[Source: Elle Magazine Published: Friday, 1 November, 1991]
The stormtroopers of the evangelical revolution are coming to save us all – whether we are ready or not, Adam LeBor meets the Jesus Army.
There is no tower yet, just a clutch of shouting preachers on step-ladders, but the new Babel is built every night in Leicester Square. Their cries echo around the tide of cinema-goers and drinkers, blurring into a cacophony: 'Jesus… JESUS… are you SAVED?… he DIED on the CROSS for you… RENOUNCE sin…'
This is not the genteel Anglicanism of trendy vicars and coffee mornings, the comfortable Christianity of tidy suburban Britain. This is a vision of the hell of eternal damnation and the joyous heaven of salvation. It's a religion of the gut, of moral certainties and spiritual absolutes, hurled out at the damned and unsaved. And it is the Christianity of the future.
The Jesus Army is the advance guard of this latest war for souls. Instantly recognisable in their multicoloured combat jackets and T-shirts, they are on the offensive, hoovering up the homeless, the lost and the confused, and spewing them out reborn, rehoused and reclothed ready to spread the word to their one-time drinking companions. The word is Jesus.
James, 38, from Perth wants to tell me about Jesus. He used to get high on alcohol, but now Jesus is the only buzz he needs. It's also the only one he is likely to get. Tobacco and alcohol are banned, and even record players are frowned upon once you join the Jesus Fellowship Church, of which the Army is the evangelical wing. Celibacy is encouraged and sex only permitted for married couples.
James had been living on the streets for 17 years until he encountered the Army a few months ago, heckling them as they evangelised in Leicester Square. The response of the Army's Sarah and Elizabeth was straightforward. 'They took me aside and prayed for me,' says James. 'I broke down in tears.' That night he went back with them to one of their communal houses for a feed, a bath and some clean clothes. A couple of days later he was 'baptised in the Holy Spirit', forsaking alcohol and tobacco for life. He now lives in Festal Grange in Northamptonshire, one of 60 or so houses owned by the Jesus Fellowship. He works full time in a food warehouse and is fed, clothed, healthy and happier than ever before. 'I live completely for the Lord. He is my saviour. Jesus loves me and I love him.'
For many the Jesus Army is their first contact with the world of proselytising evangelism. Led by Baptist preacher Noel Stanton, it follows a strict form of evangelism – salvation by faith, the authority of the Bible, the death of Christ as a means of forgiveness, speaking in tongues and faith healing – and lays special emphasis on outreach work, concentrating on the homeless in London's West End.
At 1 am the Army's battle-bus, parked on a corner of Trafalgar Square, is crowded with the hungry. In the kitchen at the back, women members dish up an endless stream of tea and hamburgers for the night's punters. Jesus might be good for the soul, but tonight it's fast food for the body.
George has not yet graduated to the full Jesus Army uniform of camouflage jacket and sweatshirt. As a new recruit he only merits a couple of badges, but he is overflowing with enthusiasm for his newfound love of Jesus. Just 20, and originally from Leeds, he points out the doorway on nearby Haymarket where he used to live. 'I was thieving, fighting, begging. I used to get arrested once a week.' Until he met the Jesus Army a few days ago, and they fed him and prayed for him on the bus.
'They put their hands on my head. I felt like I was somewhere else, in heaven. I felt the heat going through me, tears came into my eyes and I wanted to cry. That night I felt Jesus and it changed my life.'
Not all the members are plucked drunk and grimy off the streets. Singing in Leicester Square is Steph. A 23-year-old student nurse, she drives an Astra with a Jesus Army sticker. 'Being in the Jesus Fellowship Church gives me an ability to live for a cause – life is more meaningful. Jesus has given me confidence, assurance, peace of mind and the ability to forgive myself.' She lives in a Fellowship house in Coventry, mixes with friends who are not part of the movement, but says she will definitely marry someone in the Fellowship. 'I have set myself a vision – and marrying someone outside would weaken my commitment. If God wants me to meet a man and marry him, he will put these opportunities in my way. The choices will be clear, real and obvious.'
Two days later at Nene College, Northampton, the Fellowship is holding its Sunday evening service. The congregation ranges from toddlers to pensioners. The women all wear long-sleeved blouses and long skirts, their faces clear of make-up.
Noel Stanton stands at the front of the podium, a six-piece rock band by his side. Dressed in a baggy grey and white striped shirt, his thinning hair swept back, Stanton looks bizarrely like Barry Humphries and sounds like Alan Whicker. The service starts with a song, and the audience is soon swaying to the catchy rhythm. Many of the 500 or so worshippers raise their arms in the Jesus salute, singing and swaying en masse, shouts of 'Jesus, Jesus' puncturing the chanted choruses. George, washed, with his hair cleaned and brushed, and his eyes closed in rapture, is rockinq backwards and forwards.
Song follows song, interspersed with sermonising from Stanton. It's a bravura performance. He speaks without notes, holding the worshippers rapt as he warns them of the power and danger of Satan. His voice rises and falls as his excitement grows.
'Do you hear me? Do you hear me? If only you will say, JESUS, I RECEIVE YOUR SALVATION, I'll take it… it is for me…' His voice drops. 'If you just believe in him, invite him to be yours… now God will count you [he speeds up, getting. louder]… not guilty, not guilty, can you hear me. Not guilty…'
He repeats the phrase again and again.' Can you hear me? Not guilty, YOU ARE NOT GUILTY.' The crowd erupts in ecstasy: 'Jesus, JESUS!' Many are crying. At the climax of the service, elders – junior leaders, all male – wander around the congregation laying on hands as they try to 'cast out demons' and heal the sick.
Two approach a young blond man in checked shirt and jeans. One raises his hands above him, while the other traces shapes in the air, all the while intoning, 'The blood of Jesus, the blood of Jesus'. The young man's eyes are wide open and his hands start to shake. He soon passes into a trance and his minders lay him down in the aisle, among the others for whom it is all too much. You cannot walk for fear of treading on a prostrate worshipper who has just found Jesus. The young man lies still for minutes, then suddenly wakes up, tapping an elder on his calf. He stands up and they hug each other, tears running down his face.
Nearby an old lady is shaking, howling and shrieking as two elders try to 'drive the demons from her'.
I think of the Army's motto – Love, Power, Sacrifice – and its combat jackets. I see the ranks of faces all glowing with the certainty that they have found the only path to happiness. I see their eyes shining bright with the sheer joy of it all. I hear the shouts and cries of 'Jesus, Jesus', and look at the hundreds of raised arms. And I think I've seen all this before, in Berlin and Moscow, in Tehran and Beirut.
Many are watching the rise of organisations like the Jesus Fellowship with unease and distaste. Writing in The Times about what he called 'contemporary fundamentalism', the Bishop of Ely Stephen Sykes said, 'It seeks to reassure the believer that he or she has joined the most successful available religious option.'
And the Army's recruiting methods are not universally welcomed. 'It's wrong when a group takes advantage of homelessness to get a Christian message across by tying an offer of food and accommodation into religion,' says Ian Brady, deputy director of Centrepoint, the London charity for the homeless.
The Fellowship is a strict, hierarchical organisation. Women adopt a subservient role and discipline is strict; physical punishment for children aged two or over is permitted. There are 800 members living in community houses, and the same number involved from their own homes. Over 250 members work for the Trust's businesses: farming, wholesale wholefood, building, decorating, vehicle repair and outdoor wear. Plus the Fellowship publishes a professional glossy quarterly, Jesus Lifestyle, and a newspaper.
The assets of the community , held on behalf of the members, are reported to be £9 million, and cynics have claimed that the Army's outreach to the homeless is a possible means of recruiting labour for Church farms and businesses. What's more, mystery has surrounded the deaths of three members of the sect. The parents of one of the dead said members were briefed en masse to maintain complete silence about their son's death.
But while attendances at mainstream Anglican churches decline, the evangelical movement, of which the Jesus Fellowship is an advance guard, grows weekly. In the last 10 years, Sunday services have lost over 1,000 members a week. Nine out of 10 of those leaving were under 30. But numbers at House Churches – often operating out of someone's front room – and other independent evangelical churches are soaring. The appointment of Dr George Carey, himself from an evangelical background, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the top post in the Church of England, has given the movement even more confidence.
Canon Michael Saward of St Paul's Cathedral, himself an evangelical, views the rise of the freestyle churches with scepticism. 'The view that you can set up a new church any day of the week, start from scratch and get it right… fails to grasp the doctrine of the church. It's an American phenomenon, a capitalist view of life that says "start your own show and compete".'
But charismatics like the Jesus Fellowship are not interested in the bigger theological questions, says Saward. 'There is a tremendous temptation that if you feel good, that authenticates what you are doing. That is not necessarily a guarantee that it is right.'
But the evangelicals are successfully tapping into a collective mood that crosses political and religious boundaries – and it satisfies the human desire for moral certainties and spiritual absolutes. Often obsessed with Satan and demons, their 'signs and wonders' Christianity of faith healing and speaking in tongues seems all too similar to the occultism they vilify. And the flip side of their outreach work with the homeless is their desire to impose a fiercely conservative perspective on issues as diverse as Sunday trading and abortion.
The rise of the evangelicals is already radically altering the shape of British Christianity, and is set on effecting change in society as a whole. In last year's March for Jesus, 200,000 people took part in rallies up and down the country. Organised by House Church leaders, the march laid great emphasis on fighting the influence of Satan in both people and organisations. The prayers of the participants could 'reclaim' possessed organisations for Jesus – organisations like politics, education and the media. Last November a new political pressure group was launched by Liberal Democrat MP David Alton and Tory MP Kenneth Hargreaves. The Movement for Christian Democracy aims to mobilise support at election time for parliamentary candidates who endorse Christian values. Christian political muscle has already been successfully flexed, and forced the government to accede to the demand of religious groups to own radio and television stations.
The evangelicals' campaign to win the nation for Jesus will be long and arduous, and not' without its casualties. Losses may be philosophical ones, such as the belief in tolerance and the progress of liberalism towards a rational secular society. Or they may be specific social rights, won after long struggles, such as abortion or equality for lesbians and gays. But know this: in the battle for souls, tomorrow belongs to them.
Dr George Carey, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, knows he has an image problem. At a time of controversy and falling attendance for the Church of England, he has to hold its three disparate wings – Anglo-Catholic, liberal and evangelical – together. The problem is, by background and utterance, he is firmly identified with the charismatic evangelicals.
'In your image of me could you please get across the idea of breadth. To typecast me as an evangelical is not accurate,' he says, sitting at home in Lambeth Palace, his press minder next to him. 'Although I come from that evangelical school of thought and am deeply happy with it, l am a broader person and the Church of England is broader than evangelicalism.' His appointment sent a frisson of concern through the traditional Anglo-Catholic wings of the church, although liberals welcomed his support for the ordination of women. His background is working class, and he is far removed from his more cerebral and unworldly predecessors.
'The charismatic tradition – which is there in all mainstream groups – emphasises the Holy Spirit… It has made everything much more exciting and more unnerving. The charismatic movement appears to be dying away, but I think it is becoming deeper, it has infiltrated every aspect of church life.'
Carey accepts the link between the rise of charismatics and increasing conservatism on social issues. 'I quite agree with that observation. I don't see it as a necessary connection, however. I can also point to churches that have become more socially orientated. I think it would be a warped Christianity that becomes internalised on nice spiritual feelings.'
Of all social issues, the most controversial is the position of lesbians and gays within the church. Dr Carey refuses to give ELLE his specific position. 'We are working on it,' is all he will say. He was more forthcoming in a letter to Louie Crew, a leading American defender of gay priests, according to a report in The Guardian. Calling for 'more theological work on this issue', he wrote, 'one has to remember not only the needs of the homosexual community but those who are not homosexuals and who find the matter one of grave offence.'
He is adamant that the church should play a wider role in society. 'The Christian has a duty to express a Christian conscience on social, political and moral issues and we shouldn't become repentant or apologise. On issues of morality and abortion it is right that the church should speak out and point out a biblical viewpoint. But that doesn't have to be conservative. The Church of England is a big boat, with many passengers, liberal and conservative.'
Last summer Dr Carey met the Jesus Army at the Glastonbury Festival and visited their tent. This year he sent a message of support to their Wembley Praise Day, not knowing that they had been expelled from the mainstream Evangelical Alliance.
'I felt very uncomfortable when I found out. But I want to say this. There were two church tents there. In the first tent, which holds 200, there were three people. The next tent dominated by the Jesus Army, was packed. They were obviously touching people. I don't want to be critical of such groups, I want to say, what can we learn from them?'