Repackaging Christianity: how Alpha has become the richest and most powerful brand in the CofE

Holy Trinity Brompton. Image credit: David Castor, Public Domain

Comment by Andrew Brown

The story of Alpha starts at a critical moment in the collapse of the old English governing order, when the Church of England was firmly on their side.

Deference was replaced by ridicule and laughter. What was to become of their church? Alpha, and Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), have their origin in these questions.

In 1964 a Scot from a comfortable landed family, Sandy Millar, joined barristers’ chambers. His father, a major-general, was engineer-in-chief in a newly independent Pakistan’s army; his grandfather a professor of law, and his great-grandfather solicitor-general for Scotland.

As a young, conventionally ambitious barrister he had taken up a post as an HTB churchwarden as one of his social obligations: it was the smartest church in Kensington.

But he came actually to believe in the Gospel story after a weekend house party in the home counties organised by a young woman who sent postcards to 30 of her friends urging them to bring a Bible and a tennis racket for the weekend. Reader, he married her.

He learnt to speak in tongues. He left the law and studied for ordination. He became a curate, and then the vicar of HTB. Laughter came back into the story. But this was the laughter of the charismatic movement: the helpless giggling inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Influenced by American evangelists with names such as Lonnie Frisbee and Rufus Womble, the younger members of conservative evangelical congregations began to experience — as they supposed — the fervour of the apostolic times and the desire to convert the world.

They met round an Aga in the converted garage of a Kensington mews house. They were privately educated, aristocrats, landed gentry, barristers, stockbrokers and many were Cambridge graduates.

The movement would transform HTB — and its section of the British upper classes — from formality and convention to informality and rather different conventions. The charismatic revival unstiffened the upper lip, releasing it to laughter as well as babbling in tongues.

It also became an early and unique selling point for Alpha, a 10-week course where people gather for a sociable evening, washed down with instruction on the HTB version of the Christian faith.

If you took the course, you could expect on week six to have a direct experience of the Holy Spirit. What this meant, though, has changed over the decades.

As the Rev Andrew Atherstone, the author of a history of the Alpha movement, told the Religion Media Centre: “In the 1990s, you would get a very strong emphasis on … speaking tongues, or words of prophecy or falling over. In the 2020s, that’s much more softened now”.

The course direction has been driven by the Rev Nicky Gumbel, who took over from Sandy Millar, retiring last weekend after 17 years as vicar and 46 years in leadership there.

Dr Atherstone explained: “Nicky Gumbel will now say the first evidence of experiencing the Holy Spirit is compassion for the poor. [Charismatic phenomena] will chase away many people and chase away many dominant denominations, but Alpha wants to brand itself usable by everyone. So, it’s toned down that emphasis.”

All this doctrinal shuffling has nothing to do with the truth of Christianity’s historical claims. But the truths of religion appear in the lives of believers, not in their theologies, and these lives are embedded in the society around them.

The extraordinary and creative aspect of Alpha, which I don’t think anyone understood or foresaw, was that in an atomised society it offered a shared experience. By embedding Christian life in small intimate groups, it enabled it to survive in an increasingly hostile world.

To be a Christian involves the believer in two interlinked relationships: one with God, and the other with the surrounding society. The two interact in ways that can reinforce or weaken each other.

Alpha was originally a reaction to the collapse of the traditional relationship between the Church of England and the officer class of the British state. The snobbishness and elitism that were so off-putting and easy to mock for outsiders were absolutely vital to this early stage of growth. They provided a way for posh people to be unfashionably Christian just as Christianity itself became unfashionable among the upper classes.

Later, as more and more of the traditional structures of society broke down, and Christianity became an increasingly toxic brand, Alpha became very much less snobbish and provided a way for more and more Christians to come to terms with their own unfashionability. In this role, it is thriving all around the western world, and especially among Catholics.

Almost all of this growth is a means of reinforcing Christian identity and practice. It is, in Alpha terms, discipling, not evangelism. But they think of it as evangelism — making Christianity attractive to people who are not attracted to it.

However, there is a general numerical decline of Christians in countries where Alpha is most fervently practised. Five million people have taken the Alpha Course in Britain alone, we are told. Where are they? They’re certainly not in church.

Dr Atherstone is a believer. His book is all the more revealing as a result. He quotes, fairly enough, contemporary criticisms of the Alpha project, but he never doubts that its growth is wonderful and significant.

In an interview with the Religion Media Centre, he said Mr Gumbel could be seen as the heir to Billy Graham, a figure of global significance in evangelism.

Mr Gumbel now says he wants Alpha to reach everyone in the world by 2033. He may have retired from HTB, but he leaves it the most powerful church in the Church of England and probably the richest too. It will be fascinating to see if he can repeat this success on a global scale.

Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand by Andrew Atherstone is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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