
Gathered at ExCel under one roof are electricians, lighting experts and even car contract firms that, on their stands, imbue everyday secular expertise with a Christian aura. If I had dug hard enough, I might even have found a display for that Catholic garden centre.
But then again, probably not, because there is a strongly evangelical Christian tendency that binds together many of the exhibitors in the hall. Even fixing a broken electric kettle, in this very particular way of looking out at the world, can be a chance to get in a good word about Jesus. Better, though, if you've got a more enticing product – especially to evangelise a younger audience. Among exhibitors are a Christian rock-climbing centre, the Discovery Archery Centre (which labels itself "a sports ministry") and Alpha and Omega Motorsport – a Suffolk-based outfit that takes its Ford Escort RS Cosworth round the racing circuit and steers the conversation from brake-horse to Almighty power.
Not great wordplay, I know. I probably need to book in on Bentley Browning's "Stand Up For Jesus" workshops at CRE this week. It's a crash course on how to tell jokes as you turn your audience's mind to higher matters. "Jesus was a master communicator," the blurb explains. But not, as far as I recall, a great one in the gospels for gags.
It's all, of course, a matter of individual taste, and who I am to doubt? Or worse scoff? The evangelical end of Christianity is where congregations are growing – especially among the young, who flock to house churches like Hillsong, an Australian import to London that is another of the exhibitors.
And, however uneasy such separatism may make traditional believers like me feel, it revolves around a combination of God and mammon that has its own long history. Popes, after all, used to sell indulgences to the faithful to fund the rebuilding of St Peter's. Marketing a Christian bar of chocolate is, by comparison, pretty harmless.
Yet, potentially more disturbing is the sense, palpable at the CRE, that a vibrant part of Christianity is retreating into its own parallel universe. It is a kind of "core votes" strategy. And look where that got Labour.
Peter Stanford is a former editor of the 'Catholic Herald'Reuse content