Alpha was started in 1977 by the Reverend Charles, a curate in a Church of England parish in London. It was then reconstructed by Nicky Gumbel, arguably one of the most charismatic figures in the Church of England today. The ten week course is run in churches throughout the world, by all major Christian denominations. Its main aim is to give a well-rounded, Christian point of view to religion, creation, and the meaning of life itself. Every week there is one meeting which includes dinner, a cup of tea and a talk on a certain topic, and then a general chat reflecting on that topic. The topics include ‘Who is Jesus?’ ‘The Truth of The Bible’ and ‘The Evidence of Jesus.’ Although all these subjects sound very serious and daunting, they are addresses in a relaxed and non judgemental manner.
St Peters Church in Oundle decided to run the Alpha Course themselves this winter. The men and women taking part let me attend one of their weekly meetings to give me a personal insight into the Alpha experience. I was greeted and welcomed into the group very quickly and I immediately noticed how relaxed, friendly and warm the atmosphere was. That is supposedly typical of the Alpha course.
As we sat around one of the small tables, the topic of silence came up. Is it impossible to find silence nowadays? In a world of phones, iPods, radios and TVs? One man explained that Alpha was the one occasion every week that he could be quiet and reflect on what was happening in his life. “Alpha is a time to sit back and think,” he told me.
Alpha was originally designed for Christians or for people who had gradually lost faith, but it has now expanded to become an introductory course into Christianity for agnostics. When I asked the man sitting next to me what he thought about Alpha, he explained: “The best thing about Alpha is that it’s very social. People are open, and you feel secure in being able to talk to each other freely.”
The topic for the weekly meeting that I attended was ‘Why and how does one Pray?’ Richard explained that God is friendly, and that you should have a close relationship with Him. He told us that praying should be like a fireside chat with your father, explaining that we shouldn’t just pray to Him when we need Him “If you only talk to someone when you want something, it’s not much of a relationship, is it?” he went on to advise everybody on how to pray, when and where. The answer to most of these questions was: whatever suits you best. He finished his talk by telling us that if we want God in our lives, we must welcome Him in.
There are many account of how the Alpha course has changed people’s lives, and helped them turn back to religion. “In the last four weeks I’ve definitely felt a change since going to Alpha.” one man told the group. However, I have also heard some negative feedback about the course. A documentary was shown on Channel Four, presented by Jon Ronson in 2009, called ‘How to Find God’, and the majority of the views expressed in the programme were subtly cynical with a lot of people saying that Alpha was trying to force religion upon people, and that it was very unproductive and a waste of time. The main criticisms seem to be that the perspective of Alpha is too narrow and that it could be perceived as similar to brainwashing.
My own experience however was undeniably positive. It is clear that all the local Oundle residents that took part in the Alpha Course were glad they did. It seems to be a course for revitalization rather than an evangelical conversion tool. The Guardian once praised Alpha in the following terms: “What Alpha offers, and what is attracting thousands of people, is permission, rare in secular culture, to discuss the big questions - life and death and their meaning.” That seems to me to sum up Alpha.