[Source: New Society Published: Thursday, 20 September, 1973]
by Ivan Ruff
Bugbrooke is a village five miles out of Northampton. Its Baptist congregation goes back nearly 200 years; the present chapel was built in 1808. Four years ago it became a centre of the Jesus movement. How it began is not easy to ascertain. Members say simply that “Jesus took over,” the spirit came to work in Bugbrooke, and so on. It appears that there was a large youth element in the congregation, based on family connections with the chapel, and that the natural evangelism of the Baptist movement was revitalised by the mid-sixties spread of quasi-religious elements of pop culture. The momentum derived from here. It drew people from other churches, young people from the village and from Northampton, and a large number of drop-outs, drug-users and so on.
The Bugbrooke fellowship is not part of any larger church. Although affiliated “in the spirit” to any evangelical movement such as the Crusade for World Revival – it is entirely autonomous. This is in the tradition of the dissenting chapels, by which the congregation chooses its own minister and governs itself. There are several other Jesus communities in Britain, but they appear to have developed independently and do not have any formal national organisation. Too much formality is contrary to the idea of “the spirit,” and they are satisfied to run themselves on an indigenous local basis.
The present membership at Bugbrooke is over 200, and can be typically described as young, of local origin, and of fairly low educational achievement. The exceptions still fit the general pattern. I found one graduate, but he was the son of a local minister, and one schoolteacher, who had returned to Bugbrooke (his home) after training. In terms of work, they have ordinary jobs, industrial and service. The most common is nursing and more or less menial jobs in various local hospitals. It is among the young that the “conversions” occur. The older people in the movement are members of the former Baptist congregation or people attracted from other churches. They share no distinct traits, except they mainly come into the movement from an existing religious affiliation. But this difference of background makes no obstacle between groups in the actual meetings.
They have meetings five evenings out of every seven. At them an audience of over 100 is not unusual. They have an “income” of over £3,000 per week, which comes from members. They call themselves the “love community” (“we are a daring people, a caring people, a sharing people”), and now own several properties (“Jesus homes”), where some members live.
Two minibuses fetch people from any distance each evening the fellowship gathers. Each meeting is different: one evening a week the minister expounds texts from the bible; another is a “praise and prayer” meeting, which is mainly spontaneous worship; another is their equivalent of a youth club, known as the “Jesus Vibro” (“for under-30 life seekers”). There is no rigid form to any meeting; the emphasis is always on the spirit, so that spontaneous outbursts are a sign of success and not at all disruptive.
At meetings or in public, the Jesus people greet each other, and sometimes strangers, with a handshake, an embrace, and a few words such as “Bless you. Praise the Lord. Glory. I love you, brother.” The minister comments on the difficulty of getting meetings started on account of the endless circulation of brothers and sisters greeting one another-a process which, in fact, is never interrupted for long, since they perhaps share the same home, or will in any case meet again the next day.
This, so far from disrupting the structure of meetings, actually supplies it. The structure of a meeting lies in its endlessness. As far as business arrangements are concerned, the minister (the former Baptist clergyman) administers these. But he does so in an open and ongoing way; since they depend on the communistic involvement (financial as well as spiritual) of the fellowship.
The only note of lay authority is provided by the minister, who may end a meeting with a word about the need to make the Jesus homes respected in the community, or about members’ duty to “make of their bodies a living sacrifice.” His conduct of services is a skilful blend of power-theology and worldly inducements. To be one with Jesus is enough for everybody. The Jesus people speak of “putting your mind in captivity to Jesus,” and “breaking yourself for Jesus.” Separate roles for different members of the community are very firmly rejected.
The one area where roles might insinuate themselves, even in an informal setting, is the impromptu speaking sessions. Here people describe their revelations, their feelings about Jesus and so on. It is where one would expect the usual domination by the more articulate to assert itself. But this does not occur. Only the spirit speaks, not the individual. Even articulateness is a matter of role. So the testimonies of the very naive, pathetic, eccentric, are listened to with complete humility. There is nothing solemn in this. Many of the accounts are comical, made more so by inarticulate expression: “I was walking down this street, and I see this woman with a red scarlet face, and suddenly the Lord come to me, and I shouted out: Praise the Lord, sister! Ay-men! Everybody looked at me. I just went down this street shouting: Praise the Lord! Jesus! “There is immediate laughter, but no lack of other people to rush in with even more ludicrous stories of their own.
All meetings have a prayer session, which may go indefinitely. People speak out, singly or several at once, with their eyes closed and hands raised. More and more rise to their feet, swaying as they speak. Eventually a collective trance takes over, and the whole congregation is speaking in tongues. The sound is a loud, very musical drone, counterpointed with incomprehensible speech. This, they say, is what heaven will be like.
Members make no theological concessions. Their acceptance of the bible is entirely literal. Satan is a reality. Many of them in meetings, or privately, talk about how Satan has been getting at them recently, how they realised that things were going wrong because Satan was conning them. Paddy, who, two years ago, was one of Northampton’s leading addicts and public nuisances (he’s now married, living in a Jesus home, and almost gentlemanlike), refers to Satan as “that old con man” who was ruining his life. Demonology is a central theme of the movement. Members proudly relate how they have had demons cast out of them, always emphasising the “blackout” aspect of the experience. “All I know was the devil had taken me over. I was screaming. That’s all I knew. Then the Lord saved me. I’d been reborn.”
During one speaking-in-tongues session, a girl collapsed on the floor, writhing and screaming. The drone of praise still continued. No one took any notice. The minister went to her and, after ten minutes, the girl, exhausted, weeping, ecstatic, was taken back to her place. The casting out of demons is not regarded as in any way exceptional.
The sexual interpretation of all this needs no elaborating. Certainly the reactions of the people in prayer are erotic, if not sexual. The closed eyes, parted lips, rapid breathing, gasped incantations, sensuous movements, are not encountered in many places except the dance floor or in bed. And this is not simply a “religious” communion. One girl, during a tongues session, left her place and went across the chapel to kneel at the feet of one boy, bury her head m his lap, and lie there sobbing. This in itself was not unusual; people do it all the time. But after the meeting I heard the boy discussing it with someone else outside. “Why did she come to you?” “Because she wants me.” “Do you want her?” “No, I’ve got somebody better’n her.”
But, generally, the morality of the movement is high. Sex must be confined to marriage. The minister’s injunctions about “make of your bodies a living sacrifice” have an obvious point. Members do not smoke or drink. Those who smoke when they come into the movement are helped to “victory” over the habit. As, during their cure, they are not allowed to smoke in the chapel grounds, they gather in Bugbrooke High Street; the conversation here tends not to be religious. As well as public handouts, badges, stickers, and an annual “Jesus Festival” weekend in Northampton, the movement now produces a magazine, Jesus Reality. Its main content is testaments of members. These are mostly by people whose lives were bad, and conversions, therefore, all the more dramatic. It’s all in the revivalist tradition: what Wesley did for gin, the movement does for drugs. This is atypical example of a testament:
“Life was really easy until I left school and then I came to know how cruel and hateful the world was. My illusions were smashed. I became the victim of the oppressions of the world. Totally unequipped for the realities of society, I did as many others do, I proceeded to find my own truth. I found myself being dragged along by any theory that seemed to give a glimmer of hope or kicked against the bureaucracy I was brought up in. I found myself caught up in the more acceptable evils of society (booze and sex) …in short
I was confused. So I turned to escapism: dope, mainly acid. It just seemed as though I had an urge within me to go further into things unknown. I now realise that this urge within me was Satan.”
Most of the young members have tried drugs. Some of them have been serious cases. One of them, now 23, told me that he left home at 14 and had been on drugs since then – for the last two years on heroin. When Jesus took him over he gave up drugs immediately. He had done cold turkey before, he said, but there was no cold turkey this time. However, once the revelation has occurred, more than drugs are rejected; the material and also the conceptual beliefs of the world are seen as being a con, too.
To a non-religious observer, the way addicts are helped is the most impressive aspect of the fellowship. At one meeting I attended they had brought along an addict who was in withdrawal symptoms through the evening. He had nowhere to go, and afterwards they took him to one of the Jesus homes. Their treatment of him was kind and understanding; professional, in fact.
The movement is convinced that it has a large future. People from other villages are now leaving their small static congregations to go to Bugbrooke because this, they say, is where God is working. The financial ambition is also high. They now: pray regularly for £50,000, which is their target for the near future, to buy more Jesus homes, a warehouse which will enable them to buy food and goods in bulk for cheap distribution to members, and so on. The attitude of members to this side of the movement is quite businesslike. People who are reluctant to contribute, to commit themselves financially, are thrown out: “Well, not thrown out exactly,” one young saint told me, “but it’s like they haven’t really given themselves to Jesus, and they just don’t stay around, that’s all.”
Members’ ability to continue with such confidence is based on two factors (leaving aside “Jesus”). The first is the time-consuming nature of the movement. They meet almost every evening and spend the weekends together. They go on summer holiday in a group. The fellowship is ever-present. While regarding themselves as a church under the most legitimate authority there js – Jesus – they still maintain a sectarian mentality: without total commitment we perish. The second factor is that commitment is ensured by the economic unity of the movement. Whereas the first wave of modern evangelism took place against the deprivations of the early industrial revolution, contemporary evangelism has had to work from the opposite direction. The world is now preferable to heaven, unless the next world can be brought forward and be made more material and instant. Given this, religion still offers the consolations it always did.
In a society obsessed with materialism and “security” and generally unable to provide both, the Jesus movement has not only caught up; it has overtaken. And the question of whether or not God exists hardly matters.