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  1064: Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Finsbury Park, London

Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Finsbury Park, London

Mystery Worshipper: Schadenfreude.
The church: Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, The Rainbow Theatre, Seven Sisters Road, Finsbury Park, London.
Denomination: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). The Finsbury Park UCKG houses their UK headquarters, and they have strong links with sister churches in Portugal and South America, as was borne out by the two main speakers, who both had Spanish / Portuguese / South American accents.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
The building: The church is a converted cinema. You can't miss it from the outside, as it's big, on a busy main road opposite the tube, and not backward in coming forward, with big banners advertising its presence. That's nothing compared to inside. You can tell it used to be a cinema, and they've done a great job of converting it. You walk into a huge foyer, which has a fountain, reception area, café, balcony, bookshop and lots of doors leading off in all sorts of directions. From there, you go through any one of several big double doors and into the main auditorium. It's enormous! The rows of seats are still the original cinema seats – velvet covered armchairs in rows with fold down seats. There is a huge stage set which looks like something from the Arabian Nights, complete with palm trees. The whole effect is tremendously impressive.
The church community: There was a fairly wide spread of ages, from a few teenagers up to pensioners. The congregation was predominantly black, and there were more women than men. As you might guess from the name, the church is also heavily involved in social activities from computer training and English classes to counselling.
The neighbourhood: The church is right by Finsbury Park tube, a major transport interchange, and a kind of "in between" place: between upmarket Highbury and Crouch End on the one hand, and slightly less "des res" Holloway and Manor House on the other. It's a very ethnically diverse area, with north Africans a significant community, and home to Finsbury Park Mosque (just around the corner and opening again soon in a new, more respectable format).
The cast: As seems to be common in all too many churches, those leading the service did not introduce themselves. The service started when three suited men walked onto the stage at the front of the auditorium, and everyone stood. The main speaker, a clean cut man in his forties, was wearing a Church of England type maroon shirt with a dog collar and referred to himself once or twice in the third person as "Bishop".

What was the name of the service?
Sunday 10am service. The church runs services more or less round the clock 7 days a week. Sunday is referred to as "the strongest day".

How full was the building?
In such a big space, it's difficult to be to sure. There were probably around 200-300 people at the start, and 500-600 later. I would guess the auditorium probably seats around 1,000, though, and there was plenty of space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man sitting at the reception desk said "hello" as I came in, and two or three stewards said "good morning". No one spoke to me during the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very – but the seats aren't used much. After everyone stood at the start (see below), it was nearly 40 minutes before anyone sat down again.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People sitting around, spread out across the auditorium, chatting to one another. Lots of busy stewards rushing around.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, good morning... blah, blah, blah." I didn't catch any more because the mike the speaker was using was so loud and the acoustics made it difficult to follow. But it must have been something about coming to the front, because nearly everyone went and crowded around at the foot of the stage, following the speaker in a couple of "impromptu" songs, prayers and sermonettes. This went on for about 10-15 minutes. The speaker has a good singing voice.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
After half an hour, we were invited to open our songbooks – "if you have one". If you didn't, no problem, you could "come down to the front and purchase one for '6". Oh, and why not get a copy of the church magazine, too ('1) which had pictures of the new church in Luton? Apart from "What a friend I have in Jesus", the songs weren't known to me.

What musical instruments were played?
One man sitting at the foot of the stage played a keyboard/synthesiser. But it wasn't used much, as many of the songs were unaccompanied and led only by the main speaker. To my surprise, there wasn't much mood music.

Did anything distract you?
Where do I start? The volume of the mike was uncomfortable, to say the least. It made it difficult to understand what was being said, and it completely drowned out everything else. During the singing, all you could hear was the speaker leading at the front. Good job he had a good voice – unlike the woman sitting behind me who was a very enthusiastic and very off-key singer. The weirdest thing, though, was the stewards. There were over 30 of them, men and women, all dressed identically in dark suits (tights and skirts for the women), standing at the sides and at the doors. Together with a few more men in lighter suits and dog collars, they patrolled the aisles, scouring the congregation. The effect was like the US Secret Service on the look out for potential assassins. Call me paranoid, but I began to worry that if I didn't look enthusiastic enough, I might be pulled out of the crowd!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I had expected a rip-roaring, Pentecostal, "whip it up", extreme happy clappy type of worship – but in fact, it was quite the opposite. The service followed a pattern of the leader praying or speaking from the front in a fairly low key fashion, calling for the Holy Spirit to intervene in our lives, and occasionally ordering the congregation to pray, too. People then prayed out loud, some presumably in tongues, but drowned out by the mike. These times of open prayer were interspersed by sermonettes and singing, led from the front. Occasionally the leaders would come down from the stage and patrol the aisles alongside the stewards, presumably to pray with particular congregants.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes, plus 5 minutes of prayer at the end. Having said that, it was difficult to tell exactly which of the mini-sermons could best be honoured with the title of sermon.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – He wandered around a little during the sermon, including onto the floor of the auditorium, stuck to two or three main points and made them succinctly. His only annoying habit was to keep asking the congregation, very loudly: "Yes? No?"

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This Sunday was a "special blessing for couples", so no guessing as to what the sermon was about. In case you were not married or engaged and wondered whether this sermon had anything for you, there was no need to worry, because "one day you will be married or engaged". In a nutshell, the key to a successful marriage lies in following the Manufacturer's instructions. "You might say to me, 'Bishop, I can't do this'. These are not my words, they are the Manufacturer's." There are two instructions: one for husbands (love your wives), and one for wives (respect your husbands). It's about being consistent in obeying these instructions, and about praying.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The longer I sat there, the more I thought: this is not the place for me. Precious little was like being in heaven, I'm afraid. I found it disturbing and a little boring. But the building's great and the people were friendly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The most disturbing part came after the sermon when next week's theme was advertised: the consecration of tithers. UCKG is seriously into health and wealth. While I suppose not everyone would object to that, it left me feeling very disturbed. The congregation were told that if their wages were too low (and the assumption seemed to be that many were on low wages or none), and felt that this was unjust, they should appeal to God, not their unions. They then needed to "name" their preferred living wage and tithe accordingly in faith. If they did this, then God would reward them with their preferred wage. To press the point home, a steward was brought up to the front. She said that two years ago she was on low wages and '25,000 in debt. She decided to "name" her wage and consequently gave a tithe (to the church) that was larger than she could afford. A few months later she got a better job – at a wage even bigger than the one she had named. Now she was debt free. While you can argue about the theology of health and wealth – or even the potentially positive aspects of the psychology behind it – I found this disturbing, certainly irresponsible, and probably immoral.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
There was no mention of the general election or of Pope Benedict – or anything else, for that matter. There was an acceptance that life was hard for many of those present, but the assumption seemed to be that adhering to Christian principles would overcome this. On that basis, an acknowledgement of the wider world is presumably unnecessary.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It didn't happen, I'm afraid. My alias refers not only to my mixed feelings about church, but also to the football team I support. They were kicking off at 12 in a crucial match (which they lost 4-1, so guess the team and laugh). At 11.45, with no sign of the service ending, I made a dash for the door, only to be intercepted by a steward who asked whether this was my first time there, and had I enjoyed it.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had a great espresso in the café across the road before the service started.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – My personal view would be to avoid this place like the plague. The shame of it is that there are plenty of people desperate enough to turn to this, and presumably there's no one else out there with anything to say to them.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No, just depressed. The church is clearly extremely well organised and run, and I would have to guess, sincere in what it does. The stewards I talked to were very friendly and helpful. The congregation seemed like a fairly normal bunch of ordinary people, but I find health and wealth just so difficult.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The 4-1 defeat.
 
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