The Independent recently ran an article gushing with praise for the Alpha Course, calling it “British Christianity’s biggest success story“. I can understand that in a world where results are what gets you noticed, but having attended an Alpha Course once upon a time, I still find it both appalling and wryly amusing that the church is putting so much weight on a course that’s so fundamentally dishonest.
I went on the course at a time when I was feeling uncertain of my faith, the best part of ten years ago. I thought a return to the basics might be just what I needed, so I booked myself in and prepared to ask my questions.
Before I go any further, and to forestall common defences of Alpha, I want to emphasise that I was under no illusions about the theology of the course, but that was what I wanted at the time, and I desperately wanted to believe. I also know that courses vary massively in tone and content, even though this is against the wishes of Nicky Gumbel and Holy Trinity Brompton, but the course I attended worked through the standard videos and books. What I experienced was the very core of Alpha.
The first couple of weeks were pleasant and inoffensive. Gumbel’s video talks were relatively vague and platitudinous, but our group had some interesting discussions. Some knew nothing about Christianity, some knew quite a lot, and one guy was always asking about Islam, which was a bit odd, and suggested he was probably attending the wrong course. The one thing that puzzled me was that no one was prepared to correct obvious errors and misunderstandings.
That all started to change soon enough. When Gumbel introduced the Bible, suddenly all the fluff was moved to one side. A couple of weak, hackneyed arguments about the provenance of the Bible were rushed through as if they had a train to catch, and from that point on, it was expected that any question could be resolved by appealing to the Bible as an infallible book of rules.
It was also about this time that the course organisers started to get far more involved. From not correcting misunderstandings, suddenly they were pretty obviously starting to tell everyone what to think. I’ve since read Gumbel’s book on running an Alpha Course, and this is what they’re told to do – avoid correction or criticism for the first few weeks, then start hitting them hard with the party line. It’s a deliberate strategy.
When I’m asked to describe Alpha, the phrase I use most often is bait-and-switch. The whole thing is based on the idea of friendly discussion, but quickly becomes an RE lesson. We have some old fragments of parchment containing copies of Biblical texts, therefore we can assume that it’s all 100% true. We’re just going to talk about some issues, except for when we go off on the Holy Spirit Weekend!
The what? Yes, you read correctly – the Holy Spirit Weekend.
I could say a lot of things about the Holy Spirit Weekend. It’s undoubtedly clever, but I think it’s also deeply cynical and manipulative. Everyone goes away somewhere to learn about the Holy Spirit. Why do you need to go away for a weekend? Because the unspoken intention is that the new hothouse environment will facilitate a spiritual experience that will get you hooked. One session is even called “How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?”
Clever churches get some church members to come along as well, ostensibly to help out on a more intensive weekend, but it also has the handy advantage of helping to create the right atmosphere. A bunch of confused Brits aren’t an ideal group if you want to encourage ecstatic spiritual experiences, but throw in a few people who know the drill (trust me, there is one) and it tips the balance considerably.
The weekend is at the heart of the entire course. The first few weeks deal with some basic housekeeping and weed out timewasters, and then they want you to be hooked as soon as possible. So they take you off somewhere strange, fill the place with music and people speaking strange languages, and wait for the payoff.
After that, the rest of the course seems slightly dull, stacking additional layers on top of what’s previously been discussed. If you’re in by this point, you’ll lap it up. If not, it’s just more data on what Christians believe, which will probably leave you cold, but might possibly be enough to convince you to “graduate” to church at the end of the course.
You might have gathered that I’m not a fan. I think the course is dishonest in its advertising and its arguments, sometimes manipulative, and always cynical. Finding out quickly moves into being taught, and then into emotional exploitation in unfamiliar group settings, all step by step, like a frog being boiled alive.
If a recognised cult was behaving like this, you wouldn’t be surprised.
Ever get the feeling you can’t win?
In the latest episode in the long-running saga of same-sex marriage, the government have published their proposed legislation, and a particular section has attracted a huge amount of attention. Religious bodies will be permitted to act as they wish, with two exceptions: the Church of England (CofE) and the Church in Wales (CinW) will be specifically banned from conducting same-sex marriages.
The immediate reaction to this peculiar clause has been interesting. Some have called it ridiculous, some have complained that it restricts religious freedoms, and some have even seen it as revenge for the CofE’s rejection of female bishops a few weeks ago. No conspiracy has been left unvoiced, but the reality is a little more complicated than it appears.
The position of the CofE as the established church (and to a large extent the CinW as a historic offshoot of the CofE) is constitutionally quite complicated. The state and the church are intertwined, and that throws up some oddities, the most important being that their clergy are entitled to register marriages on their own, while other religions and denominations perform services under licence. That may appear to be an administrative detail, but it has significant consequences.
In most cases, a minister of religion could refuse to marry a couple on grounds of conscience without a fuss. They could still be married by the state, and all this would have no more practical impact on the couple than if they were denied communion. But the CofE and CinW act as agents of the state in performing both religious and civil functions. If they were to say no to a couple, the freedom of religion would be tangled up with the civil function, and that’s where the problems come in.
One of the fears that was raised in the consultation process was that once same-sex marriage was legal, it would be possible to take legal action against the church if they refused to marry a couple, especially if they would have gone ahead had the couple been a man and a woman. That wouldn’t stand a chance in most cases, as religious freedom would win out, but where the claimed discrimination was on behalf of the state, it’s conceivable that the courts would have upheld the case. Explicitly banning the church from carrying out such an act protects them from that risk.
Nor is the ban likely to be permanent. In the event that the churches decide that they wish to permit same-sex marriage, it would be as simple as striking out a clause in the legislation in recognition of the decision taken by General Synod. And given the church’s recent behaviour, that could easily be arranged by the time they catch up in a couple of centuries.
This proposal ensures that in line with the wishes of the CofE and CinW, they can’t be forced to conduct marriages against their will, so you’d think that everyone would be happy. But you’d be wrong. Some supporters of same-sex marriage are unhappy that too much ground is being conceded, even though the CofE and CinW have no intention of marrying same-sex couples anyway, and forcing them to do so would enter very dangerous territory. And opponents are unhappy because… actually, I’m not sure why.
As far as I can see, all the genuine fears and concerns that were raised by religious groups have been addressed, religious freedoms have been protected, and anyone opposing same-sex marriage shouldn’t be bothered at being told not to do something they didn’t want to do anyway.
I suppose you just can’t please some people.
(Sorry about that!)
Rowan Williams has announced that he is to step down from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year. So it seems an appropriate time to consider his legacy as an Archbishop. I’ve found his quiet, thoughtful approach a breath of fresh air, especially when compared to his predecessor, but his academic leanings, while contributing to that thoughtfulness, have also been a hindrance in other aspects of the job.
Despite his own liberal views, he’s always seen his role as reflecting the views of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, rather than leading them. As a result, he’s conscientiously taken great care to be balanced in dealing with the various disputes, even when the agenda has been dominated by views he would personally disagree with. Sadly, that’s only led to attacks from the liberal wing, while the conservatives continued to distrust and dislike him as much as ever.
Part of the difficulty he’s faced has been due to circumstances – he inherited a divided church, with various factions pulling in different directions and the whole body split in two on the subjects of women priests and homosexuality. This has continued, with the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) breaking an agreement by electing Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered man, as Bishop of New Hampshire, and appointing Katharine Jefferts Schori as their Presiding Bishop, or head of the church in the US, provoking angry reactions from traditionalists on both issues.
Meanwhile, the conservative wing has become ever more vociferous, with the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) meeting in Jerusalem to create a form of conservative alliance against what they described as the “false gospel” they believed was being promoted within the Anglican Communion, by permitting this sort of pernicious liberalism. With both sides stirring up trouble, he’s understandably struggled to keep the church together.
I don’t feel that Rowan is naturally suited to the politics that comes with being the head of a church. He isn’t the sort to play one side off against another in some sort of Machiavellian powerplay, and his gentle, considered thoughtfulness isn’t sufficient to keep warring factions like these from each other’s throats. That hasn’t helped him in his mission to keep the Communion from splitting.
His academic manner has also led to some difficulties in getting his message across, as his way of speaking, in dense and careful prose which needs to be fully digested, doesn’t easily lend itself to a 24-hour soundbite culture. His reported comments on Sharia Law demonstrated that, as did his recent speech in Geneva. The Coalition for Marriage picked up on it as evidence that he supported their cause, as did Robert Pigott for the BBC, without any agenda to support. To me, it looked like a measured discussion of the difficulties of balancing rights, and Lambeth Palace confirmed to me that no endorsement of the campaign against gay marriage was intended or implied, but his wordy impenetrability made it possible to draw other conclusions.
Where I have a particular grumble about Rowan’s tenure as Archbishop is in his handling of Jeffrey John’s appointment (or not) as Bishop of Reading. John, a gay man who was in a long-term celibate relationship, fulfilled all the requirements of the recently concluded CofE memorandum on handling homosexuality. Nevertheless, when conservatives objected to his appointment, the Archbishop pressured him to withdraw, and Reading lost a very decent and capable bishop because he wasn’t willing to face the conservatives down and hold them to their own previously stated position.
I like Rowan as a man, as a thinker, and as a theologian. He’s one of the few members of the church I would always listen to, because I know that he will be careful, moderate and above all, thoughtful. But I feel that the church has wasted his many talents by appointing him to a post which didn’t suit him, and by failing to support him having done so. That’s something I regret, even though I wouldn’t have had anyone else and his likely successors fill me with dread.
But I don’t want to dwell on my perception of the man’s weaknesses, because I genuinely respect him, so I’d like to conclude by quoting one of my favourite bits of Rowan. A six-year-old girl called Lulu wrote a letter to God, asking “How did you get invented?” and sent it to various religious leaders. Most didn’t reply, but Rowan’s response was as follows:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
Frankly, I think he’s wasted in Lambeth Palace, and I wish him all the best for the future.