"It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds. And they'd all arrived at the same place at more or less the same time. And they were all...free. And they were all asking themselves the same question."
- Laurie Anderson
On one side of the road, an old, traditional church, with walls of big grey stone, stained glass windows, uncomfortable wooden pews...and no one inside.
On the other, a squat, white, square, single-storey building that wouldn't be out of place in an army barracks - apart from the signs announcing it was a "Kingdom Hall" - or Jehovah's Witness church.
Inside, 150 people dressed like they'd designed their wardrobe from descriptions of the most formal attire in the world, but never actually seen it. Small children in immaculate bright white suits and pink bow ties. Elderly women, some in wheelchairs, dressed entirely in shades of mauve. Black men in cream boubous with gold lace and sky blue fezzes. White men with meticulously clipped beards and tweedy suits from the 70s that must get worn once per year.
And me, in threadbare black teeshirt, baggy jogging bottoms...and running shoes I found thrown in a gutter some years ago.
Yes, for JWs, the memorial of Jesus' death is the holiest ceremony on the most important day of the year. I did ask why the resurrection wasn't more important than the crucufixion, and apparently it's because the resurrection was just god reanimating his son on a whim, whereas the death...um, is complicated.
I've been shown a lot of JW videos, and the overall impression is of high production values...and immense cheesiness. Looking around the two prayer rooms, with solid chairs facing a polished lectern on a stepped podium in front of expensively leatherbound books...it's the same impression - expensive opulent taste as imagined by the poor.
And the singing of hymns...same again. No badly tuned upright piano for accompaniment, and no casio electric organ either. Instead, pre-recorded lush synthesised orchestral strings...with live vocals in the style of a crowd who want to give the impression of joyfully singing the praises of their god, but don't want to do anything so crass as show enjoyment. Very British, very Anglican.
And on to the first, nervous looking, preacher, who's job was to introduce the second nervous looking preacher, who's job was to make a few admin announcements...and introduce "Brother Piper" to do the actual preaching.
Brother Piper is about 20 and almost succeeds in sounding confident. He has the kind of over-chiseled good looks and waiflike slimness that come from undernutrition and stress. His suit is of course immaculate, but three sizes too large.
If you watch enough videos of ordinary people trying to explain quantum mechanics, or trinitarianism, or common core mathematics, you get to notice the little twitches, sideways glances and uncomfortable pauses which show they don't understand what they're saying - or that they don't quite believe it.
Brother Piper twitched quite a lot. It was a rambling train of disconnected metaphors, but the gist was this:
The universe is 13 billion years old, and God made Jesus right at the start, so the two must be really great friends to stay together so long.
There's also the holy spirit, which isn't a separate entity, but simply the presence of god when he's on earth doing a miracle. Except when it's not.
God's plan was that everyone would be immortal with eternal youth, but Adam messed everything up by making a decision for himself, introducing sin and therefore aging, death and suffering into the world. And we're inherited result because sin is genetic. And so is sinlessness, but not yet.
But at some indeterminate point in the future, God will finally win the battle with Satan that he could have won at any time, but chose not to for some reason. And after that, everyone will be immortal again. And they'll still have free will, but they won't be able to make the wrong decision. Because that's how "true" free will works.
And not only that, but 144,000 extra-special people will be selected by god to be his civil servants in heaven for eternity, functioning as a government for the perfected earthly people who no longer need a government.
But amazingly, these 144,000 will not be chosen by religious affilition. And god doesn't need the JWs to win. Making the entire JW church pointless in its own cosmology.
Oh, and it caused God so much suffering to kill his son, it would be ungrateful not to obey all his rules.
Cue more singing, and the ceremony of passing around the unleavened bread but not eating it, and the same for the wine. I liked the way they used stale mouldy pittabread just to make sure no one had a nibble.
End of ceremony, and much milling about making small talk before going home. I did my routine of chatting with everyone, asking simple, obvious questions and being very understanding when they couldn't answer.
Why does god need a civil service? Doesn't eternity pushing paper sound like hell? If angels have free will, why can't they sin - except for the one who did, even though the bible doesn't say so? And if free will doesn't entail sin, why did God make humans such that it does?
What obscure rules was god bound by when he had no choice but to kill his son to renew a contract he made with humanity? Do immorals make babies? What does "son of god" actually mean? Why are you performing the pagan rite of Dionysus?
The answer, apparently, is that the bible answers all these questions, but in scrambled order. So to find the answers, pick half a dozen random paragraphs from different books, then pretend they're a connected explanation. With enough wild guessing, you can make it mean something, which you can then pretend was God's intention all along.
Except it only works at JW prayer meetings, which I got invited to, several times. But I'm neither that much of a masochist, nor that much of a sadist. Fortunately for us all.