The Alpha course is a course which seeks to introduce the basics of the Christian faith, described by its organisers as "an opportunity to explore the meaning of life". Alpha courses are currently being run in churches, homes, workplaces, prisons, universities and a wide variety of other locations. The course is being run around the world by all major Christian denominations.
Alpha was started in 1977 by the Reverend Charles Marnham, a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton, a Church of England parish in London. The name "Alpha" was suggested by Marnham's wife, Tricia. It started as a course for church members on the basics of the Christian faith but then began to be used as an introduction for those interested in the faith. The Very Reverend John Irvine, at that time a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton, took over running the course and developed it into the 10 week format which continues to this day. In 1990 the Reverend Nicky Gumbel, at that time a curate at Holy Trinity, took over the running of the course at the invitation of the Reverend Sandy Millar (the then vicar) and oversaw its revision and expansion.
In 2008 over 33,500 courses were offered in 163 countries by Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, British New Church Movement and Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Over 15 million people worldwide have attended an Alpha course (two and a half million in the UK).
The Alpha course is organised as a series of sessions over 10 weeks, typically preceded by an "Alpha Supper" which often includes the talk "Is there more to life than this?" and with a day or weekend away which includes three or four of the talks asterisked [*] below. Each session starts with a meal, followed by a talk (often a video of one by Nicky Gumbel) and then discussion in small groups. The talks aim to cover the basic beliefs of the Christian faith.
Religion education for schools
In conjunction with Youth for Christ, Alpha International produces two study programmes designed for children aged 11–14, exploRE: The Christian Faith a 12-week programme on the Christian faith, and exploRE: The Life of Jesus, a 14-lesson study of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection. The capitalised RE is a reference to religious education, part of the curriculum in the United Kingdom. The materials are aimed at religious education teachers.
Several relationship-oriented programmes have emerged alongside Alpha which are now separately run by a sister organisation called Relationship Central. The Marriage Course is a seven-session course for married couples, consisting of a "candlelit meal and/or coffee, tea and dessert at a romantic table for two while listening to practical talks that are informative and fun, either given live or played on DVD", while the Marriage Preparation Course follows a similar format over five sessions in preparation for married life. Unlike the Alpha Course, there are no group sessions - the couple are to spend the time together, and relationship details are not shared with a counsellor or other participants. The Marriage Course was adopted by the British Army and an additional session on enforced separation (e.g. as a result of operational deployment) was added by a military couple working in cooperation with Relationship Central. In 2012, DVD versions of the Parenting Children Course (for parents or carers of children aged 0-10) and the Parenting Teenagers Course (11-18) were released. Unlike the Marriage Course, the parenting courses use a similar format to Alpha: a meal followed by a talk and group discussions.
The website says about these courses that while they are "based on Christian principles", they are "designed for couples with or without a Christian faith". The courses are authored by Nicky and Sila Lee, staff at Holy Trinity Brompton and authors of The Marriage Book and The Parenting Book.
God at Work
God at Work is a book and course by Ken Costa, chairman of Alpha International, a veteran of UBS and now chairman of Lazard UK. The course consists of six hour-long sessions focusing on work, stress, ambition and other work-related issues from a Christian perspective.
Caring for Ex-Offenders
Caring for Ex-Offenders is a follow-up to the Alpha for Prisons course, supporting released prisoners by providing them with material assistance including accommodation, work, food, and pastoral support through church life. It operates in the UK, Canada, South Africa and the USA.
St Paul's Theological Centre
St Paul's Theological Centre is Alpha/Holy Trinity Brompton's theological institution, with aims to provide lay training in theology, to provide ordination training, to provide theological resources for theological training in churches across the world, and to provide theological guidance for Alpha.
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Alpha's teachings are intended to centre upon aspects of Christian faith on which all denominations are in general agreement. Gumbel says (quoting Fr Raniero Cantalamessa) "What unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us."
Roman Catholic distinctives, such as those concerning the Virgin Mary and certain sacramental teachings are absent, as are Baptist teachings on baptism. Instead, individual churches are encouraged to provide follow-up courses of their own.
The New International Version of the Bible is quoted in the course materials. St Paul's reference to scripture being "God breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16) is referred to, although whether this view of scripture implies strict inerrancy is not made clear.
Within evangelical Protestantism the most controversial element of the Alpha Course is what is considered to be its charismatic slant.[according to whom?] Three of the fifteen sessions are given to the person and work of the Holy Spirit and cover the infilling of the Spirit; speaking in tongues and healing via prayer. Conversion stories in the book of Acts (see 2:1ff, 9:17-19, 10:44-46, 19:1-6) are seen as normative.
Possibly the greatest influence has been the ministry of John Wimber, who visited Holy Trinity Brompton a number of times during the 1980s and 1990s. Nicky Gumbel's approach can also be linked to the ministry of E. J. H. Nash (Bash), an influential Anglican cleric who set out to evangelise "top boys at top schools" and who organised summer camps at Iwerne Minster in Dorset. David Fletcher, who took responsibility for the camps after Bash, described Alpha as: "basically the Iwerne camp talk scheme with charismatic stuff added on.". Rob Warner addresses both, when he says: "Alpha can... be summed up as Bash camp rationalistic conservatism combined with Wimberist charismatic expressivism... this is a highly unusual, even paradoxical hybrid.".
Although originating from the Evangelical Anglican tradition, it is now used by all the mainstream churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal churches. The Alpha course has been endorsed by a number of leaders, including many Roman Catholic cardinals, Anglican archbishops and bishops, and leading figures of all the main Christian denominations. Rowan Williams was an enthusiastic supporter when he was Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales and continued his support as Archbishop of Canterbury, opening an Alpha conference and accepting an invitation to speak at an Alpha supper in London in 2004. He describes it as "a very special tool" and "a unique mixture of Christian content and Christian style". His predecessor, George Carey described the courses as "superb." Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a monk of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin and Preacher to the Papal Household for Pope Benedict XVI wrote a document praising Alpha in June 2005.
The Alpha course has been criticised for a charismatic emphasis. A particular problem for non-charismatic evangelicals is what is seen as Gumbel's emphasis upon the person and work of the Holy Spirit. As a result, some churches have chosen to teach a different view of the Holy Spirit, although this is discouraged in Gumbel's book How to Run the Alpha Course.
Because it has been recommended as supplementary reading, one of Gumbel's books, Searching Issues, has become a focus of criticism. There is a chapter criticising homosexual practice, although this is not unique to the Alpha course but part of the wider Evangelical context.
More conservative critics (especially from a Reformed and Evangelical perspective) have complained that the course does not adequately define sin and therefore does not properly explain the reason for Jesus's death and resurrection. The alternative Christianity Explored course is an attempt to go beyond what the Alpha Course teaches on sin.
Rev John Vincent of the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield has suggested that Alpha presents too narrow a version of Christianity and one too centred on what theologians have said about Jesus rather than allowing students the freedom to draw their own inspiration from studying Jesus' life and teaching. "The Alpha course, because of its didactic style, its narrow-mindedness and its closed nature, doesn't facilitate alternative views", he says. "I happen to believe it therefore leads people into a self-centred religion which is not the same as the genuine Christian discipleship."
Roman Catholic context
Alpha in a Catholic Context is a means of presenting Alpha to leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. The 15-session course remains identical to that run in other denominations but a team of Roman Catholics working from Alpha's headquarters have produced a number of resources to introduce the course to Catholic leaders and explain how it might best be used within a Catholic context and making use of other Catholic material. This approach has drawn harsh criticism from some Catholics, with the claim that the course is unbalanced and does not sufficiently present some Roman Catholic doctrines; instead these need to be added afterwards in additional sessions. Nevertheless, following the first Alpha conference for Roman Catholics in 1996 at the invitation of Cardinal Basil Hume, Alpha has been launched globally in the Catholic Church and "is now running in thousands of Catholic parishes in 70 countries around the world."
Books for use with the course:
- Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life (Kingsway Publications 2003). ISBN 1-84291-164-3
- Nicky Gumbel, Searching Issues (Kingsway Publications 2001). ISBN 0-85476-739-8
- The Alpha Manual (Alpha International Publications 2005). ISBN 1-904074-23-5
Books about the course:
- Andrew Brookes (Editor), The Alpha Phenomenon (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, 2007). ISBN 978-0-85169-331-6
- Stephen J. Hunt, The Alpha Enterprise: Evangelism in a Post-Christian Era (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004) ISBN 978-0-7546-5036-2
- From the official website of the alpha course http://alpha.org
- The Alpha Big-Give at secure.thebiggive.org.uk. Accessed on 17 Feb 2013.
- Alpha at Resurrection at www.cor.org. Accessed on 17 Feb 2013.
- Hocken, P. D. (2002). "Alpha Course". In Stanley M. Burgess. The new international dictionary of Pentecostal and charismatic movements. (Rev. and expanded ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House. p. 312. ISBN 0310224810.
- "How Alpha Began | Alpha UK". Uk.alpha.org. Retrieved 2009-10-23.
- "Alpha". Uk.alpha.org. Archived from the original on 6 September 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-28.
- What is The Marriage Preparation Course? | Relationship Central
- What is The Marriage Course? | Relationship Central
- Griffiths, Katherine (2007-09-07). "Ken Costa leaves UBS to join rival Lazard". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- About SPTC | St Paul's Theological Centre
- Gumbel, Nicky. "Authority". Retrieved Jul 24, 2011.
- Alister McGrath Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (Leicester: IVP, 1005) 45
- John Eddison (ed) A Study in Spiritual Power; An Appreciation of E J H Nash (Bash) (Highland; Crowborough, 1992)
- Baker, David. "Doing the impossible". Retrieved Jul 23, 2011.
- Rob Warner Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007) 122
- The Bishops and Archbishops
- Archbishop launches Alpha course
- Faith Which Overcomes The World London, Alpha Course, 27 June 2005[dead link]
- Nicky Gumbel Searching Issues: Exploring the Meaning of Life (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 2001)
- Pigott, Robert (2001-07-27). "Church leaders launch controversial courses". BBC. Retrieved 2009-10-17.
- Cork, William (2007). "The Alpha Course—an Evaluation". Catholic Culture. Retrieved 2010-10-28.
- Alpha in A Catholic Context at run.alpha.org. Accessed on 10 Jun 2013
- Churches Together in Britain and Ireland - Publications