It is a Friday night in March, and I’m on a coach to Chichester with 400 Christians. As an atheist who left God behind in my teens, I should stress this is not a regular occurrence. Rather, I’m midway through a ten-week Alpha Course at Holy Trinity Brompton, and am embarking on its notorious “Holy Spirit Weekend Away”.
The Alpha Course is perhaps the most high-profile introduction to Christianity on the planet. Founded at Holy Trinity in the late 1970s, it rose to prominence in the 90s under the likeable priest Nicky Gumbel. Some 18 million attendees later, it runs in 169 countries, and adds new believers to the fold every day.
The formula is simple: free food followed by a lecture, followed by discussion in small groups. It’s friendly and non-threatening, and church leaders across the globe have sung its praises. The Archbishop of Canterbury has called Alpha a “very special tool of evangelism”, while the preacher to the Papal Household has said it “accomplishes an incredible task”.
Nonetheless, the course has met some opprobrium for downplaying its evangelical leanings. In 1996, a woman led a church boycott after, she alleged, an Alpha Course expected her to “snort like a pig and bark like a dog”. This claim was roundly denounced by Alpha’s supporters, but plenty of attendees since have been taken aback by the spiritual side of its teachings. What is packaged simply as an opportunity to explore the “meaning of life” shows a new side on the weekend outing.
The Saturday morning is predominantly theoretical, with several talks running through the Holy Spirit’s scriptural pedigree. Spiritual gifts, says Gumbel, have a solid Biblical precedent. In my small group, about half those present lay claim to the gift of tongues. This is easily construed as simple babbling – English words unpicked at the seams and unmoored from any referential content.
More extraordinary are claims to bodily healing. My group leader runs through the miracles he has witnessed: one man healed from a bad back, another from cataracts, another (more prosaically) from hayfever. Defying the laws of nature is, apparently, par for the course on Alpha.
The crux of the weekend comes that evening, in the form of a Holy Spirit “workshop”. Beginning with a talk from Nicky Gumbel, and comprising prayer and band-led worship, the onus here is on experiencing the Spirit for ourselves. You wouldn’t spend a weekend theorising about sport without the opportunity to play.
Is this sheer emotionalism, psychologically-whipped mass hysteria? That’s an argument often levied against Alpha, but Gumbel gives it short shrift. Emotion need not be a dirty word, he says, even for the British. If a play makes us laugh, or a film makes us cry, it’s seen as a rousing success. If you go to a football match, you’ll be shouting and chanting in the time it takes to say “stiff upper lip”.
Nor should we fear the physical manifestations. They are merely the outward trappings of something deeper, akin to the tingle down your spine when you’re in love. We are told that we can expect to cry, laugh, surge with heat, shake or fall to the floor.
Now, as we wait on the Spirit, the room falls still. If we ask we will receive, says Gumbel. We need to make a simple symbolic gesture: to stand up with our hands out in front of us, indicating we’re open to His touch.
Around me, the majority are following instructions: eyes shut in silent communion; hands cupped to catch a hail of blessings. The hush is eerie. Half participant and half voyeur, my heart is pounding. I don’t know whether to copy them or take notes.
Then the tongues begin. Guided by a Holy Trinity minister, dozens around me are singing, softly, in a jangle of splintered languages. The sound is strangely lovely, if atonal; a sort of avant-garde choir tuning up.
As the only atheist in my group, I’ve been swimming against a tide too long. “Can I pray for you?” asks the girl beside me and, tentatively, I succumb. She lays her hands on me and a blast of heat fires through my body, warming me from head to toe. My hands and feet are shaking uncontrollably. I don’t know what to think. The spell broken, I head to the bar and neck a drink.
Next morning, I recount my experience to the rest of my group. It doesn’t surprise them. They nod sagely; it’s what God does, he comes in all his might to the most unlikely candidates and overwhelms them with his love.
“I still don’t believe,” I tell them. I think I might have mentioned Derren Brown. I don’t think they’re especially impressed.
We pack up our belongings and take the coach back to London. The consensus is that this has been an exemplary weekend; we’ve been lucky with the weather and with the food and with the fun times; friendships have been cemented and we’re spiritually recharged to boot.
But as we pull up outside Holy Trinity, just in time for the 5pm service, my religious batteries couldn’t be more flat.
This piece features in the 9 April issue of the New Statesman