Alpha and the building of a global brand
Hodder & Stoughton, 2022 (ISBN: 978-1-399-80151-5, 308pp, £22)
The Alpha Course is known to many from its prolific advertising, on buses, on banners outside churches, on the London Underground, and online – and to some from the first-hand experience of taking the course. From small beginnings in 1977, via a ‘Global Launch’ in 1993, the course has grown from Kensington across Britain and the world, cross-pollinating to many denominations and church networks. Remarkably, this book is the first full-length history of the programme in its near half-century existence.
Somewhat inevitably, writing the history of Alpha demands consideration of its parent church, Holy Trinity Brompton. As such, the early chapters of Repackaging Christianity serve as an accessible and lucid summary of the recent history of what became colloquially known, in the period under consideration, as ‘HTB’. The key cast of characters, including Raymond Turvey, David MacInnes, John Collins, Sandy Millar, John Wimber, Charles Marnham, Nicky and Pippa Gumbel, Nicky and Sila Lee, Ken Costa, Justin and Caroline Welby, and Tricia Neill are carefully discussed. The close connections between Kensington high society, Eton College, Trinity College Cambridge, and the Bar are noted, though rightly not laboured.
A second ‘fringe benefit’ of writing a history with this focus is the opportunity to describe, in as scholarly a manner as possible, the charismatic ‘renewal’ of the 1980’s and the Toronto ‘blessing’ of the 1990’s. The account is direct in recording the chaotic scenes following Wimber and Frisbee’s visits to Chorleywood and Lancashire. It is equally factual regarding the fits of maniacal laughter at HTB in 1992 following the Toronto encounter of Eleanor Mumford. Whether the subsequent reported growth in Alpha courses and HTB attendance was down to an authentic work of the Holy Spirit or simply a result of the excitement and publicity generated by such unusual behaviour in a well-heeled CofE parish is subject to debate.
Repackaging Christianity is a thoroughly theological history, weighing the full range of views on Alpha, positive and negative. Privileged archival access at Alpha International has permitted fascinating insight on the doctrinal discussion behind the well-manicured façade, such as negotiations over adapting the course to fit with French Catholic dogma. Generous airtime is equally given to robustly Protestant critics, whose existing concerns about a programme influenced by Toronto were only amplified by the alliance with Rome.
The subject, serious though it is, lends itself to a certain amount of comic satirisation. Chapter five collects some of the most stinging reviews of Alpha from the London gossip columns of the 1990s, sending up the Knightsbridge style with aplomb. Such vignettes are nonetheless interlaced with healthy doses of conversion testimony. Without a doubt, much genuine faith has been birthed and nurtured under Alpha and the book’s slightly abrupt ending indicates that this is a story yet to run its full course. Nonetheless, the question hangs over various aspects of the movement as to what more could have been done, had for example the turns to address social injustice and away from Toronto extremes occurred earlier.
Edward Keene, Little Shelford