The latest religious revival to hit Britain has more to do with pasta than pastors. Peter Rhodes reports on the astonishing success of the Alpha Course.
The numbers are puzzling. On the one hand, church congregations are in freefall. On the other, three million folk have eagerly followed the Alpha Course.
Across the world, more than 30,000 of these astonishingly successful courses are in progress. Two of the latest are being held in a Black Country chapel and a Wolverhampton pub.
Does the Alpha Course work? Sharon Phillips, a 40-year-old teacher from Merry Hill, Wolverhampton, has no doubts. She says: “The course had the biggest impact I have ever known. It changed my life.”
She is one of the organisers of the new course at the Bradmore Arms in Wolverhampton which will follow the trade-mark programme of all Alpha courses. After a weekly series of meals, talks and discussions in the pub, members will be invited on a “Holy Spirit Weekend.”
Good food and good company are vital to the Alpha Course. It’s more about pasta than pastors. The name itself stands for:
A – Anyone interested in the Christian faith
L – Learning and Laughter.
P – Pasta, the symbol of eating together.
H – Helping one another.
A – Ask anything. No question is off-limits.
Alpha, founded at a “happy clappy” evangelical church in London and developed over the past 20 years, is easy, approachable, informal and free, apart from a donation towards the food.
Thousands, including disgraced Tory Jonathan Aitken and former topless model Samantha Fox, claim it had brought them closer to God.
But there is a darker side. Critics accuse Alpha of distorting the Biblical message and dabbling in mass hysteria, particularly on residential courses.
Some Alpha participants have reported instances of members falling down, quaking, barking like dogs or laughing uncontrollably in the aisles. Some clergy have condemned Alpha as a cult.
It is popular among the London elite. Sir David Frost is an eager Alpha student. When he presented ITV’s series, “Alpha: Will It Change Their Lives?” two years ago, the National Secular Society lodged a formal objection and furiously denounced the series as “a large advertising puff for a religious initiative about which many people have grave reservations.”
Debbie Herring, a former Alpha course leader in Sheffield, told the BBC that the techniques she was expected to use were similar to those of door-to-door salesmen.
“It became clear very early on that what Alpha was really about was high-pressure selling of a very narrow evangelical agenda, which dismisses and denies whole swathes of Christian teaching and tradition,” she said.
Alpha certainly runs a tight ship. Devised by Nicky Gumbel, a London-based lawyer-turned-priest, Alpha material is protected by copyright.
Nicky Gumbel says this is to ensure that people on Alpha Courses are getting “the real thing.” But critics have described Alpha as the “Coca Cola of Christianity”. It is seen by some as a powerful “brand” which could make other teachings appear second-rate. Gay groups condemn Alpha for being intolerant of homosexuals and other religions.
But Yvonne Naylor, administrator of an Alpha Course at Lake Street Methodist Church in Lower Gornal, is a fervent believer in Alpha.
“It has just grown and grown,” she says. “People enjoy the whole relaxed atmosphere of it. I have never seen any conflict or hysteria.”
On Alpha “Awayday” courses she has seen people “speaking in tongues,” producing a sound which believers say comes from God.
“But there is nothing cultish about that,” she says. “It is about being filled by the Holy Spirit and it is part of the Christian belief.
“The Alpha Course definitely strengthens people’s faith. I am absolutely convinced that it helps people.”
As for criticism of Alpha’s attitude towards gays, Yvonne Naylor says: “I think homosexuality is a personal thing.” Lake Street Methodist Church launched its new Alpha Course last week with 25 members.
The Bradmore Arms course has 40 members. Most of these worship at the nearby St Philip’s Church. The vicar, Jeremy Oakley, has run six Alpha Courses and says: “It enriches the faith of believers and enables non-believers to raise questions in a non-judgmental way.”
He says he has never seen any evidence of Alpha becoming a rival organisation to the Church but he has seen some Alpha students in emotional states.
“I have seen people having a really good and pleasant experience of God’s presence and that sometimes manifests itself in tears.”
The mystery is that while millions have followed Alpha Courses, church attendance is still in decline.
“There will always be people,” says Jeremy Oakley, “who take things on board and really go for it, and those who don’t seem to do much about it. But this is not just about filling churches.”
The Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Rt Rev Michael Bourke, has not attended an Alpha Course, “because it is a considerable time commitment and I am already a committed Christian.” But he welcomes the courses in his parishes.
“I don’t agree with all their theological standpoints and I do find it a bit prescriptive.
“But as a means of introducing people to the Christian faith, the Alpha Course people are doing a pretty good job.”