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.
I always sit up and take notice when Lord Carey speaks. Admittedly, that’s because I expect him to say something I’ll want to be incredibly rude about, but I imagine he’d be pleased that he’s not being completely ignored.
His latest intervention is no exception to that rule, although his spat with David Cameron at least manages to be entertaining. The sight of the two of them blaming each other for a rising tide of secularism based on their own peculiar definitions of what secularism actually means is like two bald men fighting over a comb that doesn’t even exist.
My first instinct was to write about Carey’s belief that he’s being persecuted, but I think the people at Newsthump have dealt with that pretty effectively. Then I thought about obliterating Carey’s description of “aggressive secularism”, a concept on a par with militant fairness or angry non-discrimination, and possibly inspired by Chomsky’s nonsense sentence “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”, but Dean Burnett did it better than I could have done.
Where I think I can add something new is on his claim that two thirds of Christians feel marginalised. This claim is based on a survey commissioned by our old friends, Coalition for Marriage (C4M). That naturally raises suspicions in my mind, but isn’t sufficient reason on its own to dismiss the findings, even though previous surveys give similar results, suggesting that this isn’t a result of recent equality legislation, as is implied.
That these Christians feel marginalised doesn’t mean their perception is accurate (it could just mean they read the Mail or Telegraph), but it’s a statistic that deserves some attention. The first point to notice is that the survey sampled practising Christians. That’s an obvious approach, but it raises questions in my mind.
The church have previously been keen to emphasise their open tent, with anyone who claims the remotest degree of faith in anything hailed as further evidence that their views should be treated with due respect. We represent 59% of the country, listen to us! They’ve even objected to efforts to find out what Census Christians really believe, arguing that a self-identified label should be good enough for anyone.
So where are all those Christians in this survey? 59% of the UK’s 60m inhabitants would be 35.4mChristians, but practising Christians is a much narrower definition. Clear numbers for this are hard to come by, but even based on an old Tearfund report which probably overestimates adherence compared to the current position and using the generous estimate of attending church once a month to count as practising, that would amount to 15% of the population, or 9m.
Some reports put the figure much lower, with statistics of 6% regular church attendance and 7% considering themselves “practising Christians”. This last figure is probably the most significant, given the aim of the survey, but even assuming the most generous interpretation, somewhere along the way, Lord Carey has lost the best part of 30m Christians.
The reasons for this sudden disappearance are obvious, but they deserve to be spelt out and emphasised. Carey and C4M believe they have the right to dictate how the country should be run because (they say) they represent a significant body of opinion, but when the chips are down, they retreat to the safety of a tiny rump of true believers, point out that this rump objects to progress, and claim to be a persecuted minority. It’s simply dishonest.
Ironically, the results of this survey, which broadly show that respondents feel their beliefs should be treated with more respect, are likely to be a direct result of the cherry-picking propaganda of the likes of Carey. If Christians had a true impression of the number of people who shared their precise opinions, maybe they wouldn’t expect public policy to be dictated by the views of their own small fraction of the country.
Uh-oh, this looks like trouble!
I suppose it had to happen eventually. I thought I would have a bit longer to prepare for it, but it’s rolled around pretty quickly – last Sunday, elder son decided that he wanted to stay at home with Daddy.
This is where everything goes Bizarro World, through the looking glass and into the Twilight Zone, to mix a few metaphors. My wife doesn’t want to end up dragging him off to church when he doesn’t want to go, and she was prepared to let him stay with me. One week off, if he was feeling like it, wouldn’t be the end of the world, and was less of a risk than turning Sunday mornings into a battleground.
I, on the other hand, was horrified. The very last thing I want is to have my family blaming me for my boys growing up as heathens. This would complicate everything by making me look like a bad influence, leading him astray by holding out the possibility of an alternative on Sundays. That sounds as if my main concern is personal and selfish. I hope it isn’t, and I don’t think it is, but that was the first thing that popped into my head at the time.
Here’s where it gets a bit sticky. Obviously, I don’t mind if he eventually decides on a position that’s more or less the same as mine (whatever it might be that week), but I want him to do it the right way, not on a whim or out of convenience. I wouldn’t be comfortable with him declaring himself an atheist just so that he can have a lie in, for example. Fortunately, he’s still at the age where he’s the one trying to drag us out of bed in the mornings.
But why should church be the default? Why shouldn’t he expect to stay at home and need a good reason to go out and be taught strange things? Because like it or not, it is the default for him now. It’s what he’s always done, and it seems reasonable (if not entirely logical) that he should need a decent reason not to go.
At the heart of all this, once again, is the awkwardness that comes from me having different ideas from my wife. We always used to think the same way, give or take, and there’s no disguising the fact that our growing differences are going to cause some problems. They’re also going to require a whole lot more pragmatic compromises between us.
Image courtesy of nicci, used with permission
I was previously aware of the term “Full Gospel” and the existence of “Full Gospel” churches, fellowships and conferences, but I was reminded of the term today and my mind started to wander in very strange directions. Part of me wants to stroke my beard and explore the implications for ecumenical relations, but mainly I think the idea’s ripe for a spot of mockery.
The obvious (and boring) meaning is that it’s the whole Gospel, wi’ nowt taken out, but that makes me wonder if nasty brown bread’s the right analogy. What if it’s more like most things we consume, such as coffee, and some of the things in the Gospel are bad for you? Then it would probably be more virtuous to order a skinny Gospel instead of the full one, but I’ve never heard of a Partial Gospel Church of Christ, and the Strained Gospel Church sounds quite unpleasant.
Because I like the coffee idea, I’m not going to drop it just yet. You could order your church frothed if you’re Charismatic or Pentecostal, single if you’re a Unitarian, or decaf if you’re an Anglican. Any church can be ordered with hazelnut syrup for extra nuttiness. Okay, I’m done now.
I also wondered if it was possible to order a half portion of Gospel. Children aren’t going to manage that all in one go, and there are days when I don’t think I could manage a whole one because I’ve spent the morning snacking on Christian apologetics. Yes, I know I shouldn’t, but the moment I’ve finished one, I feel empty again and want another.
Or it’s possible that the full bit is their dedication to the Gospel – these churches rarely seem to take half measures (or serve half portions). But it’s not much of an advert really, is it? Just giving 100%? Footballers regularly give 110%, sometimes as much as 120%, and they’re just kicking a ball around – yes, they get paid well, but it’s not like they’re playing for eternal life, is it?
I’d expect nothing less than 150% from any church that was really taking it seriously, with 200% for the really keen ones. The Double Gospel Church of Christ has quite a nice ring to it, I think. And don’t give me any defeatist chat about 100% being the maximum you can achieve. With God, all things are possible, right?
Image courtesy of Flavio Takemoto, used with permission
Once, many years ago when I was younger and even more stupid, I found myself hoping that an England cricketer would fail. The year was 1995, and Robin Smith, who I quite admired as a middle-order batsman, had been recalled to open the batting against the West Indies. I thought he was being misused, and that the selectors were most likely to realise their mistake if he suffered a series of low scores, so every run he scored was an irritation.
Maybe I was right about the selectors’ mistakes, but I missed the point, as my friends pointed out to me. What I wanted was to see England perform well, but I’d allowed my personal view of how that should be achieved to take over. I’d missed the obvious truth that if Smith did well, that was good for England. My focus was my preferred means, rather than the end.
My mistake there was glaringly, embarrassingly obvious, but a lot of people fall into a very similar error in relation to the church. When the Church of England’s General Synod voted against female bishops (or rather, failed to vote in favour of the draft legislation by the required margin), plenty of people outside the church were delighted, believing that such backwardness would further damage the CofE’s authority and open the door to a more secular society.
Catherine Bennett, hardly a head-banging anti-theist, provided a mild example of this line of thinking in the Observer:
[S]upposing female bishops really constitutes some sort of advance, does one want the church to have any more credibility than it has already? A victory would only, as [Rowan] Williams now confirms, have entrenched his church’s claims to worldly authority – and with that, the ambitions of Britain’s rival faiths for enhanced, equal-opportunity meddling.
The argument goes that progress is achieved by the removal of religion from privileged public positions, the continued existence of a regressive stained-glass ceiling preventing women from becoming bishops is likely to speed or encourage this removal, therefore this inequitable policy must be a good thing. It has a certain attraction, but to me, it smacks a bit too much of my cheering for the West Indies.
The church doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it reflects (more or less) the views of the ordinary people who are its members. If the church is displaying and persisting with backward attitudes, it strongly suggests that these attitudes are common in the pews, and (again, with some reservations) society at large. If those views were considered wholly repugnant, the church would have to change or die. To celebrate the enduring popularity of backward views as a harbinger of progress would be ridiculous, but that’s effectively what’s going on here.
After all, the aggregated vote in General Synod on allowing women to be bishops was 73% in favour, or 63% among the laity, which (with allowances for different questions and contexts) is virtually indistinguishable from the views of the wider population. If the church is misogynist and out of touch, so is the country as a whole. This should be a cause for concern, not celebration.
All things being equal, a reduction in the church’s popularity and corresponding claim to authority might be considered a good thing, but as mentioned above, they’re not equal. If a secular society is the ultimate goal regardless of anything else, then clearly anything that weakens the church is a good thing, but I’d argue that secularism is just a means to the end of a better, fairer society. Removing religious privilege has little value if the same views continue to hold sway.
So I think everyone – theist, atheist, secularist or whatever – should be concerned when the church expresses views we consider backward. Whatever our differences about the proper role of the church in society or the truth of its teachings, we should all be able to agree that backward views are bad, and the fewer people who hold them, the better.
One thing everyone knows about the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world is that they are very hot on the sin of abortion, and asserting the humanity of unborn foetuses. Which is why it’s caused something of a stir that they’re now arguing in a case going through the courts that the unborn aren’t really people at all.
It’s hard to resist the comical and cynical vision of the church fighting aggressively to protect the unborn, right up to the point where they realise that if everyone agreed with them, it might cost them money. I imagine a priest getting a message from the lawyers in the middle of his sermon, and instantly denying everything he’s been saying. It’s a funny image. But while I have little love for Rome, I don’t think it’s entirely fair.
The church’s legal defence is naturally based on the law as it stands and the prevailing culture; the state is the arbiter of the legal rights and wrongs of different cases, and the church can lose out when their view of personhood differs. They would be expected to pay out if the state found them culpable for something the church finds acceptable, so why should they be expected to ignore the possibilities of a difference of opinion that may favour the church in this case? Is this difference just a one-way street?
Maybe that doesn’t convince you, but the argument that unborn foetuses aren’t people (for want of better terminology) is only one of several that they’re making in their defence of the case. Any decent legal team will be sure to raise any arguments that have a chance of winning the case, even if they’re fairly speculative, as I believe this one is.
Unfortunately for Catholics, “church employs professional legal team” isn’t nearly as grabbing a headline as “church defends case by denying own doctrine”, and it’s possible to cast this as the church denying that a foetus is a person when it becomes inconvenient, which sounds uncomfortably like their own criticism of mothers who have abortions.
It looks to me that the way they’re handling this case is good legal practice, but very bad PR management.
Photo by jessicafm, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0
It’s often said (by conservatives, admittedly) that conservatism is the answer for the church. The claim is either that most churches have conservative theology, or that conservative churches are the ones that are growing, or something similar. The typical conclusion from people who quote these stats is that liberalism and conformity to cultural norms are killing the church. But is that a justified conclusion?
There are obvious problems with these statistics, even if they’re accurate – if the proportion of churches that are conservative is rising, that may be an indication that liberals are deserting the church, quite likely because they’re sick of being associated with those conservative views. And if conservative churches are actually growing in numbers, that may well be down to demographic and ethnic changes, with African Christians (for example) proportionately more likely to be conservative.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that these claims can be taken at face value as not only true but meaning that people are finding conservative churches more appealing, while being turned off by liberal belief. That would surely mean that those conservative beliefs are becoming more common in general, right? Well, maybe not. It might even mean that they’re becoming less common.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that I’ve completely lost it. You can quibble about the meaning of different statistics, but it doesn’t make any sense to claim that a rise in the popularity of a view is because that view’s dying out. On the contrary, it does (or can do) when that rise is restricted to a specific subset of the total population, and here’s why.
As culture changes, certain viewpoints become socially unacceptable. Believing that women belong in the kitchen, or that gay people are perverts, is increasingly likely to prompt an angry or dismissive response. Such views are considered dated, backward and even bigoted, and are therefore effectively suppressed in society in general.
But if you attend a conservative church, you belong to a group where it’s not just legitimate but even expected that you will believe that women are inferior to men (the word “complementary” is generally used, but let’s not kid ourselves) and that the only acceptable sexual union is between a man and a woman.
Not only does the church provide a supportive environment for those views, it also offers a plausible excuse for them when speaking to people outside the church. It’s not my fault, I’m not prejudiced, this isn’t my idea, it’s just the historic teaching of the church about the clear nature of God’s creation. As society rejects views as backward, the dwindling number of people who hold them are increasingly drawn to any group which shares their prejudices.
This would be very bad news for the church – they’re attracting more and more people who are stuck in the past, they’re alienating the growing majority who reject those views, and as with so many cultural changes, they will eventually emerge looking backward and out of touch in the most damaging way possible – denying the fundamental equality of all people.
I don’t make any definitive claim here – this is a little speculative, but I think it’s a plausible explanation. If you accept the premises that people in general are becoming more socially liberal, but conservative churches are generally stronger and larger, this hypothesis seems to fit the available facts.
If that’s the case, the church needs to sit up and take notice before it slips into oblivion.
It’s a few months now since I walked away from the church, and it’s generally been quite an easy time. I’ve found that I’m more relaxed at weekends, because I’m not dreading Sunday mornings, and we’ve settled into a routine that works pretty well. But my boys aren’t prepared to make it all that easy.
Initially, they didn’t seem to be bothered that I was staying at home when they went to church, and for quite a while, they were surprisingly unquestioning of it. That suited me, as I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to explain it to them. That changed recently. First it was “Daddy, are you coming to church this week?” Then it was “You never come with us any more!” Finally, it was “Please come with us, please!” I couldn’t put it off any longer.
Explaining things like this to small children is hard enough, even if I didn’t want to avoid criticising their entire family’s beliefs. I don’t want to be the bad guy, and I certainly don’t want to mane my sons into any sort of battleground, so there’s no question of telling them (or even implying) that I think they’re being taught a load of rubbish.
I settled for saying that it was complicated, but that I was unhappy because the people who run the church aren’t being very kind to some people, while making it clear that these are people we don’t know, and the actual local church are lovely. I was very careful to emphasise that, because I had visions of son#1 marching up to the vicar and telling him in a very loud voice not to be so nasty to people.
I’m sure I’ll have to explain it all again in different forms as they grow up and want more detail, and each time I’ll have to find a suitable way of honestly addressing the situation without causing trouble or telling them what to think. Still, that’s all part of the territory – I have the same problem with Santa.
Photo by lincoln-log, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0
Older son’s at an age where he’s realised that some things aren’t real, but he doesn’t know which ones, or how to tell the difference. He’ll be watching TV and ask me if Mister Maker is actually real, and then I’ll have to explain that there’s a real man who really makes things, but he’s not really called Mister Maker, he doesn’t really live in a cardboard box, and no, he doesn’t live in the TV either, which then usually leads to a long discussion about how TVs work.
He can get confused by the strangest things – I once had to explain how I knew the Octonauts aren’t real:
Well, animals don’t talk, and they don’t wear clothes, do they? And they don’t live in huge motorised underwater mobile homes, and polar bears aren’t really the same size as cats and penguins, and there’s definitely no such thing as vegimals, and above all, it’s a cartoon.
It’s not that he’s stupid – in fact, he’s very bright. But he gets confused because things that are real are mixed up with things that aren’t. He knows that Octonauts teaches him about all sorts of really amazing sea creatures (and does it very well – you should hear him on the subject of Snapping Shrimps or Vampire Squid). So he expects everything else about the programme to be real as well, even the walking, talking vegetables.
And this is the boy we pack off to Sunday school to be told all sorts of implausible stories by real people out of a real book. How’s he meant to know what to do in a situation like that?
He isn’t, of course – that’s the point. He’s meant to accept that the stories are true, because they’re being told by a nice person he knows. And he knows that you learn true things at school, so Sunday school must be just the same, but on a different day. Deliberate or not, and regardless of whether Christians are right, this is indoctrination. He’s being taught “facts” which are highly questionable at best, at an age where he isn’t able to rationally assess them for himself. That makes me sad.
More than that, though, I feel guilty. I know this is going on, and I’m not doing anything about it. He enjoys Sunday school, there aren’t really any easy alternatives, and to be honest, I just don’t want to take on my whole family over this. I’ll keep trying to help him to think about things and not believing things just because someone he heard them from someone he trusts.
I just wish I didn’t have to face choices like this.
Thanks to various events, today was the first time that my self-imposed exile from church required me to stay at home while my family went off without me. It’s a very strange feeling.
The first (and hardest) question was what to tell the boys about why Daddy isn’t coming with them. I wanted to say that I wasn’t enjoying church at the moment (which is simple and accurate), but that would invite the response that they don’t enjoy it, so they don’t want to go either. I’m not sure how I feel about them going to church to be taught things I don’t believe, but nor do I want to be responsible for them not going. At least, not like that. So we just told them I was busy doing things at home. We’ll need to come up with something better soon.
Explaining to other people was easier. Short version: I need a break from church. Long version: and here’s why, and what I think about it. I don’t want to make a big deal about anything, but that should do the trick for anyone who asks after me.
I don’t know what to do with myself on a Sunday morning. On the rare occasions that I’ve not been in church, it was because I had something else to do, and there were other people around. I feel like I’ve suddenly got some free time, but I also feel like I should be doing something useful with that time so that I can’t be accused of being lazy. Maybe I’m a slave to other people’s perceptions, but I want it to be clear that I have clear and principled reasons for what I’ve done.
So what did I do? Some work around the house, a bit of reading, and a bit of messing about online. I’d call that partial success.
Staying at home felt liberating, but also strangely lonely. Like it or loathe it, I’ve turned my back on a community, and at the moment, I have nothing to replace it. That’s rather unsettling, as if I’ve cast myself adrift and only then started to look around for some oars.
It’s not that I have any regrets, just that it’s going to take a while to get used to the new situation.
Photo by kevinrosseel, used under morgueFile License