I signed up for the Alpha Course at Christchurch, a new Church of England church on Luton's Bushmead estate.
The course started in September and was preceded by an Alpha Supper in a Luton Hotel. The main speaker was former sports journalist Adrian Holloway who spoke about how his life had changed after he allowed Christ into his life. He now is part of the Alpha organisation of which more later. Another speaker told us of how he had two failed marriages, was bankrupt and tried to kill himself by burning his cottage down. He failed and was imprisoned for arson. His life changed when he followed an Alpha Course in prison and he let the Holy Spirit into his life. Alpha is very popular in prison. Presumably you have the choice of remaining "banged up " or discussing the true meaning of life with fellow lags for ten weeks.
The course was being run at ten Luton churches. Each week starts with supper and at Bushmead this was provided by some of the small home groups in the church. Alpha is free, although there are recommended books several of which are written by Nicky Gumbel the Alpha leader. There was the chance to make a donation for the food.
It's worth finding out about the format of your course. Some churches use the videos provided by Alpha. These show Nicky Gumbel talking to a large group of well-heeled beautiful people at a Pontins holiday camp or at HTB - Holy Trinity Brompton where he is vicar. HTB appeals to the Kensington set and they all are in their twenties and thirties. They listen enraptured as Gumbel runs though each week's course lecture. Nicky Gumbel is a superb communicator bringing anecdotes to life from notes in a little leather bound notebook.
Other churches like Bushmead prefer to deliver their own courses. Christchurch vicar Simon Dust and his wife Debbie take the course themselves using power point presentaions prepared at HTB but customised by the individual users. In each case the group then splits for discussion and many see this as the most valuable part of Alpha.
My work commitments meant I occasionally visited other courses… either the Senior Alpha at Bushmead or the group at St Lawrence Bradwell in Milton Keynes. The vicar at St Lawrence, Andy Jowitt, uses the videos rather than the Powerpoint presentation.
The course starts by looking at Jesus, why he died and then the Resurrection. By week four comes the first Alpha "googly". That week's talk is "How can I be sure of my Faith?" At this stage many people say that they didn't remember making that commitment.
Alpha has a special awayday or away weekend where the subject is the Holy Spirit. I will give you my account of this experience which I found and still find disconcerting.
Work commitments meant I couldn't join the Luton churches at their awayday in Barton. So the weekend after I went to the National Badminton Centre in Milton Keynes to join the Alpha group there. After watching THREE Nicky Gumbel videos the group were asked to pray that the Holy Spirit visit them. A simple prayer was put to music "Pour Over Me".
I found that I was an observer rather than a participant. Some people were crying out loud while others started to speak in tongues or even sing in tongues. One woman collapsed and many were deeply visibly moved. On the Sunday after another video the spirit was invited in again. All I felt was a thumping headache.
I spoke to several people about the experience. The gift of tongues is a visible gift from the Spirit and I wasn't sure if I was in a room of Spirit "junkies "getting their fix - almost A level Christians. A vicar friend of mine explained that it didn't have to be like this and he felt the Holy Spirit already worked in me through the 'Melting Pot' programme. As for the tongues, I felt that when the Disciples spoke in tongues it meant they had the gift of talking other languages not complete gobbledegook. One woman told me that it was her own intimate language shared with God… in the same way we have intimate language for talking to babies or lovers.
The Luton awayday was not quite so spectacular apparently, altough a couple of sceptical members of the group shared my concerns at the visitation by the Spirit if that's what it was. There was a force there and people were moved. Whether it was group auto-suggestion I don't know, but I think anyone entering Alpha needs to know about this part of the course.
I managed to interview Nicky Gumbel on 'Melting Pot'. I had to jump through hoops to get him and my research suggested that he didn't do interviews. So I approached the HTB press office. I then spoke to Nicky Gumbel's communication manager who passed my request to the Director of Communications. This all goes to show what big business Alpha has become. After checking my credentials with Simon Dust, HTB granted an audience.
Nicky oozed the same reassuring charm that comes across in the videos. He was formerly a lawyer and his communication skills will have worked equally well in court. He said that the Away Weekend was where people "got the message". At the end of the interview I had the same headache. Strange.
|Listen to Nicky Gumble speak to Ian Pearce on BBC Three Counties Radio's Melting Pot:
Nicky Gumbel interview >
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After the weekend, Alpha continues, looking at prayer and healing and examines the notion of church before winding up at a celebratory supper.
So what do I think?
Alpha is a useful vehicle to give people the opportunity to discuss the meaning of life and death. You make friendships and even though Christchurch is not my local church I am made to feel welcome there at any time. People say I've changed and most certainly I've talked to people about Alpha. I feel Alpha is prescriptive and very much focuses on the New Testament and the writings of Paul. Obviously there's not enough time for it to be anymore than an introduction.
You get the impression that Alpha has become a behemoth. The churches offer Alpha free of charge yet have to buy the course materials. They even have to buy the car stickers from HTB. HTB are very strict on how it is delivered and you can't leave out the weekend away. The videos are regularly updated and mean that the course can be led by anybody.
I feel though that many clergy use Alpha as a crutch. Its popularity has helped churches survive and even grow and millions of people have been on an Alpha course. I believe that some clergy could actually do better themselves and this would enable them to make the courses they offer relevant to their communities and congregations. However Alpha is a visible highly marketed product and this contributes to the success of the course.
How Alpha would work for you depends on your faith, your expectations and your level of resistance to what is happening. At no stage did I feel under any pressure to do anything I didn't want to do. My reservations about the away weekend must be tempered by the fact I was out of my "comfort zone" with another group. I have enjoyed the companionship and conversation at Alpha and the food has been excellent.