In defence of Alpha

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‘Book clubs are manipulative cults where the host/dominant member imposes their ideas on you’.

This is of course likely to be a nonsensical idea. You may have experience of a book club that has tried to operate in this way. You may have met  a  ‘Hyacinth Bucket’ character demanding allegiance from her drawing room. But it would, of course, be a ‘fallacy of defective induction’ if you went to a book club, met such a character, and assumed that all book club members were therefore part of a manipulative cult. And if you had never even attended a book club, but had just heard a comment on an internet forum about book clubs, and on that basis decided that they were all manipulative cults, you would have logically made an even deeper step into the realms of nonsense than the person who generalised so massively from their own limited experience.

Hyacinth Bucket
Hyacinth Bucket, from 1990s UK sitcom ‘Keeping up Appearances’

And onto the Alpha course. Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting three Alpha course graduates to the Bishop for baptism/confirmation. Another one of the candidates had done Alpha a few years ago at her church in Cambridge. Each gave a moving account of their enjoyment of a course that 25million people worldwide have participated in. Each told of a journey. Each was deeply honest about doubts that they still had. The Bishop was honest about doubts that he still had. The opposite of faith is not doubt, he said. Each was truly grateful for the friendship that they had built on Alpha, and for the space to discuss any issue they chose to bring up. The environment that they created with each other at the Alpha meal, table and discussion was life giving, enjoyable, fun, happy and truly open. But is that all because Christ Church Turnham Green, has become part of a manipulative cult called Alpha, which has now expanded in our local area to takeover a disused local church called St Alban’s Acton Green and bring it back to life?

That was certainly the fear of one of the participants. Working in a government setting, one of her colleagues had told her that going on Alpha was one step removed from joining the BNP. She was concerned that  her questions and intellectual probing would be seen as an attack and unwelcome. I suppose if her colleague thought it was a cult he was also expecting her to be loved bombed by some irresistible, inspiring charismatic leader.

On reflection maybe I should be flattered by the fear! But truth is, as a leader, I tend to arrive tired and exhausted from a busy day of meetings, pastoral work and organisational development, followed up by a few hours of school pick ups and putting three primary aged children to bed. By the time I stagger out to Alpha and sit down next to the participants I’m about as charismatic as Ed Miliband at a breakfast meeting in a non-Jewish community. Occasionally I have nearly snored through the videos that I have seen before (i’m terrible at hearing things twice), and which can all be freely viewed on YouTube here. Then as a table leader the whole ethos of the discussion is to let each participant voice their own opinions, questions and answers. If you’re used to preaching at people it can take a bit of getting used to. It’s a very democratic process whereby the leader is mainly concerned with facilitating everyone to talk.

Alpha is of course just a tiny part of the vast number of activities we do in Christ Church W4, across our three buildings, – the Mission Hall, St Alban’s and Christ Church Turnham Green. We pioneered and run the Shelter project for homeless people, mentor those in need, run three youth groups, eight groups for pre-schoolers, seniors activities and a community cafe where all are welcome to a home cooked meal for a fiver. We raise money for the poor around the world, take a lead in community events, and care for people other services can’t manage to anymore.

We are not an Alpha Church, we are a Church of England church that happens to run Alpha. We don’t think that Alpha is perfect, and we don’t tow a part line dictated from some sort of ‘evangelical pope’ in Kensington. However we are delighted to be associated with this course, and the various other course that have stemmed out of there, including The Marriage Course, the Parenting Course, and a very helpful one on recovering from addiction.

It is possible of course that all book clubs are manipulative cults… but I wouldn’t want to make that claim based on something I read on a website forum…

If you’d like to investigate for yourself you can check out christchurchw4.com/alpha if you’re in Chiswick.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 13.01.32

Or here click try on the Alpha website to find one near you www.alpha.org

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