Blog Alpha: The Review

Alpha is over. No more anger-inducing talks. No more soul searching with strangers. HTB Church will probably unfollow me on Twitter (I’m currently only at two degrees of separation from TIMES man of the year Pope Francis because of this strategic follow, so this is a genuine shame). My ten week delve into the Christian faith has come to an end.

It’s been a bumpy ride. At best, inviting and revelatory, and at worst upsetting or boring. I’ve questioned and probed and cried and learnt. I’ve solidified what had previously been an unwavering agnosticism to an unwavering atheism, much to relief of some friends and to the slight disappointment of others.

My initial experience of Alpha was pretty detached. I thought I’d wander in, take part in the conversations and free dinner, scuttle off home again and when it had all ended, I’d be able to put a badge of religious acceptance onto my brownie-sash and maybe even have cranked up a few views on the newly reformed blog.

Alpha Course 2013

I was convinced that the only people that would go to a Christianity conversion course were probably nutters in the first place (excluding me, naturally. I was there for investigative reasons), so I was initially wary of the beaming hosts and carefully planned ‘I used to be an atheist too!’ talks that frequented Alpha. Then they started making sense.

Basically, I got into it. The community, the songs. Despite the weekend being really overwhelming (not sure I’ll ever see Parseltongue in the same way), I loved it. Gorgeous scenery, thought provoking talks, surrounded by friends and food. It’s difficult to meet people in London, and Alpha was a ready made group of people willing to ask about your week, get stuck into meaty topics, and share a trip to the beach with. In some ways I felt like I was using Alpha, religious exploration aside, just to make friends.

Another game changer was how it’s affected my relationships. A lot of my friends, who form my closest and most precious relationships, are Christians. Before the weekend I cynically assumed they’d all be rooting for my conversion, all hoping I’d be “saved”. It turns out that that’s just a myth about Alpha, that the number one goal is a selfish battle to convert unwilling passers-by. It’s not. It’s a chance for people who are interested and open to Christianity to learn (or re-learn) the basics. I never felt pressured once during Alpha. I never felt pressured by any of my Christian friends.

What I did feel is that I’d patronised my friends. I’d put their belief system in a box, making assumptions about it, then stomped on in hoping to find out what the tricks were, what the catch was. What was it about this Christianity, this HTB Church, that was turning my normal friends into something else? Something I couldn’t relate to? How dare this religious belief put any matter of distance between me and my relationships!

Well, the joke (and relief) is on me. There is no distance between me and my friends because of our beliefs. Not really. We all love each other, we were friends before Alpha and we still will be. I was silly to think otherwise (serious note: I’m sorry to these friends for being such a bloody drama queen about it. Not that you expected anything less, amiright?).

It’s been kind of weird enjoying being part of a community without holding an intrinsic belief that the rest of the community holds. But there you have it, that’s what happened. I find churches and religion much less sinister now, though it’s still not for me. I won’t be going to church, but I will treat people who do with more understanding. I’m certainly more aware of how similar people are, both believers and non-believers alike. We’re just rattling around. That’s been the most comforting thing to come out of it all.


The Alpha Course Weekend: A Review

Sounds like a cult mate“. I laughed. My sister’s opinion on my upcoming weekend away with the Alpha Course was pretty clear. “It’s not a cult“, I told her. “It’s a weekend at the beach, with some talks.” Unconvinced, she changed the subject.

Friday evening rolled around and my colleagues asked me what my plans for the weekend were. Once I told them I’d be spending two nights in a Pontins with 300 Christians, eyebrows were raised. “Very rock n roll” one commented. “Phone me if it gets weird” another advised. I laughed, knowing they were overreacting. I was looking forward to getting out of London, if nothing else. Plus, my atheist-on-the-inside exposé was getting kinda dry, and this would be good blog fodder.

We drove down later that evening, arriving just in time for the last serving of food. My group sat around chatting, mostly about Miley Cyrus and the benefits of buying your food from the reduced section. We pottered off to our rooms- I was sharing with one of the girls from my group- and fell asleep. So far so good.

The talks

Each talk was prefaced with a song from the band. They’ve been singing the same songs each week at Alpha- in order to familiarise the audience with the words I guess- and I decided to let my guard down and join in. I’m the party-pooper that point blank refuses to join in at karaoke or SingStar (it’s for the best)- so I kinda relished being able to sing in a room where no one could hear me over the crowd. I was getting quite into this Alpha lark.

Charlie Mackesy, from Week One, spoke first. He was his usual, relatable funny self. He told us the first time he came to Alpha, he left every five minutes for a cigarette -“I don’t even smoke”. The talk centred on who the Holy Spirit is. He noted how crazy it all seemed, and told us of his reluctance to accept Christianty. He told us that the only time his ADHD pauses is while in prayer, and the peace that brings him. He told us a beautiful and intimate story of his fathers death that brought me to tears. We dispersed, and went for a chat in our groups.

The second talk, given by Emily Layzell, was another touching, funny speech. Hers was on what the Holy Spirit does. To be totally honest, although she was wonderfully eloquent and had some interesting insights, the only thing that I really recall from her speech was her anecdote of the time she accidentally drank a bottle of her son’s urine. I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit relates to sipping wee, so I’ll leave you guessing on that one. Again, we dispersed, ate lunch and chatted. I was feeling pleased with how un-culty this all seemed. I congratulated myself on being so open minded.


The tongues

The next group discussion centred on gifts from the Holy Spirit. I was asked to read out a passage mentioned in the talk: Corinthians 12. In this passage, Paul (total guess) tells the apostles (another total guess) that they can receive gift from the Holy Spirit. This comes in many forms, from healing, to knowledge and prophecy to speaking in tongues. You get the right gift for you, at the right time for you, so no point writing up a wishlist. My group leader asked us all what we thought of it, and which gift we’d prefer.

I had no clue, but I was the only one. Responses varied on personal preference, and I was surprised to hear some anecdotes of gifts in action- people seeing miraculous healing take place or knowing how to speak in tongues. Gifts of knowledge proved to be a popular choice, as did “discernment”- being able to accurately judge someone else’s stage of faith.

The next talk was by Toby Flint- of disastrous week three fame-and once again his examples failed to impress me. One popular reason for speaking in tongues is to say what our limited human vocabulary can’t- the way he exampled this was by telling us the average human has a vocabulary of just “5,000 words”- which as a linguistic graduate and a fellow speaker of words, I can tell you is total bollocks. Another example was of the profound nature of tongues speaking to non-believers. This example was a story of a preacher speaking in tongues when an atheist native Italian was in the audience. The preacher was saying “I love you” in Italian. Apparently not one person noticed this guy on stage shouting “ti amo“- despite it being a hugely popular phrase in a local language- other than this ONE Italian chick in the congregation, who instantly felt the Holy Spirit. I call BS on that one too.

While I stewed over his shaky arguments, he welcomed the congregation to ‘invite the Holy Spirit’. He told us that we may feel different sensations, like warmth or peace or giddiness. He told us we might feel nothing. The guitarist was quietly singing and people were praying. Looking around, almost everyone had their eyes closed, and a few were silently weeping.

The noise

Toby began speaking in tongues. As did the guitarist. He kind of looked like Harry Potter did when he spoke Parseltongue. The noise of people whispering in prayer was getting louder, and one man in front of me began shouting. I’d been told tongues was harmonious, but the guy in front of me was strangely aggressive and percussive. He fell to the floor and kept shouting- he sounded like he was begging. Toby could see that this was something of a distraction to others, especially those who’d never seen this before. “Focus on your own experience, don’t worry about the people around you”. I was alarmed. Toby invited us to sing in tongues.

I looked around, getting teary myself. People in my group were speaking in tongues, and a few began singing. It wasn’t the gibberish I expected, but sounded like no language. As the room got louder, I could hear the person next to me rising in volume. I closed my eyes to stop myself from crying. The man on the floor in front of me was shaking, still shouting. Knocking a chair, I ran out, my boots clomping on the wood floor.


I burst out of the room and looked around. One of the group helpers had followed me out, and led me outside. I slumped against the wall and started crying. It was too much. I had “What the fuck” swimming around my head. The helper asked if I wanted to talk.

I was upset because of how naive I felt. Church services are emotional, and I’d seen people crying and praying before. I thought I’d be able to handle hearing people speak in tongues, but I couldn’t. It was too dramatic. I felt a total idiot, like a Mrs Lefty-Liberal on a jaunt to prove how open-minded she was. These people weren’t trying to convert me, they had their own beliefs to deal with. Dying families  and breaking relationships and financial troubles and entire lives. I’d been silly.

After a while, I decided to go back in. The room was quieter now, no singing. It looked like a hospital ward, full of wounded victims. People were sat in groups praying and comforting each other. A few people still stood, their hands upturned and eyes closed. Everyone seemed to be having a spiritual experience. I couldn’t get over that we were in a fucking Pontins.

A friend, with best interests, prayed for me with his hand on my shoulder. I was uncomfortable, but didn’t want to interrupt. If anything, this whole course has simply solidified to me that I’m an atheist. Embarrassed, I left my group to go for dinner and went to ring my best friend from my hotel bathroom floor.

The come down

Lying half in-shower and half out-of-shower, idly considering locking myself in for the rest of the weekend, I got hungry. I shuffled towards the canteen, where I ate in near silence with my group, who were happily chatting about football results and the upcoming pub quiz. We returned to our rooms, where my roomy asked why there were towels on the bathroom floor. “Oh, I’ve been sitting on them for a bit”. She nodded, understanding. Nothing was weird this weekend.

Joining the rest of our team for the pub quiz, the room that had previously held three hundred crying Christians now held three hundred laughing Christians. I downed a glass of wine and ordered a second. Interspersed between quiz rounds, different acts perfromed in a sort of variety/talent show. The band that had been singing Christian rock all weekend did a medley of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Kelis’ “My Milkshake”. One guy used his hand as a kazoo to play ‘Happy Birthday’.

Next up, before the “Cheese or Font” round was vicar Toby Flint. He was going to dazzle us with his ability to make an accurate siren impression. Readying himself in front of the microphone, the audience were silent. He approached the microphone, and a single voice sprang out of the centre of the audience: “Speak in tongues!”.  The room burst into applause and laughter. I looked around at this community, where everyone looked happy. I wondered what the Pontins staff made of us.


You’ve just read 1600 words (or skipped to the end), so you might as well read a few more. I hope I’ve given a fair portrayal of my experiences, and maybe provoked some thought for you. More than this, I hope I’ve respected the experiences of the people on the weekend away with me, and indeed of Christians. If I’ve not, I’m sorry. Especially because many of the people involved here have become good friends. 


#TryAlpha: Week One of the Alpha course


A car horn honked at me. In a daze, I’d wandered into an active driveway. Standing in front of the enormous church, decorated with fairy lights and a giant walk-through “WELCOME” sign, I was already kinda nervous. It’s not every Wednesday you finish work early to go to an Anglican Christianity-conversion course. Was my idle wandering into the road a subconscious message? Maybe. I joined the queue.

This is my first Alpha. I’m stood outside Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), freaking out.

Alpha is considered by the kind of people who take time out to consider this kind of thing, the most successful introductory course to Christianity since Jesus himself got chatting down the local fishery. There are, predictably, people who treat a Church-led course in spiritually as a bit, well, cult-y (two notable examples include this article by Jon Ronson, and this -poorly researched, imho- VICE article). I was here to test the waters myself.

Why am I here? Well, since I moved to London, I’ve been having a bit of an existential crisis. Not like the one on the Alpha ads, where a dude who looks like he’s been holding in a really serious poo for too long asks important life-changing questions like “Is this it?” and “Pub or gym?”. No, my existential crisis is of a slightly more personal nature, and probably more to do with a lingering sense of loneliness since I moved away from all of my family and friends. I’m not hoping to find God, I’m not looking to be saved. I’m just curious about how other people can find solace and comfort in a religion. Plus I heard there’s free food.

alpha advert

Once assigned to a discussion group, I was led inside by a guy wearing a red t-shirt with “A-Team” emblazoned on the arm. Alpha’s pioneer Nicky Gumbel stood next to his wife Pippa. They both beamed at the enormous crowd. “Welcome!”

The talks were comforting. Nicky and Pippa told us to enjoy ourselves, that Alpha was intended to be a respectful and open place to discuss our thoughts about the meaning of life. They encouraged us to listen to, question and befriend our group members. A woman sang Amazing Grace. Nicky invited artist and once-ardent-athiest Charlie Mackesy to the stage to give a funny and charming speech. I tucked into my butternut squash

Speeches over, I feel relaxed. Mackesy spoke sense, took the piss out of Christianity a little, and had the audience charmed. It seems a lot less culty now. With a bit of chair reshuffling, we join our groups again, where cake and coffee is passed round. We play a name game, led by our host and her two helpers.

The atmosphere is a little awkward. We’re all here to dissect God in someway, and it becomes clear that athiests are in the minority. Which makes sense, really. What would an athiest be doing at a Church course? I take a moment to judge my decision to be here.

What if I’m the only person in here that doesn’t believe in God? That thinks all religion is a well-meaning, ancient system created by flawed people and exploited for war, money, selfishness? That thinks gays and women aren’t inherently sinners? That would rather blog than pray? I scan my group with my Christianity-radar set to HIGH.


Our host invites us to ask broad questions about God. After a silence, someone offers up “Why is there suffering?”. I sigh inwardly, wanting more in depth questions. I fire off “If god exists, how does he manifest himself in the world?”. The group nods, and falls back into silence. More questions are asked, with our host taking notes and sagely nodding at our queries. After a particularly long pause, she suggests the group breaks up and heads to the pub. Class dismissed.

A few conversations persist, then we all disperse out of the church. I had fun. I want to go back, to ask antagonistic questions and to compare the Christian answers with my own. I’m pleased with, but still slightly wary of the whole setup. I wonder if I’ll stick it out for the full ten weeks, or if something dramatic is going to happen. I make a mental note to ask one of the helpers where she got her shirt from next week. It was a nice shirt.