The problem of the end : a sociological study of the management of apocalyptic faith at Kensington Temple, a London Pentecostal church, at the turn of the millennium
This thesis is a sociological study of the management of apocalyptic belief in Kensington Temple, a Pentecostal church in London, in the years 1997-2000. Apocalyptic or millenarian beliefs, in which the supernatural end of the world lies just around the corner, have often been explained in terms of material deprivation or psychological disturbance. This study shows how members of a church with an apocalyptic tradition reconciled the doctrine of the Second Coming with their daily lives. It rejects the idea that there is a simple cause of apocalyptic beliefs, focussing instead on millenarianism as a form of rhetoric whose prophecies are constantly overtaken by events - a phenomenon referred to as "the Problem of the End". Throughout history, members of apocalyptic religions have modified millenarian theology until its social costs are outweighed by its benefits. In practice, this has often meant the replacement of risky, time-specific predictions of Doomsday (predictive millenarianism) by apocalyptic narratives whose function is to account for features of the contemporary world (explanatory millenarianism). The data from Kensington Temple, which includes the results of a survey of 2,973 worshippers, points in this direction. It shows that worshippers assigned a low priority to the concept of the "End Times", subjecting it to the same rational scrutiny that they applied to other spiritual claims. Almost none of them expected the year 2000 to bring the Second Coming of Christ, though it did serve as a deadline for an unsuccessful plan to create a network of 2,000 church groups that carried eschatological overtones. The thesis concludes that the fragmentation of religious meaning in modern society undermines the plausibility of apocalyptic prophecies, at least in the industrialised West; literal belief in millenarian doctrines is a casualty of secularisation.