by Matthew McNaught.
Fitzcarraldo, 248 pp., £12.99, June 2022, 978 1 910695 67 8
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According​ to Google Maps there are 23 churches within a mile of my house in East London. The nearest and most interesting, at least architecturally, is St Mary’s, a medieval parish church with a graveyard and alms-houses. Ian Nairn described it as a ‘huge surprise in the endless late Victorian bow fronts of London-across-the-Lea … as diverse as the characters in a saloon bar’. I went to a service there a couple of years ago but slunk away when the tambourines were handed round during the first hymn.

When the railway arrived at the end of the 19th century, St Mary’s was joined by several cavernous Victorian redbrick churches, built to serve the burgeoning population of Leyton. Later, two Baptist churches – housed in modern, utilitarian buildings – joined them. At the top of a hill to the north of my house is St Andrew’s. Services there are non-committal, in the ‘God, as-it-were’ tradition of contemporary Anglicanism. The congregation isn’t large, but the organist is good and the sermons are short. The other local churches are more entrepreneurial, fly-by-night ventures. An old school hall on the high street is commandeered every Sunday for long services of singing and impassioned preaching. Half a mile north, on an industrial estate, are three Pentecostal churches whose names – Deliverance Outreach Ministries, Christ United Ministries, the CCC Founder’s Parish UK – feel slightly at odds with their scruffy exteriors.

The largest church in my area, and the only one that seems to be actively recruiting worshippers, is the Potter’s House Christian Fellowship, which operates out of a repurposed cinema on Lea Bridge Road. The church was founded in Arizona in the 1970s by a Pentecostal minister called Wayman Mitchell. Since then, Mitchell’s followers have ‘seeded’ (as the theological literature puts it) more than two thousand churches across the world, a sort of McDonald’s for the soul.

When I visited Potter’s House last autumn the church was busy. I filed in past a sign promising ‘Prayer for the Sick Every Service’ and was welcomed by an usher called Tashan, who looked me in the eye and shook me by the hand. There were about two hundred people in the congregation, fanned out in rows around the stage on which a five-piece band noodled worship music. I sat near the back, behind a bank of TVs where three technicians were monitoring the live YouTube feed of the service. The congregation was young. There was a large Black British contingent, but also first-generation immigrants from South America and Eastern Europe. The music – a swelling roll of guitars and voices – would continue, with a brief pause during the sermon, for the next two hours. I didn’t recognise the hymns. The lyrics, projected on a giant screen above the stage, spoke of throwing off shame, of overcoming evil, of greeting Jesus with an open heart. I stood up and tried to join in, half-heartedly mumbling along. But I couldn’t really commit, and when a man who had been walking up and down at the back of the stage, waving and ululating along with the music, went up to the lectern and began to speak, I sat down with relief.

This was Pastor Alan Jenkins, who runs a church in Phoenix. He was, he said, honoured to have been invited to preach in Leyton. He told us a story about his wife’s pot plant, which had withered in the harsh Phoenix sun. ‘God bless air conditioning,’ he said. ‘Can I get an amen?’ Wasn’t life a bit like that pot plant? Didn’t we all sometimes feel desiccated by the fierce glare of an ungodly world? Jesus could help. He could refresh the soul with the water of the holy spirit. Look at the Bible: didn’t God say there would be water from a rock?

His patter was quick and polished – somewhere between a radio DJ and a cattle auctioneer – but he wasn’t connecting with his audience. This kind of worship depends not on liturgy but crowd work, and we were a tough crowd. Pastor Jenkins grew impatient as his sermon went on. ‘Say amen,’ he implored, ‘say ’men people. Come on, somebody.’ After a while the music started again, and Pastor Jenkins began to pace up and down, emitting a plosive-heavy scatting. Talking in tongues, he explained between bouts, was biblically sanctioned – a manifestation of the Holy Ghost. ‘We need to get in God’s presence. Can you feel him?’

Perhaps this loosening of language was what the congregation had been waiting for. We weren’t there for words but for vibes. People began to approach the stage. ‘We’re gonna pray together,’ Pastor Jenkins said, ‘and you’re gonna let the Lord speak through you.’ He laid hands on people, moving down the line, anointing them. And then it began: quiet at first, a murmuring buzz that moved through the congregation, individual cries for help, prayers for healing, comfort and money. The voices joined together to become a raucous babble. It could have been beautiful if it hadn’t been so acutely, toe-curlingly, embarrassing.

Acknowledging the attractions of communal worship while being alert to its profound awkwardness is one of the things that Matthew McNaught does very well in Immanuel. The book is in part an account of his own experience growing up in Immanuel, a Christian community founded in Southampton in the 1970s. But it is also a journalistic investigation into the Synagogue Church of All Nations – or SCOAN – a Nigerian megachurch led until his death in 2021 by the charismatic preacher T.B. Joshua.

Immanuel was originally part of a loose agglomeration of churches established in the late 1960s by the followers of the London Brothers, a group of Pentecostal Evangelists who had themselves split from other Christian traditions (Anglican, Calvinist, Plymouth Brethren). McNaught describes the church as representing a strain of ‘wild Christianity’: practising non-traditional forms of worship in which priestly authority was questioned and miracles such as speaking in tongues and healing the sick were commonplace. Immanuel’s version of Christianity was urgent, even sexy. It was part of a ‘revival’ that gripped Evangelism during the 1990s, the most famous example of which was the 1994 ‘Toronto Blessing’, when congregants at a church in the city were ‘slain in the Holy Spirit’ and started laughing hysterically and barking like dogs. Part of the attraction of these signs and wonders, at least for a teenage boy, was the sense of spiritual mission they seemed to indicate. The literature that accompanied the revival movement evoked impending apocalypses, which – with their marauding devil armies and the righteous standing firm – sounded a lot like the endgame of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Even as a teenager, McNaught was at best a half-hearted believer. Like his parents, who ‘had been unimpressed by this sort of thing since someone was slain in the spirit at a prayer meeting in our living room, breaking a new storage unit’, he was sceptical of the more extreme claims made on behalf of Immanuel. But he was, and to a certain extent still is, drawn to the homespun, anti-institutional community he found in the church. Immanuel, as he describes it, was fire and brimstone, but it was also ‘the sound of around a hundred people singing more or less in tune. It was baptisms in the River Itchen, picnics on the South Downs, praying in tongues in suburban living rooms.’

Immanuel’s prophetic radicalism eventually brought about its downfall. Having waited for signs that never became reality, many of McNaught’s fellow believers began to drift away from the church in the early 2000s. By the time he went to university, McNaught had lost touch with most of them. ‘It would be nice to report a descent into sex, drugs and rock and roll,’ he writes of his student days. ‘In truth, I played a lot of first-person shooters. In Duke Nukem 3D, you could pay strippers to show you their boobs, and then turn them into showers of pixelated gore with a rocket launcher. It was so unChristian it made my heart pound.’ Those of his friends who kept their faith tended to become more extreme, and some of them found their way to SCOAN.

McNaught first encountered the Nigerian preacher T.B. Joshua on samizdat VHS tapes shared among the Immanuel congregation in the late 1990s. Watching these videos of healings and exorcisms, ‘which seemed to combine Billy Graham’s stadium evangelism with the kinetic drama of WWE wrestling’, he developed a fascination with Joshua and ‘the sheer unlikeliness of what he had achieved’. The healing offered in charismatic churches usually focuses on modest, non-specific complaints – aches and pains, stiffness, fatigue. One of the most common ‘miracles’ is to declare that a congregant’s legs are different lengths: sleight of hand is then used to make one leg appear to grow (there are hundreds of videos of this on YouTube).

Joshua, by contrast, claimed to be able to cure everything from Aids to Ebola by the power of prayer alone. In 2002 the leader of Immanuel, Pastor Graham, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Restorationists, as McNaught writes, are ‘really bad at death’. After the diagnosis, a ‘war council’ was elected from the congregation to ‘subject the cancer to a constant barrage of prayer’. When this didn’t work Pastor Graham travelled to Nigeria, where Joshua told him to refuse all medication (taking it would betray a lack of faith), prayed over him and declared him healed. Pastor Graham died not long afterwards, which didn’t put off other members of Immanuel from joining SCOAN. Some travelled to Nigeria to be healed, or to experience a short dose of wild Christianity – a sort of theological gap year. Others moved there permanently to live as ‘disciples’ in the enormous SCOAN complex in Lagos, selling their homes and dedicating their lives to Joshua’s sect.

One family – McNaught calls them the ‘Winfields’ – left Immanuel in the early 2000s to become prophets at SCOAN. McNaught didn’t know much about the goings-on at the church until 2010, when one of the Winfields, a childhood friend McNaught calls ‘Dan’, left, alleging widespread psychological and sexual abuse. Dan and his wife, Kate, are the book’s star witnesses. They met in the church as teenagers, slept in communal dorms, cooked, cleaned and copied down Joshua’s words of wisdom, which they were obliged to study and memorise. After a while they were promoted to prophets themselves, tasked with healing other congregants and giving sermons.

It was Joshua who decided that Dan and Kate should get married, after which they were sent back to London to establish a SCOAN outpost in the UK. Later they had a child together. It was only after leaving Lagos that Kate felt able to tell Dan that Joshua had subjected her to multiple instances of sexual abuse, and that he had used her fear of excommunication to keep her quiet. The Winfields also exposed the treatment of Nigerian disciples, who were whipped until they bled and forced to kneel for days until they ‘repented’ for some perceived sin.

After hearing​ about Dan and Kate’s experiences, McNaught began to reconsider his own relationship with Immanuel, and the wider movement of which it was a part. He watched videos of his old friends undergoing exorcisms at SCOAN. ‘Many seemed to submit to the ritual as an unpleasant obligation,’ he writes, which made it ‘grimly compelling, like … a bad panto and a snuff film rolled into one’. With his brother, McNaught set up a blog called ‘T.B. Joshua watch’ in which they documented and challenged SCOAN’s most egregious claims.

The question that motivates this part of the book is simple, but hard to answer. What prompted these white, Middle England Christians to leave their homes and families to join a church, the central beliefs of which are so obviously, manifestly, bonkers? Joshua possessed the oozing patter of a confidence trickster and he had a good origin story. His virgin birth, Joshua told his followers, had been prophesied by angels; he spent fifteen months in his mother’s womb and in that time became a self-taught Christian. In 1987, when he was 32, he claimed to have received what he called a ‘divine anointing’. He described entering a three-day trance during which God instructed him to establish his church. He also hung out with the Apostles, Elijah and Moses (he knew who they were because their names were written on their chests).

It was a remarkable trajectory for a boy who had left school at fourteen to work in a chicken factory. In his twenties Joshua began preaching under bamboo tents and in the open air. By the 1990s he was working out of the SCOAN complex in Ikotun-Egbe, an area in west Lagos that has, according to its defenders, been transformed by the presence of the church. Dozens of businesses – restaurants, markets, guesthouses – sprang up to serve the 15,000 worshippers who would, pre-Covid, attend services every week. Many of them were foreigners. The Nigerian tourist minister boasted in 2018 that SCOAN ‘received more weekly attendees than the combined number of visitors to Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London’.

While Joshua was alive the church occasionally came under scrutiny in Nigeria, usually when foreign officials raised concerns. In 2014, a guesthouse at SCOAN collapsed, killing 115 people, including 85 South African disciples. Nigerian journalists blamed the use of shoddy materials and poor building practices at the complex. Joshua, meanwhile, insisted that the accident was caused by a sonic weapon deployed by mysterious anti-SCOAN forces. The rubble was still there when McNaught visited nearly a decade later.

By the time of his death, Joshua had become world famous, with millions of followers and an established media operation that broadcast live services and other shows on YouTube. He spoke not just with the aura of the divine, but the glow of celebrity. His lack of polish was an advantage – it proved he was a simple man, possessed of a theological insight that could only be God-given. As well as healing, he preached a gospel of prosperity: like the American evangelists Billy Joe Daugherty and Don De Welt (from whom, McNaught discovered, Joshua plagiarised many of his ‘teachings’), he taught that if you were poor or ill it was probably because you lacked sufficient faith.

SCOAN isn’t the biggest church in Nigeria by any stretch. McNaught visits the Redemption Camp in Lagos, the scale of which is, well, biblical: during the annual week-long convention, three hundred cows are slaughtered each day to feed worshippers. But SCOAN was especially attractive to foreign disciples. McNaught thinks this was due to the weirdness of Joshua’s claims, which, while shunned by the mainstream Christian communion in Nigeria, gave his ministry an ‘authentic’ tribal mystery that appealed to Western converts. Those disciples, in turn, gave his church legitimacy.

McNaught writes well about the social pressures of collective worship and the way these have intensified in the age of the internet. He and his friends had a term for feeling compelled to appear slain in the spirit: the ‘courtesy drop’, which is ‘the evangelical equivalent of faking an orgasm … it hurried the encounter to its conclusion, sparing both of you the embarrassment of an anticlimax.’ Once you’re in this deep, it becomes almost impossible to extricate yourself – the shame is too much to bear.

But despite all the fakery, despite the abuse and the charlatanism of SCOAN, McNaught is sensitive to the fact that charismatic churches appeal to values that lie beyond the reach of capitalism and contemporary politics. Throughout the book he looks for ways to recapture that feeling, to rejoin what he calls the ‘superorganism’ of the church. As a fresher at university, he gently rebuffs the overtures of his Christian Union housemates when they try to woo him once again for Christ. Later, in his twenties, he attends a Quaker meeting, but sits through it feeling bored and restless. At the end of the book he’s still motivated by the same question: whether the church, or certain kinds of church, can really be ‘self-sustaining communities, truly co-operative rather than just capitalist’. The closest he comes to finding that sense of purpose again is in becoming a parent. Fatherhood ‘demanded neither originality nor excellence. You only had to turn up to be a servant of the superorganism.’

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