Tony Roake wonders why the promoters of Alpha are hell bent on suppressing diversity

NEARLY TWENTY years ago, when I was a curate in Nottingham, our parish helped pilot a course called Saints Alive, which had been written by the then vicar of St Margaret’s, Aspley, one John Finney, and his pastoral assistant, Felicity Lawson. Since then, John and Felicity have moved on to new things, and have, along the way, collaborated with others in producing the Emmaus teaching programme published by the Bible Society.

Saints Alive emerged during a time when the charismatic renewal movement was taking hold in the Church of England. Our parish stood within the Catholic tradition and St Margaret’s, Aspley was evangelical in background, yet Saints Alive proved a good fit, and a more than useful tool in bringing people to Christ and into a personal experience of the healing love of God.

Eventually, Saints Alive was taken up by Anglican Renewal Ministries and marketed quite widely. On reflection, Saints Alive was quite clearly a forerunner of Alpha, thereby proving the truth of the adage that there really is nothing new under the sun. Yet Saints Alive did not capture the imagination of the Church in the way that Alpha has. Alpha’s phenomenal success and influence has made a widespread impact on the Church in this country right across the churchmanship board. In my present deanery alone, nearly every parish has, at the very least, discussed the possibility of using Alpha, such is its reputation, and many have adopted it as a means of bringing people to Christ.

Yet, despite all this success and popularity, all is not calm on the Alpha front. Alpha is owned and produced by Holy Trinity, Brompton (henceforward “HTB”). HTB has found it necessary to issue a warning about copyright to users of Alpha. Users are told in no uncertain terms that they must neither, “depart from, not qualitatively alter”, the teaching outlined in the Alpha course and that any changes or alterations must be minor and confined to use in the parish or church making the alterations. There is also a proviso that any alteration should not change the “essential character of the course”.

All of this is understandable because HTB has discovered that some churches and Christian groups are using the name of Alpha to describe something else entirely – it is clearly wrong to be marketing something in a bogus manner. However, I believe that it is also possible to detect, as a sub-text of the HTB statement on copyright, a degree of antipathy on the part of HTB toward those who take a “pick and mix” attitude to Alpha. Yet, from my researches and experience it would appear that a large number of those using Alpha take a more casual approach to it than HTB would seem to be prepared to countenance.

Given Alpha’s startling success and popularity, it must seem churlish and ungrateful to attempt any criticism of it, yet the ubiquity of the “pick and mix” approach does beg the question: ‘Why do parishes treat Alpha as a flexible friend?”

Part of the answer can be found in a dissatisfaction with the content. For instance, some parishes and groups have felt that there is insufficient emphasis on the Trinity and have consequently produced an extra session on the Fatherhood of God. Others, whilst understanding that the purpose of Alpha is, as its name suggests, a starter-course for non-Christians and fringe members, have felt that bringing people to new birth in Christ on a firm foundation requires much more emphasis on repentance and the Cross and have modified Alpha accordingly. Some have found the charismatic emphasis on speaking in tongues and healing unbalances the course and have played these sections down.

These are significant criticisms, and are modifications that would seem to fall foul of the recent strictures from HTB. However, my overall impression of the way in which Alpha has been used is that it has been used widely on a “pick and mix” basis and has seldom been taken “neat”. My hope is that HTB will recognise this and not apply the rules too harshly and quench the blessing. In any event, HTB has implicitly recognised the difficulty which Anglican Catholics have with aspects of Alpha by virtue of its preparation of a version designed for Roman Catholics. It will be interesting to see what alterations will be made to content, and to monitor the uptake amongst Anglicans of this revised course.

No course devised by man will be perfect; some will be better than others, and some will succeed where similar ones fail. A major factor in the success of Alpha, sometimes despite its content it must be said, is the style of the course. A key element here is the meal which acts as a focus for relaxed and friendly relationships amongst the participants, both leaders and course members. This relaxed atmosphere makes it easier to ask questions, and to display one’s ignorance without fear of embarrassment. Undoubtedly, this has contributed in a big way to the successful spread of Alpha, and churches can learn a lot from this simple exercise in creating an atmosphere which helps people to be open to the Lord and to one another. Interestingly, one only has to look to the Gospels to see the precedent for such an approach. It would be a great shame if flexibility were to be restricted with regard to the way Alpha is being altered, modified and supplemented by different traditions in differing circumstances. After all, nobody has copyright of the Gospel or a monopoly of the methods which Jesus used to teach about the Kingdom.

I hope that HTB doesn’t lose a sense of proportion and perspective in all of this by taking itself a little too seriously. Alpha is a God-given tool for evangelism and God is using it to bring many into the Kingdom. The adoption of a generous and humble approach, and the recognition of God’s grace in all of this, will see the blessing continue and grow.

Tony Roake is Vicar of St Andrew’s, Bennett Road, Bournemouth in the diocese of Winchester.