Come all ye faithful

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Mark Williamson looks at Christianity in Britain and the rise of new churches

Religion in Modern Britain. By Steve Bruce. Oxford University Press Pounds 22.50 and Pounds 6.99. The Hallelujah Revolution: The Rise of the New Christians. By Ian Cotton. Little, Brown and Company Pounds 16.99. The Storm is Passing over: A Look at Black Churches in Britain. By Roy Kerridge. Thames and Hudson Pounds 12.95

These three very different books portray the new face of religion in Britain. Although each is more concerned with outward observance than theology, the effects of changing belief patterns are not ignored and the apocalyptic notes struck by two of the writers are necessary reminders of the importance of what is happening.

It is the dispassionate sociologist Steve Bruce who predicts from the state of contemporary religion a move towards an untutored personal choice which could challenge the rationality on which the modern world is based.

The result of Bruce's exercise is an accessible and comprehensive work of reference. The predictable discussion of new types of religious organisations is accompanied by a more useful historical survey showing how the development from state church to a plurality of legally equal sects led unintentionally to the rise of the secular state.

These reflections are revisited in a stimulating final chapter, "The Big Picture", in which he speculates that there will be a continuing search for forms of religion which best serve the demands of individualism and that we should be fully aware of the social costs which may outweigh the benefits.

Bruce's survey of the current health of the Christian churches sets the statistics of remorseless decline against such data that exists on personal belief. Despite the difficulties associated with attitude surveys,it is clear that the increasing unbelief of the post-war period has not been arrested - "We see an increasingly secular people gradually losing faith in the specific teachings of the Christian tradition but retaining a fondness for vague religious affirmations."

Eighteen tables and graphs provide more than adequate support for Bruce's commentary, though some ("Church Attendance as a Proportion of Members, Scotland, 1984") do not add significant weight. However, the force of the numbers cannot be ignored and alone justifies the exceptional treatment of Northern Ireland where more than half the population "know God exists". The captain is clearly right to advise the passengers "We will soon be arriving in Belfast. Please put your watch back fifty years."

The chapter on multicultural Britain provides a reference source on each of the minority communities, covering principal beliefs, settlement history, a statistical profile and a sociological assessment focussing on developments within each community. Bruce completes his survey with an examination of new religious movements such as The Unification Church and that most impenetrable of areas, New Age spirituality, where eclecticism and diffuseness reign and statistics on "involvement", though sometimes headline-making, have in all probability little substance.

I hope that this pocket-sized book with its analytical perspective will be revised at regular intervals. While not exactly compulsive it is certainly essential reading.

Ian Cotton's personal investigation of the hallelujah revolution takes place on two levels. On the first, he meets the key figures, door-knockers and casualties that make up the "movement" if one can so describe this global network linked by computer, jet and fax.

Clearly Cotton established a degree of trust with a wide mix of personalities and the book contains some colourful and entertaining first-hand reporting. here are the now patriarchal Roger Forster of Ichthus and former retailer Gerald Coates of the Cobham Christian Fellowship; Richard, Carol, and Psalm are at the sharp end working out their faith among the south London terraces; Pauline lost her franchise and a fortune when Body Shop accused her of imposing her beliefs on staff.

Cotton reviews the psychology of the behaviour associated with the movement from Huxley's record of controlled mescaline ingestion and Sargant's work on brainwashing, both from the 1950s, to the neuroscientific theories of today. Central to this is Cotton's encounter with the Canadian Michael Persinger whose hypothesis is that "the actual mystical or religious experience is evoked by a transient, very focal, electrical display within the temporal lobe". In the chilling chapter "God in the Brain" Cotton describes his own experiences as a subject under the Persinger helmet: "slowly my consciousness seemed to turn into a kind of video camera . . ."

Most journalistic investigations of such movements are expected to end venomously. In this case such suspicions are ill-founded. The enquiry remains open and even Persenger acknowledges that his work disproves nothing. Cotton's role is to unearth some facts and possible relationships that should be in the public domain. Is it purely coincidental that so many New Christian leaders suffered severe beatings in childhood or that conversion frequently follows failure and humiliation? What exactly is the relationship between child abuse and apocalyptic psychology? The estimate is that by the year 2000 one in three Christians in the world will be from this tradition. Now is the time to raise the questions.

The Hallelujah Revolution is highly readable although Cotton's heavily stylised journalese can be irritating - "From gentle Jesus to Dies Irae in thirty minutes. 180 degrees without a skid-mark" in describing a service that became an exorcism. The lack of any illustration is a real deprivation.

By contrast it is the photographs by Homer Sykes that add such zest to Roy Kerridge's celebration of the black-led churches in The Storm is Passing Over (the title is from a redemption chorus). This is not to diminish Kerridge's text which consists of a series of cameos on the different strands and influences from the Deep South to Yoruba and on the activities and symbolism which, for most westerners, must appear at best bizarre and at worst tacky with its neon glitter and sentimentality.

The photographic evidence alone is testimony to the personal sincerity and corporate solemnity which underlie the exuberance and the gaudiness. Sykes' camera captures moments of deep spirituality - the baptism of a young boy, a feet washing, last respects before an open coffin, silent prayer at an all-night vigil and members in trances of various kinds.

The ebullient personality of Bishop Noel of the Mount Zion Spiritual Baptist Church radiates through a series of shots of the annual sea baptism off Felixstowe beach showing the candidates being plunged beneath the surf and the Bishop, resplendent in scarlet, asleep in a deck chair at "the end of a perfect day".

Kerridge and Sykes have produced a worthy tribute to groups who, in Bruce's words "found white congregations extremely uninviting" and where "they were deliberately snubbed and in others ignored". The picture that emerges, from Kensal Green to Moss Side and Birmingham to Brighton (where two of the largest Church of God "families" hold annual conventions) is a joyous self-confidence of smiles and holy kisses - "if Brother Ray the saxophone player from Birmingham is present, all Heaven is let loose". In this type of worship the homeland - heaven, Africa-land or Jamaica - is never far away.

The Storm is Passing Over claims neither to offer a history of the black-led churches nor a theological critique. It captures a religious phenomenon of which most white British know little, without losing the atmosphere and the energy in the translation.

Mark Williamson is General Adviser for Humanities and Religious Education in the London Borough of Hounslow

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