CULTS – THE ALPHA COURSE– BELIEFS AND CONTROVERSIES
DATE / LOCATION OF ORIGIN – 1977, in Brompton, London.
Headquarters – Brompton, London.
FOUNDER / LEADER – Reverend Charles Manham, of London – Current leader, from 1990 – Reverend Nicky Gumbel. SCRIPTURE / TEXTS – The Bible. (usually the New International translations).
LEADING SUPPORTERS AND SPONSORS – Luis Palau, (US Evangelist), The Salvation Army, The current Church Of England Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Bear Grylls, Singer / topless model – Samantha Fox., Jonathon Aitken, Rosemary Conley,
ORIGINS AND HISTORY
Few cults advertise as much as The Alpha Course, especially on posters, billboards and on church notice boards. It is their support by mainstream churches not considered cultic that makes the sect particularly disturbing.
The course currently attracts up to 3.000 people a year.
It began as a fairly conventional Bible study group in the late 70’s though it’s leading members became increasingly under the influence of US evangelists and charismatics.
The leaders were successful in encouraging many Christians who had been through the courses and classes back into the churches, which had been haemorrhaging support (and still are on the whole). A marketing campaign by the C of E posted Alpha Course invites to every home in Britain in the 1990’s, and TV promotions have followed many times since. The Courses have had enough success to now be taught globally and non-Protestant churches, including Catholicism, have also shown support for and gained congregation members from the Alpha Courses.
While still acknowledging the Holy Trinity Church at Brompton as its HQ, the main activity of the Course is in private offices nearby, as the church is too small for the Alpha Course printing industry phenomena. As well as Course materials, the books of Nicky Gumbel are widely promoted, despite attracting the bulk of criticism levelled at the sect.
In 1994, Gumbel was in Toronto, visiting the Vineyard Church, based close to the city’s main airport. The church there was involved in intense evangelical teachings that encouraged faith healing and laying on of hands. At some highly attended and well publicised events, preachers and ministers got the congregations into such a heated frenzy that many began to shake, shiver and collapse on the floor screeching in tongues, claiming the Holy Spirit was touching them. The events became known as The Toronto Blessings. Gumbel received this and many believe he tries to promote the same effect through the Alpha Course, on much smaller groups. (A typical course will attract ten to forty participants, depending on the size of venue used.
MAIN BELIEFS – Biblical literalism.
The Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, is given much emphasis, as a being that touches those able to feel it, particularly strongly at a point of conversion and reaffirmation of a neglected or previously non-existing faith.
PRACTICES – A Bible study is conducted in groups over ten weeks, (with occasional extensions and follow ups) usually centred around an informal ‘supper’ with its obvious allusion and associations with The Last Supper. Students are offered a selection of themed presentations on topics like who is Jesus? Why should I pray today? How can I resist Evil? Etc,. There is usually a list of several such topics from which a few are picked to hook the Course on, though few if any of the questions are fully answered by the time the Alpha Course is completed. A weekend retreat for further study is often offered to more enthusiastic pro-Christian participants too. It is at these retreats that the really cultic activity often takes over from the warm feeling inside cod-theology.
The Course involves a host presenter, and video presentations made by the Alpha Course promotion team. Believers and non-believers alike are invited to attend / participate. Unbelievers usually find themselves outnumbered by the believers though.
Beginning as Bible study and analysis, the Courses usually begin to digress after a few weeks, with more focus going onto the Holy Trinity of Brompton’s (HTB) church’s importance. This begins to introduce the importance of the Holy Spirit more and more, and presents elements of the Toronto Blessing (rarely named as being such). From Bible study, the Alpha Course pushes attendees towards a happy-clappy born-again conversion experience. What is presented and advertised as a reading and understanding education, becomes a sensory, emotive experience conversion procedure, with experience of feeling the Holy Spirit flutter through the soul, taking over from understanding any written text.
Many of the videos involve Gumbel himself relating anecdotes from his own conversion, which amounts to having read the Bible, enjoyed it and finding it to be true enough for himself. He cites Biblical quotations to support his views on various issues that appeal to him.
The Course is usually presented free of charge bar a modest contribution being invited to the cost of the food provided. The courses are often promoted and hosted by people who participated in previous runs of the Course, and their guests / participants are encouraged to run the Course too. There is a pyramid selling effect here, though little money changes hands. The Course becomes self-perpetuating.
A TYPICAL ALPHA COURSE
After a purely social meet and greet start to events and the meal, a preliminary Bible talk leads to the first of two video presentations involving Nicky Gumbel talking on the theme of the night. Question and answer sessions follow. As most attendees are already religious, unbelievers often find themselves outnumbered. If not, they may find themselves separated into smaller groups, dominated by the faithful. Sometimes the faithful pray as the meetings begin and end.
As well as home, and church hall or pub based Church study groups, there are Alpha courses specially organized for colleges, the armed forces, prisons, etc.
CONTROVERSIES Regarded as over charismatic, and generally avoiding controversial theological hot potatoes like the Virgin Birth, etc. Follow up courses run independently from the official Alpha events, try to address some such areas.
The Churches, including the C of E and the Roman Catholic Church should be capable of running their own Bible study groups and theological concerns / questions are for priests & vicars to address. The faithful should not require an independent course like Alpha.
Some Alpha Course techniques strike many mainstream Christians as occultic, namely, laying on of hands, Glossolalia (speaking in tongues),
Association with the Toronto Blessing – Gumbel received this Blessing himself in 1984, from Eleanor Mumford, who had been to Toronto
Church Of England members who refuse to attend, or remain on Alpha Courses is sometimes denied the Communion services of their church when other congregation members have completed the courses.
Gumbel often promotes books of her own as well as Bible commentaries and some of her work is criticized as being homophobic.
The Bible teaching is very Jesus centred and suffers some degree of tunnel vision, encouraging acceptance of Gumbel’s thinking rather than broader more personal interpretations by those taking the course.
Few of the questions set as course titles get answered but get used as springboards for inspiration and emotional gut instinct feel good satisfaction in belief. The mood of the meals becomes increasingly evangelical. Churches exploit and promote this as Alpha Course students are encouraged to go to their local churches frequently.
The Course has its adherents get confused between Christian belief and Christian lifestyle.
The Alpha Course tries to appeal to Catholics and Protestants alike and disregards their essential differences, apparent to many since the Reformation.
The Bible is often taken literally and simplistically, making many Alpha teachers Creationists. Stephen Butterfield in an atheistic diary of his full Alpha Course attendance, describes a teacher claiming that pre-Flood creatures on Earth were all vegetarian, including the Great White Shark. The Second Coming Of Jesus, he promises, will restore the Vegan order to all life forms. http://alphacoursereview.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/week-3-how-can-i-be-sure-of-my-faith/
Gumbel is regarded as homophobic, and hostile to supporters of women’s right to abortions. http://www.galha.org/critique-of-alpha-course-attitude-towards-homosexuality/
Gumbel’s methods involve New Age hard sell, slick marketing and hypnotic suggestion. An Alpha Course has been called ‘Coca-Cola religion’.
The Bible is not difficult to read or study. Buy a copy, start at page one and keep going. Make notes, look up critiques online or through libraries. You don’t need an Alpha Course. However, theology is a distressing and often faith-shaking path to take. Many who study scripture find the struggle to weave through Biblical contradictions something of a spiritual minefield. This is why many clergymen fail to attain ordination. The Bible makes as many atheists as believers of those who study it properly. The Alpha Course simply selects the best bits and teaches them in isolation and free of context.
Alpha Course official website http://uk.alpha.org/