The most important thing to realise before walking into Holy Trinity Brompton is that this is not a church you can just walk into. HTB has built not just a reputation but entire congregations on the foundation of the ubiquitous Alpha course. It appears an unwritten doctrine that the real entrance to HTB is not the double doors at the back of the church but the courses and pastorates they run.
I had not realised this when I went to the 5pm service on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Not that you’d have known it was Lent; for I had ventured into the mothership of the house church movement (which New Frontiers may well contend), where every Sunday is Easter Sunday and miracles do happen.
HTB have their cafe at the beginning of the service – which should have alerted me to the danger of not being within the fold already. It is an odd thing, this phrase “cafe church”, since people will rarely, if ever, go to a cafe to meet new people. They may go alone, and perhaps chat with the barista, or they meet friends. A cafe is not a welcoming place if there is no welcome.
And so I took my paper cup of fairtrade coffee to what looked like the least pre-possessing corner of the building. Scattered around were simple blue cushions and people arrayed themselves looking into the centre, where the band and the action would be. Turns out this was the green room: I was sitting behind Nicky Gumbel and to the left of Tim “altogether lovely” Hughes. In fact Nicky winked at me – or it may have been the guy behind – and it was the most welcoming part of the service.
The service began with a short introduction from Tim and then the music started. This is the bit that draws the crowds. This is also the kind of thing Durkheim was talking about when he described collective effervescence: while the lyrics we were singing were undeniably spiritual, the high energy is comparable to a rock concert or football match. I won’t deny that within a church context this does feel like faith writ large, but there was no guidance. All around people were behaving as expected: raising their arms and adoring faces to the ceiling, falling to their knees, muttering tongues and prayers under their breath. However, there was an expectation from the front that the people taking part should know how to react to the ebb and flow of the music. Yes, this is somewhere that you come to once you’ve already joined.
Then the music stopped. We sat down and the myriad of screens around the inside of the building switched to HTB TV. A television channel devoted to all things HTB. Oh, and famous Christian folk. We played spot the celebrity for a few minutes as two very attractive young people talked us through planned events for the next week. Call me cynical, but for a Christian TV show this seemed to be very much more of the world than merely in it.
We sang a bit more – a young guy even rapped for a while – and then came the sermon. The sermon began with a humorous story, the punch line of which was: “Of course I wouldn’t wear the fake Nikes my Mum had bought me out of misguided love”. The way he said it was much funnier, but I couldn’t help thinking Jesus wouldn’t have worn Nikes, let alone laughed. This was a typical tripartite sermon: humorous anecdote to introduce the theme (being “real”) an exploration of the 3 points along the journey (unmask, take out the trash, take in the spirit) punctuated by more anecdotes, and then an impactful but ultimately ambiguous conclusion.
I won’t lie, the sermon angered me to the point of wanting to throw my scatter cushion at the preacher. To illustrate the idea of “taking out the trash” (the things that are not of God) he asked us what we daydreamed about ie. what was more important than God, and used such examples as our careers, our hobbies, our children. Children, it seems, should not be put before God. The conclusion? We should all be spiritual all of the time in order to be “real”, this time not illustrated by anything more than a closing amen.
At this point we moved into Communion, a short section of call and response. At HTB they practice intinction: dipping the wafer into the wine. I have never done this before and by pure chance was right next to one of the stewards with the goblet and plate, so first in line. I may have been a little over-zealous with my dipping…
More singing and a time of prayer, house church style. Tim threw out a few words he’d had before the service and anyone to whom these spoke raised their hands and we were asked to pray for them. “Make sure there’s at least one person of the same gender praying together”. What did he think we were going to do, pray for a shag? I prayed that no one near me raised their hand. Extrovert I may be, but I do draw the line.
At this point Tim’s beautiful wife stood up to take the microphone and told us the service was over, we could pray quietly a little more if needed, but to proceed out quickly as the next service was due to begin. That was it. Finished. Bye bye. I left.
Many years ago a wise friend of my Dad‘s said, “every church has its liturgy”. An exciting and spirit-led service one week can rapidly exhibit its pattern of liturgy, couched in improvisational terms, the next. I was really glad to have attended this service, if only to remind myself why I love the beauty of a written, eloquent and dynamic liturgy, one where the ladders of Christian festivals offset the snakes of occasional tedium. HTB no doubt offers an inspiring and spirit-filled journey for many, but for this commuter it was a bit of a pothole in the road.