THE Revd Nicky Gumbel’s retirement this summer as Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, marks the end of the first chapter of the astonishing phenomenon that is “Alpha”. It is a good moment to tell the story of the three decades since 1993, when the Alpha course was launched internationally.
Andrew Atherstone, a Fellow of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, has written a carefully researched account of the development of Alpha as a model of Christian innovation and response to the digital age. It is a sympathetic picture, but not sycophantic. Space is given to the critics, like the Cornish vicar who likened Alpha to a fizzy bottle of Coca-Cola. “But once the fizz has gone what have you got left? It’s Noddy theology. It feeds privatised religion. It’s all about ‘me and my God’.”
Atherstone prints these views without comment, but shows how Alpha and its begetters have evolved over the period.
People like your reviewer, in the springtime of their senility, will remember the old-style evangelism of their youth. There were tent crusades, large gatherings, and star speakers pressing for a “decision”. Alpha, in contrast, began not with doctrine, but with dinner. It was more intimate and interactive. Although the supper element at first, perhaps, reflected the social mores of Kensington, Alpha was a response to the social changes of the 20th century, which involved a diminishing appetite for being told what to do by authority figures. Whereas much of the traditional church used a teacher-pupil style of interaction, the Alpha model was that of host and guest.
Yet, behind the appearance of strict informality in tone and worship there was a relentless emphasis on professionalism in the use of new technology. It takes discipline to achieve the appearance of spontaneity. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, the distinguished religious-affairs correspondent Clifford Longley commented on the Alpha advertising campaign that “they make the Church seem professional, competent, self-confident and up to date.”
Keith EllisThe Revd Nicky Gumbel leads a session an early Alpha Conference at Holy Trinity, Brompton, in February 1995
Atherstone tells the story of a close-knit group of friends, sharing a similar background and intensely loyal to one another, who succeeded in launching and developing an international movement, which now embraces many languages and every continent in the world. At the regular “Leadership Conferences” in the Royal Albert Hall, it is usual to find an ecumenical gathering of Baptist pastors from the Urals, American megachurch leaders, and Roman Catholic cardinals, not looking at one another, but all looking forward together to the Christian future.
Besides embracing the whole spectrum of world Christianity, especially that growing part that has found new life in a particular devotion to the Holy Spirit, the movement has developed and learnt from its critics. Alpha has evolved from “supper-party evangelism” in the Kensington suburbs to a deeper ecumenical spirit and a greater commitment to social transformation. The Covid pandemic has led to increased use of the course online, which has boosted the participation in the UK by 81 per cent from 117,000 in 2019 to 212,000 in 2020.
Innovation and cultural adaptability are part of Alpha’s DNA, and it remains to be seen what the new chapter, opening this year, brings. Meanwhile, this book is a well-written account of the early years of this significant and encouraging Christian enterprise.
The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.
Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the building of a global brand
Hodder & Stoughton £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80
Andrew Atherstone was interviewed about the book on a recent episode of the Church Times Podcast.