The Alpha course is an evangelistic course which seeks to introduce the basics of the Christian faith through a series of talks and discussions. It is described by its organisers as "an opportunity to explore the meaning of life". Alpha courses are being run in churches, homes, workplaces, prisons, universities and a wide variety of other locations. The course began in Britain and is being run around the world by various 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. It started as a course for church members regarding the basics of beliefs commonly held by many believers in Christ 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 the running of the course in 1981 and developed the 10-week format which continues to this day. In 1985 the Reverend Nicky Lee took the course on and in 1990 the Reverend Nicky Gumbel, also then curate at Holy Trinity, took over the running of the course at the invitation of the Reverend Sandy Millar (vicar at that time) and oversaw its revision and expansion.
Alpha grew rapidly in Britain in the 1990s, from just four courses in 1991 to 2,500 in 1995. A peak was reached in 1998, when 10,500 courses were run. By 2001 this had fallen to 7,300. In 2018, the Alpha website described the course as running in over 100 countries and over 100 languages, with over 24 million people having taken the course. Courses have been run by Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, with some variations in course material.
Alpha is organised as a series of sessions over 10 weeks, including a day or weekend away. Each session starts with a meal, followed by a talk and then discussion in small groups. The talks aim to cover the basic beliefs of the Christian faith.
In April 2016, Alpha introduced the Alpha Film Series, where traditional Alpha content is shown in a series of films, featuring stories and interviews. This series is mainly presented by Nicky Gumbel, Toby Flint (a curate at Holy Trinity Brompton) and Gemma Hunt. Interviewees include Bear Grylls, Jackie Pullinger, and Friar Raniero Cantalamessa.
Religious 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 British curriculum. 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 Alpha, 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 co-operation with Relationship Central. In 2012, DVD versions of the Parenting Children Course (for parents or caregivers 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 Lee and Sila Lee, staff at Holy Trinity Brompton and authors of The Marriage Book and The Parenting Book.
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 Britain, Canada, South Africa and the United States.
St Paul's Theological Centre
St Paul's Theological Centre is Alpha/Holy Trinity Brompton's theological institution, with aims to provide lay and clerical training in theology and resources for theological training in churches across the world, as well as 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. Nicky Gumbel says (quoting the current Apostolic Preacher Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M.Cap.), "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 Alpha 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 Alpha's greatest influence has been on 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, 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 Nash, 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 [Nash] camp rationalistic conservatism combined with Wimberist charismatic expressivism [...] this is a highly unusual, even paradoxical hybrid."
Although originating from the Evangelical Anglican tradition, Alpha is now used in all the mainstream churches. Its supporters include many Catholic cardinals, Anglican archbishops and bishops, and leading figures of all 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.
Alpha has been criticised for a charismatic emphasis. A particular problem for non-charismatic evangelicals is what is seen as Nicky 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.
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 Alpha 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."
Some Catholics have criticised the fifteen-session Alpha in a Catholic Context version of the course for being unbalanced without sufficiently presenting some Roman Catholic doctrines, which instead need to be added afterwards in additional sessions.
- From the official website of Alpha http://alpha.org
- The Alpha Big-Give Archived 21 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine. at secure.thebiggive.org.uk. Accessed on 17 February 2013.
- Alpha at Resurrection Archived 20 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine. at www.cor.org. Accessed on 17 February 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 23 October 2009.
- Stephen Hunt, The Alpha Experience: Evangelism in a Post-Christian Era (Ashgate Publishing, 2004) page 13
- "Alpha is running all around the globe..." Alpha.org. Retrieved 5 March 2018.
- "Alpha in a Catholic Context". catholics.alpha.org. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
- "The Marriage Courses". The Marriage Courses.
- "The Marriage Courses". The Marriage Courses.
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- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 20 May 2010. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 21 May 2010. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- About SPTC | St Paul's Theological Centre Archived 6 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
- From a paper Cantalamessa presented at an ecumenical conference in Brighton in July 1991
- Gumbel, Nicky. "Authority". Retrieved 24 July 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 23 July 2011.
- Rob Warner Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007) 122
- "Got Questions - Try Alpha". Got Questions - Try Alpha. Archived from the original on 25 July 2008.
- "BBC NEWS - UK - Archbishop launches Alpha course".
- Faith Which Overcomes The World London, Alpha Course, 27 June 2005 Archived 19 August 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
- Pigott, Robert (27 July 2001). "Church leaders launch controversial courses". BBC. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
- Cork, William (2007). "The Alpha Course—an Evaluation". Catholic Culture. Retrieved 28 October 2010.
- 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