Is Alpha and HTB as bad as Alex Preston says?
Last Sunday I was on my way to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) for their 7pm service. On the way, I went into a second-hand book store on Kensington Church Street. I picked out a book called The Revelations, thinking it was about spiritual experiences. It turned out to be a novel about someone who lives on Ken Church Street, who goes to a church based on HTB, which turns out to be a sinister cult. So I bought it and read it.
The novel centres around a church called St Botolphs on the Kings Road (HTB is on the Brompton Road) full of good-looking and affluent young Christians, led by a charismatic vicar called David Nightingale (Nicky Gumbel) who runs an evangelical programme called The Course (Alpha). It advertises itself as being a series of open discussions about the meaning of life, but it’s really just promoting evangelical Christianity. Participants have a meal, sing some Christian rock songs, listen to a talk by David, then go downstairs to have a discussion in small groups. Half-way through the Course, they go on a Retreat to the countryside, where they’re encouraged to open up to the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. The Course also has a financier-figure called the Earl (Ken Costa) who builds lucrative connections with the City.
The author, Alex Preston, did English at Oxford shortly after me, then left to work in the City, like me. Well, I worked as a financial journalist, he worked in a hedge fund. He wrote a book about the vacuous materialism of finance, called This Bleeding City, which was a big hit. The Revelations is his second book, inspired by his experience of doing the Alpha course at HTB.
Preston leaves us in no doubt that the Course is a harmful cult. Nightingale is fixated on the Course’s success. The Course leaders are put under intense pressure to convert people. The participants are carefully monitored and information kept on them. Everything must be done for the sake of the Course.
Nightingale prides himself on his success (‘I’ve built something astonishing here’) and dreams of being a ‘tele-evangelist....beamed out on prime time to the homes of a million fawning fans’. The Earl, meanwhile, only cares about the money, and gets back-handers from his links to Course-connected hedge funds.
The Course’s ethics are riven with hypocrisy - it’s fine for rich converts to be ruthless in business, as long as they give 10% of their income to the Course. Sex before marriage is a definite no-no, but the Course helpers still shag around and then feel guilty. One of the main characters’ sexual promiscuity leads to her mysterious disappearance, which is then covered up in classic cult fashion - nothing must damage the expansion of the Course.
What Preston has created is a portrait of a secular self-help programme like Landmark Education, where all the focus is on promoting Landmark, getting people signed up to Landmark, hyping the reputation of Landmark, making money for Landmark. I wrote about Landmark in my book. It then threatened to take legal action against me, saying I’d left after day two of the three-day introduction so wasn’t qualified to write about it. Landmark certainly does keep careful tabs on who attends and when they leave.
But HTB seems to me a different kettle of fish. It’s part of the Church of England, not its own profit-making entity. The Alpha course is free. They don’t take your phone number and don’t follow up if you drop out, as many people do. They don’t care if journalists do the course and write about them, and I don’t think they’ve ever sued a journalist (a sure sign of a cult). I blogged about Alpha while doing the course, at times critically, and it was never mentioned.
The main way Alpha is different to Preston’s Course is its focus on Jesus. It talks about Jesus from Day One. Everything is about Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and your relationship with God. In Preston’s version, by contrast, it’s all about The Course. Characters constantly say things like ‘you must keep quiet, for the sake of the Course’. There is no real sense of a relationship with Jesus, or God, or any higher spiritual reality. In fact, Jesus is only mentioned four times in the book, three times as an expletive. There is only this world, only The Course. In this sense, it reminds me of Landmark.
Secondly, the book might lead people to think Nicky Gumbel is like David Nightingale. He’s not. Gumbel is not motivated by ‘money, money, money’ as Preston seemed to suggest in an interview. He lives in a small vicarage, he rides a bike. I have interviewed many gurus, and have a strong ego-radar. ‘Humble Gumbel’, as he is known, is not an egotist or a narcissist, despite Alpha’s global success. His humility comes from a faith in God, not in The Course or himself. And he is not the creepy control-freak that Nightingale is - HTB is far too large, far more devolved for that, even if Gumbel was an authoritarian personality, which he isn't.
What are the fair criticisms?
Still, the book does hit some marks. HTB does perhaps have a class issue. Its leadership is public-school-dominated, although the congregation is very international. It is full of smiley pretty people, and has a vibrant social scene, which can become a bubble, an end in itself. Occasionally it’s a little too nice and clean-cut, and makes you want to swear. But the idea that the church is full of city-sharks is not true. I’ve met lots of people who go to HTB or a sister-church who work with charities like the Sophie Hayes Foundation, Tear fund, XLP, Only Connect or the William Wilberforce Trust. Alpha itself runs in 85% of UK prisons, and unlike most prison courses it can offer ex-offenders a community on the outside. It was the charitable work of Christians that first attracted me to them.
As Preston suggests, HTB is quite good at generating ecstasy through music and ritual. That freaks some rationalists out, but I think it's important - we need the transcendent and ecstatic in our materialist culture, and there’s something to be said for getting it through singing at church rather than in a warehouse on a pill. I agree that contemporary Christian music can sometimes be ‘ripped-off stadium rock’ (although a lot of rock is often ripped-off gospel) but sometimes it is moving to hear a whole church singing together and feel the wave of sound carrying you. I love that feeling, even more when it’s directed at God rather than a rock-star or a sports team.
But perhaps the Alpha course perhaps focuses too much on encountering the Holy Spirit on the weekend retreat. A lot of people don’t feel the Spirit on the weekend, and then think ‘why not me?’ I suspect some people are just built differently, are less prone to trance states - that doesn’t mean they’re less close to God.
The intellectual foundations of Alpha, by contrast, were less convincing for me. It’s Protestantism 101: ‘there was Original Sin, then Jesus paid the debt, but the Devil still makes bad stuff happen, but we have the Holy Spirit to comfort us’. That’s not enough for me. I hunger for a broader and more culturally sophisticated Christianity, as I think Preston does too. But I have never felt hampered in my ability to go and look for that. My relationship is ultimately with God, not with HTB or Gumbel and certainly not with Alpha.
What about HTB / Alpha’s attitude to sex? Gumbel has been criticized a lot for saying in the past that homosexuality is a sin. He doesn’t say it anymore, but I think he still thinks it’s a regrettable ‘lifestyle choice’. Plenty of people in HTB, by contrast, think homosexuality is not a choice and not a sin. But the church is hardly a leader in protecting gays from homophobia in others or themselves. Gumbel has said he wants the church to be ‘famous for love’. On this issue, it’s not there yet.
As for the general sexual climate of the church, Preston may have a point that the pretty girls of HTB draw in men, siren-like, to their salvation (or destruction, depending on your viewpoint). That’s often been the way in Christianity, and in other communities (how many men joined protest movements hoping for a shag?). Two guys in my group did the course because their Christian girlfriends asked them to. That’s not weird: people prefer to marry someone who shares their metaphysics, otherwise you’re basically living in different realities. Neither of them converted.
There is something of a confusion of the erotic and the sacred in evangelical Christianity, as in other religions. That confusion is inevitable because, as Socrates said, the urge to sex and the urge to God are mixed up together. I remember once hearing a lady have a Holy Spirit moment at a service, and it sounded like a particularly intense orgasm. It's because of that closeness of the erotic and sacred that, as a community, you need to be careful to protect people in it, particularly from predatory leaders.
HTB, unlike Preston's church, is pretty well-behaved in this department. The sex is mainly sublimated into religious ecstasy. The curates all look like they're in boy-bands but they don't exploit their flock. There’s a fair amount of flirting among the single people, but on the whole they seem to adhere to an unspoken ‘no sex before marriage’ ethic, which is obviously quite out-of-step with our culture. I don't personally follow it - my own slightly-tortured position is not to have sex with someone unless I'm open to the possibility it might lead to a baby and I might spend my life with them.
Is HTB / Alpha pressurizing?
Does HTB pressurize people in its attempt to ‘evangelize the nation’? It can do. You're not pressured to convert, but the church is quick to seize on any success stories and use them as adverts (or 'testimony'). Like Landmark, in fact.
After doing Alpha, I was asked to give my ‘testimony’ at some services. Not pressured, just asked. For some stupid reason (vanity) I thought this would be a relaxed conversation between equals. In fact, Nicky told me before we went on stage ‘you’ll be there for a minute so keep it really simple. Think of it like a detergent advert: before, dirty shirt, then Alpha, now clean shirt’. So I went on stage with Nicky, in front of 500 of the faithful at HTB. How was your life before Alpha? Fine. How was Alpha? Fine. How is your life now? Fine. Compared to everyone else’s testimony of miraculous redemption, mine was a definite damp squib. And I had to go to two more services and do the same thing again, St Peter-style.
It left a bad taste in the mouth and for a while put me off the church. I felt there is a risk of commoditizing people into adverts for Alpha. Don't simplify the complexity of the religious journey to 'lost, saved, next!' It showed there is indeed a potential danger that Alpha becomes an end in itself, a slick marketing machine - not to get money or power, but to fish souls for God. Sometimes the fishing feels a little industrial. This comes, I think, from Gumbel’s sense that while HTB is helping the C of E grow in London, everywhere else it’s potentially facing extinction. No surprise, then, if there is a sense of urgency.
But I stress I think this is just a tendency to watch out for - I don’t think Alpha is the super-evangelizing brain-washing machine its critics suggest. The only non-Christian in my group who became a Christian was me - and I was a Stoic theist before, so it wasn’t a big leap. People go on it because they want to find God, so it’s not surprising some of them do. And a lot of its supposedly high-pressure techniques are really just group dynamics - giving people a space to talk together, eat together, sing together, pray together. What’s weird is not that Alpha meets that basic need. It’s that secular culture fails to do so.
One of the characters in the book says that the Course answers a ‘fundamental need’ in us for community, for ethics, for transcendent experience. ‘Just become people need something, it doesn’t mean we should give it to them’, answers another.
Well, I think it does. How will our post-religious culture meet that need? Preston, now doing a PhD in English, seems to look to culture as a substitute for the church, and to ‘literary priests’ like Gerard Manley Hopkins. That’s definitely one answer, but I’m not sure it entirely answers our fundamental need for community, ethics and collective transcendent experience. Personally, I think it’s a lot better to meet that need via a centuries-old, not-for-profit, and basically friendly organisation like the Anglican Church, rather than a New Age for-profit corporation like Landmark.
People of our generation, Preston’s and mine, have taken the church for granted, as this faintly ridiculous part of our cultural landscape that will always be there, like an old uncle who turns up at Christmas. But it’s close to disappearing, just at the time we may need it most. As a generation, I think we need to get over our tendency to aloofness, to individualism. We need to tend the garden before it dies completely.
Here's an interesting interview Preston did with Premier radio about his attitude to HTB and faith in general.