The British newspaper The Independent has an article by Matthew Bell on the Alpha Course, which it describes, interestingly, as “British Christianity’s biggest success story.”
Being the Independent, and standing at the far distant extreme of secularism, there are some inevitable digs. We learn, for instance, that “Twenty years ago, evangelical Christianity [in Britain] was a fringe activity, associated with loony American cults.” Well, no, the country was somewhat better acquainted with evangelical faith long before that, and a boom was certainly in progress from the late 1970s at the latest. The journalist is also deeply unhappy at Alpha’s conservative stance on homosexuality.
Having said that, most of the article is surprisingly positive, about the Alpha Course itself, and the man mainly associated with it, Rev. Nicky Gumbel. “Alpha males (!) … may not all clap happily and speak in tongues, but they are all part of an evangelical tide; a global Anglican phenomenon.” Now practiced in 169 countries, the Alpha Course is in the news because one of its alumni, Justin Welby, was recently consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Most striking perhaps is Gumbel’s own background, which resembles Welby’s in that both came from Jewish backgrounds that they did not fully discover until their adult years. Both also had thriving professional careers that they gave up to enter the priesthood. Gumbel was converted at university in the mid-1970s: “My degree was then in economics, and I really had nothing to do. So I read the New Testament. And I could not believe what I was reading. I was so struck by it, by the story of Jesus. His character, his words, his parables. It just had the ring of truth.”
The article concludes: “With 20 million people around the world now thought to have experienced an Alpha course, it’s hard not to see Gumbel as a crusading evangelist. ‘I hate the word evangelical! If you torture me, I’m Anglican. But it’s not helpful. We label people in order to dismiss them. . . . I personally feel very optimistic about the church, about the new Pope, about the new Archbishop. We are in a new season. There is so much interest. I’ve never experienced so many young people pouring into church’.”
Definitely worth reading.
Cross-post at the Anxious Bench.