Alpha rising

    30 November 2013

    When the announcement was made that Justin Welby, a disciple of the Alpha course, was to become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, his Alpha brethren did not punch the air in triumph. Not publicly, in any case. Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton and the man who turned Alpha into a global phenomenon, made a point of keeping a low profile, travelling abroad on various missions. When I interviewed him earlier this year, he played down HTB’s role in Welby’s ascension, saying, ‘I think we have to believe it is the providence of God.’

    But for all His mysteries, it can hardly be ascribed to coincidence that the head of the Church of England has come from the slickest, richest and fastest-growing division the church has ever seen. The Alpha course is only nanoseconds old within the C of E’s 1,500-year history. It was founded in 1977 by Charles Marnham, and grew under Gumbel during the 1980s. Around 1.2 million people have now taken an Alpha course in the UK, and a further 23 million people worldwide, in 169 countries. Its nucleus is still Holy Trinity Brompton, or HTB, a Victorian church tucked behind the Catholic behemoth of the Brompton Oratory, across the road from Harrods.

    If, 30 years ago, you had predicted that the Archbishop of Canterbury would one day be HTB positive (as it is known), the scoffing would have been heard in Rome. But today, Welby’s ascension is endorsed by almost every side. Stephen Glover and Charles Moore hail him as the man who can bring unity to the church, while Andrew Brown of the Guardian has applauded his attempts to address homophobia. So how did the HTB evangelists, once viewed as guitar-wielding weirdos, manoeuvre themselves into a position of such power?

    For one thing, they don’t call themselves evangelists. The term has connotations of, at best, a goofy Ned Flanders naivety, and, at worst, a brainwashing cult that expects 50 per cent of your salary in the collection bowl. But evangelising is what they do. ‘The Alpha course is for people who don’t go to church,’ explains Mark Elsdon-Dew, a former Express news editor who runs the PR operation. ‘But it’s not a church. It’s a publishing company. It’s a resource for churches to use, to introduce people to Christianity.’

    Gumbel has more staff than the Archbishop of Canterbury, and has been far more influential than Welby for years, but he insists he has never converted anyone to Christianity — ‘that’s the work of the Holy Spirit’. He also bristles at the term evangelical. ‘I hate the word,’ he says. ‘If you torture me, I’m Anglican. It’s not helpful. We label people in order to dismiss them.’

    Gumbel and Welby were at Eton together, and then Trinity College, Cambridge. (Strangely, Charles Moore was another contemporary, though of course he took a different spiritual path.) Their rooms abutted, and though initially they embarked on different careers — Gumbel the law, Welby to become an oil executive — they remained close friends. Since Welby’s enthronement, a clear nexus has opened up between the Archbishop’s office and HTB. Welby was the star speaker at HTB’s sell-out ‘leader’s conference’ at the Royal Albert Hall in May, where more than 5,000 delegates paid £120 to watch him being interviewed by Gumbel. Mark Elsdon-Dew had by then already begun a three-month secondment from HTB to Lambeth Palace, where he conducted a thorough review of the PR operation there. And in June Dr Chris Russell was appointed Welby’s adviser on mission and evangelism. He was previously on the staff of the hugely influential and thriving evangelical church Soul Survivor in Watford.

    As Rowan Williams learnt to his cost, getting the PR right is nine tenths of the challenge. And PR happens to be something Alpha does very well. Their schtick is to be non-threatening, accessible and open. They use clever and well-targeted non-religious marketing to bring in rich and influential people. Typical strategies include posters on buses asking tired commuters if there is something missing in their lives. The first meetings are always friendly and social: a chat and supper, nothing ritualistic. That comes later. And for many, Alpha works: it brings them a new purpose and plugs them into a social scene of like-minded people that happens to involve prayer.

    But according to Alpha’s critics, there is a hidden and not so wholesome agenda to all this. ‘Nothing short of outright victory is what most evangelicals want,’ says the Revd Richard Kirker. ‘The Alpha movement is no different. It exerts its influence by being well-organised and well-funded, and so sure of its own dogma, and so persistent, that it eventually wears down its opponents into passive submission, or drives them away from the church.’

    Kirker is the former chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, an issue on which HTB and Welby take a conservative line. According to HTB, the act of gay sex is a sin, and therefore homosexuals must remain celibate. It has become a thorny issue, and within weeks of assuming office, Welby held talks with the equality campaigner Peter Tatchell. The fact that homosexuals have yet to be accorded equal rights may be an example of the influence Alpha can exert within the wider church.

    ‘George Carey vigorously sought to marginalise gay people when he was Archbishop,’ says Kirker. ‘When Rowan Williams came in, we all thought he would relax Carey’s polices. He had a track record of disagreeing with him on theological issues, and had called for a change on the church’s teaching. But once he was in, he was nobbled and pressurised by the evangelicals, of which Alphas were a main constituent, and bowed to all the threats that flooded in.’

    Perhaps the most startling aspect of HTB is the practice of speaking in tongues. This is when congregants lose control of their voices, apparently overcome by the holy spirit. You only have to watch YouTube clips of the Toronto blessing to get an idea of how disturbing this is. That was the bizarre episode in January 1994 when the entire congregation of a church in Toronto went into a state of mass hysteria; they can be seen crawling around on all fours and howling like animals. Many considered this a cruel con trick played on impressionable people. Gumbel flew straight out to see it and hailed it as a ‘wonderful, wonderful thing’.

    Back in England, he started a quiet but constant programme of expansion. He pioneered the practice of ‘church planting’ — in which a small congregation
    targets a failing church and turns it round. A typical example is St Peter’s in Brighton, which was semi-derelict five years ago. It now has a congregation of 700, under HTB’s former associate vicar Archie Coates.

    If the Alphas are well-organised and well-run, they are also well-funded. They have built up a small but generous clique of donors, who essentially bankroll the whole operation. Though their identities remain secret, high-profile supporters include Nat Wei, the Conservative peer, a charismatic evangelical, and Paul Szkiler, chairman of Truestone Asset Management, who also runs A Call to Business, a network for Christian businessmen. The turnover of Alpha international is £9.6 million, all of which, according to Elsdon-Dew, is spent in the course of the year. ‘It may sound like a lot, but it all goes towards running the course,’ he says. ‘We start again at zero on 1 January.’

    At a time when most Anglican churches are seeing attendance fall, Alpha’s reversal of that trend should be welcome. But some, like Kirker, say the courses do more harm than good. ‘They fundamentally deceive people from the outset,’ he says. ‘They invite people in as if there were no hidden agenda, and they make
    people feel as though they are inadequate for not understanding the meaning of life. They have a message which arrogantly implies that you don’t understand the Christian faith, but they do. It’s presumptuous and manipulative, and can put people off Christianity altogether.’ But even Kirker agrees that HTB’s quiet but efficient takeover is impressive. HTB was once compared to the sci-fi film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers: it looks and acts like the C of E, but one day it will consume it. It’s hard not to believe that day is now at hand.