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Friday, 27 July, 2001, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Church leaders launch controversial courses
By the BBC's religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott
More than 2,000 years after the birth of Christ, a group of evangelicals is hitting the headlines with a massive advertising campaign to promote courses in Christianity.
Alpha courses, a 15-session introduction to Christianity, is about to embark upon a huge national advertising campaign.
It will see its name plastered up on the sides of 3,000 buses and 75 London Underground stations, as well as 1,500 major billboards up and down the country.
But concerns have been raised about the methods used to sell the courses to the public and the type of Christianity the group proclaims.
The classes are advertised as an opportunity to explore the meaning of life, and from a single London church - Holy Trinity in Brompton - they have grown into 18,000 courses.
Alpha claims that three million people have attended a course.
Archbishop of Canterbury
The courses have been widely praised, and endorsed at the highest level of the Anglican Church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, says they are "superb....I commend them wholeheartedly".
Sessions typically start with a supper, include a short service, a talk and group discussion.
A third of those present are course leaders.
There is also a weekend away, which, says Alpha, is often the point at which students are "filled with the Holy Spirit".
But amid this chorus of enthusiasm for a course which appears able to reverse the trend of declining church congregations, concerns are being voiced about the version of Christianity the course teaches, and the methods it uses to do so.
Debbie Herring used to be an Alpha course leader in Sheffield.
She claims that the techniques she was expected to use were similar to those of door to door salesmen.
"It became clear very early on that what Alpha was really about was high-pressure selling of a very narrow evangelical agenda, which dismisses and denies whole swathes of Christian teaching and tradition," she says.
"It's very manipulative. It uses leading questions to make people assent to things that really aren't as clear cut as the course suggests."
One of those central issues is that of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, central to the Christian faith. Christians differ as to how literally the resurrection should be regarded.
"One of the questions set up for discussion is why is the physical resurrection of Jesus central to the Christian faith" says Ms Herring.
"We all agree that resurrection is an important part, but whether it was physical or not is something we don't all agree on.
"And yet the course presents it as something you have to believe or else you're not a Christian."
Alpha is directed by the curate of Holy Trinity, the Reverend Nicky Gumbel.
Mr Gumbel rejects Debbie Herring's claim that Alpha courses use a hard sell to teach an eccentric version of Christianity.
"Those criticisms are entirely unfounded", he says. "I would encourage people to come and see us.
"The moment you came on an Alpha course you would see that it is not the way we do things.
"There are certain things about which the church on the whole is agreed, and those are the things we are trying to teach in a low key and unpressurised way."
There has also been concern about the way Alpha is promoted. With the help of intensive advertising and astute marketing, it has been turned into a powerful brand.
Some have called it the "Coca Cola of Christianity". Local alternatives that do not bear the Alpha brand name are increasingly seen as inferior.
Alpha is, moreover, protected by copyright, and is not willing for course material to be greatly adapted according to local tastes.
Nicky Gumbel says the reason for this is so that people who enrol for an Alpha course can be sure they are getting the real thing.
Other courses are being written to provide an alternative.
One, called "Journey" is being prepared by the Reverend Dr John Vincent of the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield.
Dr Vincent also believes 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 other 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".
Nicky Gumbel is the first to acknowledge that Alpha is not for everyone, that other courses might suit some people better.
Brand becoming stronger
The trouble is that Alpha is becoming harder to compete with.
ITV starts a 10-week series this weekend following a group of recruits through the course.
The Independent Television Commission has received complaints that the programme is too uncritical, breaking that part of its code that says that programmes may not be designed to recruit viewers to a particular religious faith or denomination.
With or without such publicity, the Alpha brand is becoming ever stronger. Some are questioning whether Christianity is a product to be sold in this way.
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