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  1038: Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic Church, Hackney, London

Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic Church, Hackney, London

Mystery Worshipper: Tirzah.
The church: Hackney Pentecostal Apostolic Church, Middleton Road, Hackney, London.
Denomination: Pentecostal.
The building: 19th century, clad in rather ugly stone, a style sadly prevalent in this area. Originally, this was a Congregationalist church – Hackney was apparently a hotbed of dissent and non-conformity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Inside, the pews all face a large pulpit, behind which is an organ, and there is a gallery on one side. The Apostolic Pentecostal congregation have been here since the 1970s.
The church community: Judging by the service I attended, this is an all black congregation, Carribbean in heritage. I stood out as the only white person in the service I attended. All the women were wearing hats except me.
The neighbourhood: The church is on the edge of London Fields, which is one of the nicer parts of Hackney, in East London. There used to be run-down tower blocks in the local vicinity, but they have all been torn down and replaced by new housing developments.
The cast: I wasn't able to find out. There were two smart ladies: one in pastel, one in white, with natty hats. And a man who gave the address.

What was the name of the service?
12.00am worship.

How full was the building?
The building was about half full, with approximately 100 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at the entrance. But as soon as I'd slipped into a pew at the back, I was spotted and someone came over to hand me a hymn book and welcome me. She was the first of five or six people to invite me to sit nearer the front. Various people came and shook hands with me. In the end one lady came back to sit with me so that I wasn't on my own.

Was your pew comfortable?
Plain wooden pew with a cushion. Not that I got to sit down very much.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were singing a hymn unaccompanied when I entered. Some were kneeling at the altar rail.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The pre-service singing segued into people saying prayers out loud all at the same time, some muttering, some shouting... and then into accompanied singing as more and more people entered. The first words spoken without musical backing were "Praise God!" – 45 minutes into the service.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Authorized King James Bible, the Pentecostal Hymnal, and Redemption Songs. None of the books were in the pews or handed out upon entrance, so I think people brought their own. But it was immediately noticed that I didn't have my own copies, and they were given to me before I needed them. There were also songs sung without books. They were simple worship songs, though, and repeated over and over again, so they were pretty easy to pick up.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, guitars, drums, tambourines, maracas. The music was great ' very Gospel. There was a superb bass player.

Did anything distract you?
My own guilty feelings as to how this congregation was going to react when they discovered that their visitor was secretly reporting on them. Also, the consistent calling from the pews ' "Praise the Lord!", "Amen!", etc. – made it difficult for me to concentrate on the sermon(s).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Dancing in the pews (and occasionally the aisles). Lots of arm waving and clapping. At one point, when the call was something along the lines of "We're all here to worship Jeeeesus", everyone waved so enthusiastically and so together that I really thought they'd spotted Jesus at the front and were waving hello to him. It was rather nice.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Well, a man got up and spoke for 11 minutes. Then the white-suited lady announced a hymn, but we didn't immediately sing it and she spoke for 33 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – Preacher 1 was incredibly energetic. He had a shouting style, liberally interjected with "Praise God!" Preacher 2 had a similar style, but was less coherent. Both preachers were hampered by the PA system, which was incredibly loud and distorted the sound.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Preacher 1: The apostles weren't educated, Jesus teaches us. The Gate is shut, but we can enter thanks to Jesus. Preacher 2: I honestly have no idea what she was saying. To be fair, I don't think she set out to preach a sermon, but got carried away with a desire to communicate. The points I picked up were: being filled with the Holy Spirit is not the end but the beginning; the first believers were called Baptisers, not Christians or Born Again; and something about banana peel... Towards the end, the lady laughed and laughed, and then I think might have fallen over, but I couldn't see. It elucidated lots of "Praise God!" and "Alleluias!", though.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The warm welcome and friendliness. The music and dancing.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The overly loud PA made it difficult to follow the spoken word and gave me a headache.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
There didn't appear to be any ' though people were shouting out prayers pretty consistently.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Sadly, I had to leave after two and a half hours and the service still hadn't ended. However, judging by the welcome, I think I would have had lots of people talking to me afterwards and probably been invited for lunch as well!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Well, I left before the end. But if I had gone to lunch, I hope it would have been good West Indian soul food.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I would love to be part of such a friendly community with such a passion and love for God. The sheer liveliness was very contagious. However, while this was fun for a visit, much of my enjoyment and came from the sheer "differentness" of it all, a bit like visiting a foreign land that I'd seen on TV and films. I suspect the style would grate on me after a while and I would definitely miss formal liturgy and partaking in the eucharist. And it was unclear from one service what their theology was. I suspect there may be some areas I would challenge. Having said all that, it would give me a chance to wear hats more regularly, though. I love hats.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. As I left, I could still hear the singing as I walked down the road and it put a spring in my step.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I told one of the women who invited me to sit further forward that I was quite happy "hiding at the back". She smiled and pointed out that that was fine, but I couldn't hide from Jesus. That stuck with me all week – I have a feeling I have been trying to hide from God recently.
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