Magazine article The Spectator

Giving Sight to the Bland

Magazine article The Spectator

Giving Sight to the Bland

Article excerpt

I WAS embarrassed to tell my taxi driver that I wanted to go to the happy-clappy church, Holy Trinity Brompton; worried that he would think that I was one of them. My fears were justified. 'I take a lot of you nice young Christians over there on Sundays,' he said cheerily, excited about engaging another fresh-faced youngster in an earnest and Godly chat. His face fell as he registered my cynicism reflected in the rear-view mirror. I am not well disposed towards nice young Christians. Overexposure to pairs of missionary Mormons has left me with a horror of dewy-eyed sincerity and `your persecution only strengthens my faith' smugness. So it was not in a spirit of open-minded curiosity that I went to test the holy waters at London's most famous born-again church.

My mission was more to set my mind at rest than to expose it to possible revelation. I had heard that my former public-school classmates were falling lemming-like into salvation and, having spent a year in the southern states cavorting with cults and Pentecostalists, I wanted to see how the British version compared. Religious life in the deep South is more of a drug culture than a discipline. You can buy into churches across Texas that promise you the riches of Solomon, religious communities in Georgia where the congregation laugh hysterically, churches in South Carolina that will turn you into a screaming madman in a matter of minutes. I was hoping that the happy-clappies were at least less bizarre than their transatlantic brothers in Christ.

Outside the Brompton Oratory a steady stream of shadowy figures was sliding around the side of the building like iron filings being pulled into a magnetic field. Joining them, I found myself squeezed through double doors and swept past simpering, pamphlet-pushing ushers to join the main congregation. The interior of the church was impressive: tall Victorian vaults full of soft yellow light. I sidled through a crowd of about 1,000 25-yearolds who were all singing, 'I can see Your face, Lord' in voices well trained in posh school chapels. They sang the same phrase over and over again. Some were crying.

Then, inevitably, a smiling face came bobbing through the throng. `Mary Wakefield? It is, isn't it?' It was. `It's so great to see you, I'm so glad you're here.' Her tone of voice implied, `What took you so long to see the light?' Looking around for the light, I searched the bobbing sea of faces and found that recognisable figures emerged from the blurry mass: my best friend from Kensington preparatory school for girls, the first boy I snogged at the Valentine ball. As in some surreal softfocus Seventies film about a public-school afterlife, I was in a room full of people who had shared my twig-smoking obsession in the woods aged ten, and cigarettes behind the pet shed at 13. I felt an unexpected rush of comradeship and made the fateful decision to suspend my cynicism for a short while, to try to understand.

After half an hour of singing it was obvious that the service lacked the extraordinary emotional charge of its US equivalents. Being a keen collector of the `gifts of the Holy Spirit', which in Texan televangelist churches include jogging on the spot, foaming at the mouth and chanting, `Money, money, money', I was both relieved and disappointed by HTB. I could only see one person convulsing uncontrollably, whereas in any young evangelical meeting in America (particularly those afflicted with the Toronto Blessing), stadiums full of people will be writhing and jerking, barking or lying laughing maniacally on the floor.

There was one worrying moment before the prayers when a Cliff Richard lookalike began to sing in 'tongues' and invited everyone else to do the same. …

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