The expansion of the Alpha course, a popular seminar introducing British unchurched to Christianity, is having a strong impact on moribund parishes of the Church of England.
The Economist magazine (Nov. 7) reports that the Alpha, a ten-week crash course in basic Christianity, was started in the 1970s, but it is only in the past few years that it has shown sharp growth. Organizers say that 200,000 people are currently enrolled in the course at 6,300 churches across Britain.
Veteran British religion commentator Clifford Longley calls the course an “unqualified triumph . . . The reconversion of England is almost believable.” Alpha courses usually begin with a meal followed by a talk and discussion in small groups, and retreats are held for long-term participants.
The course is based around the ministry of Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, a leader in the charismatic renewal among Anglicans. The expanding “Alpha industry” based at the church has a full-time staff of 50, with departments for conducting the course in British prisons. A nationwide billboard campaign is under way. Alpha has been accused of “love-bombing” participants by wooing them with parties, food and friendship.
But the main effect of the course is in how Alpha graduates are encouraged to plant their vibrant faith in “moribund churches, by arriving in packs of 20 or 30 and encouraging a youthful congregation to take root. It is difficult to gauge the effect of Alpha on the Church of England [Alpha is also popular among Catholics], since the church no longer publishes membership statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it “has saved a few churches from closure, and filled pews and collection plates.
Alpha is certainly a powerful medicine for a sickly old church. But it is too early to describe it as the cure.”