Observer Magazine, 1992-05-31. Richard Askwith. Extracts from an excellent article reprodu

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Observer Magazine, 1992-05-31. Richard Askwith. Extracts from an excellent article reproduced without permission. Dr Morris Cerullo, evangelist, is a little man with big plans. Like Napoleon; except that Morris Cerullo's plans are much bigger. You may have heard of him. In America he is mentioned in the same breath as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts (though woe betide the journalist who mentions him in the same breath as Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker). His San Diego-based organisation, Morris Cerullo World Evangelism, has an annual budget of $12 million. He has his own television station (the Inspirational Network, bought from Jimmy Swaggart), his own television studios, offices in 30 countries, more than 500,000 specially trained 'partners' preaching on his behalf in more than 100 countries, and followers - millions of them - all over the world. In three weeks' time his 'Mission to London' begins at Earl's Court. Nearly 100,000 people are expected to see him there. About six weeks after that, his new satellite television channel, European Family Network, is due to begin broadcasting 39 hours a week of religious programming - including is own flagship program, Victory With Morris Cerullo - to more than two million British homes (and about 30 million elsewhere in Europe), making him Britain's first televangelist. By 1993, if all goes well, EFN may be broadcasting 24 hours a day. And that, as Cerullo sees it, is only the beginning. You may have seen his advertising. A typical poster shows a photograph of an abandoned wheelchair and announces that, at Earl's Court from 21 to 28 June, 'some will be moved by the power of God for the first time'. In other words, Morris Cerullo will perform miracles. If this rings a bell, it may be because it reminds you of his altercations last year with the Independent Television Commission. The ITC complained to SuperChannel, the European satellite stations then showing the programme to a handful of British homes, about scenes of purported miraculous healing in Victory With Morris Cerullo. SuperChannel, wary of infringing the terms of its British license, suspended the programme. Following negotiations, however, it was restored, and you can still watch it on SuperChannel today, preceded by a disclaimer which recommends 'all persons experiencing illness ot seek medical attention' and admits that 'Morris Cerullo World Evangelism cannot substantiate the claims made by those participants featured in this programme'. The scenes of healing - of which more later - remain. [...] His services (in common with those of many charismatic preachers) are almost invariably marked by 'miraculous' scenes of people speaking in tongues and being 'slain by the Spirit'. For the last 40 years they have also been marked by miracles of physical healing. God still speaks to him regularly, and occasionally dictates books to him. I have met him (Cerullo, that is), and I am convinced he believes all this. [...] Many respectable people take him seriously. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, is said to be an admirer. More than 150 London churches will be co-operating with the Mission to London. And the ITC, whose rules make it all but impossible for 'a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a religious nature' to hold a broadcasting license, has recently seen fit to grant a license to the European Family Network. [...] Whether the 'miracles' were real or not is not for me to say. In two nights I saw nearly 100 people testify that Jesus had healed them through Cerullo; many of them subsequently did so in writing as well. It seemed inconceivable that they could all be 'plants'. Most seemed ordinary, not very educated people whose lives had left them well acquainted with grief and who believed - wanted to believe - that they were healed. All seemed passionate in their faith in God, Christ and Cerullo - and to have had their faith redoubled by Cerullo's hypnotic chanting and the infectious enthusiasm of the crowd. [...] On the second night, Cerullo seemed to overreach himself. First there was a woman who was practically dragged out of her wheelchair by the ushers before he abandoned the idea that she was being healed; then there were a couple of people who didn't fall over when they were supposed to when Cerullo slew them with the spirit and had, it seemed, to be pushed; then there was a car accident victim who fell over after Cerullo threw away his crutches and leg brace; and then there were the cancer victims. Seized with a conviction that 'there's an anointing here for the healing of growths', Cerullo summoned everyone with a tumour to stand in a group in front of the stage. About 100 people hobbled up, some looking horribly ill. For 10 minutes they listened to his intoxicating, impassioned chants, holding hands. Then he walked among them, slaying them with the Spirit, and pronounced them healed. [...] The response was disappointing. About a dozen people eventually went up on stage, none of whom struck me as making a particularly good case for a miracle having occurred. In some cases the cancer that was supposed to have disappeared turned out to have been suspected rather than diagnosed; in others, while the pain might have gone (which was understandable in that atmosphere), it was difficult to see how the person could possibly know whether the tumour had vanished or not. Cerullo changed the subject to deafness. Back in the audience, the unhealed cancer sufferers trudged sadly back to their seats. Two faces stick in my mind: a grey-faced man in a grey suit, his eyes staring blindly ahead of him in newly confirmed despair; and a teenage girl who leapt and twisted about, weeping, apparently trying to dislodge a growth in her abdomen that had refused to disappear, bravely muttering 'Hallelujah' to show that her faith was not wavering. 'Surely you must believe after that?' a member of the audience said to me afterwards. Which just goes to show that what you see is what you expect to see. I thought the second night was a flop, even if you assumed the 'miracles' were real. Everyone else who was there - most of them born-again charismatic Christians - seemed to think that it had been an awesome display of God's power. Which of us was wrong? My scepticism is based on two beliefs. The first is that miracles are impossible by definition and that an inexplicable event no more implies supernatural intervention by God than a mundane one. The second is that the version of the world proposed by Morris Cerullo and his followers is inherently improbable, and that a God who went to all the trouble and controversy of creating a world in which people were afflicted by incurable diseases through no fault of their own but then arranged to cure isolated instances of those diseases through the exclusive agency of a vulgar little American who looked like Bob Monkhouse would, as Nietzsche once said in a similar context, 'be so absurd that, even if he existed, he would have to be abolished.' [...] I accept that he is honest, sincere, disinterested and hard working. I accept that he cares about his flock and that he helps many of them to endure or enjoy life better than they would otherwise have done. I even accept that some people may have been healed at his meetings. Yet the gospel he preahes remains pernicious because it is based on false promises. [...] His sense of infallibility is as awesome as it is misplaced. His attempts at humour are woefully heavy handed. His world leaves no place for spontaneity, irony or dissent - any more than his meetings have room for those who refuse to be born again. If that is the flavour of salvation, he can keep it.


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