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. 


Blog Alpha: Why do I keep going?

After a particularly hairy week on the Alpha course, which I blogged here, I decided to go back. I glossed over my reasons in that particular blog post- partially because it was getting excessively long, but also because I had an episode of Breaking Bad that needed urgent attention.

So why did I go back? Why would I voluntarily put myself through another session of feeling vaguely offended and wound up? This is evidently not a place for an achingly liberal athiest. The free food was surely not worth the incandescent rage that followed, so I must have had another reason.


To be honest, I was intrigued to see how the next session would recoup. I was almost challenging Alpha to come back fighting: either give me a definitive reason to quit, or to make it up to me. I’d become invested in the course, and (cheese alert) I was enjoying learning.

You see, I went to a Catholic primary school, where the leading memory of religion was having an emotional breakdown in front of a priest, aged eleven, when I couldn’t think of anything suitable to say for my first confession. I also went to a Catholic secondary school, where the leading memory of religion was the fact that my RE teacher told us she couldn’t spell “crucifixion”. Other than those two stand out moments, I’m pretty ill-educated when it comes to what Christians believe.

Alpha had started to prick my interest in having faith. Though my personal beliefs are unchanged, I now feel like I actually get it. The logic, the personal experiences, the trust in there being more to life than squabbling amongst ourselves and acapella Beyonce megamixes. The mechanics of faith make sense now. I’m still athiest, or whatever, but something clicked.

Previous to this course, whenever people told me they had a faith I treated it with as much understanding as if they’d told me they had a degree in neuro-astrology. With a respect for their experiences, but no knowledge of a) what was involved, b) how you got started in something like that  or c) how that would help you in daily life.

I’m still no expert, and I’m still far too silly to get involved in argumentative debates about God. But I’m still mystified by certain bits of religious zealousness- watch this space for my speaking in tongues special (yes really)- and I’m still baffled by people who are dead certain of one thing or another. More because I can’t decide between poached or fried eggs, nevermind God or no God.


Blog Alpha: Week two and three

After a bit of an internal debate on whether it was fair to my other group members to blog about the Alpha Course, I have decided to keep going. I’m going to keep other group members anonymous as default, in case they don’t want their beliefs and experiences published by some gob with a blog. Enjoy!

The routine is settled now; meet my friend at the tube station, walk chatting about our day to the illuminated church, pick up our dinner (shyly walk past the donation box…), navigate our way through the myriad of Alpha-ers (Alphites?), settle into our seats and munch away. We move to the stage area, where there’ll be a talk, a song, a longer talk, then back to our groups to chat about it all.

The stage is a redesigned alter, with a drumkit set to one side and some seriously high-tech AV equipment, ready to show us this week’s montage. Christian rock celeb Ben Cantelon is here to sing Amazing Grace in Week Two, and the ‘congregation’ is encouraged to sing along- the lyrics screened on a projector in front of us. A giant red question mark perches stage-left.

Week Two’s talk is “Who is Jesus”- where Nicky Gumbell, Alpha  A-Lister, reasons that Jesus did exist, that he was a great man, and that he was the Son of God. His logic makes sense, to be fair. He talks of textual analysis, historical records, biblical prophecies come true. Quotes from CS Lewis are read out (not the Chronicles or Narnia, mind) and I’m feeling pretty content. I’m not convinced wholly, but the talk was engaging and insightful.

We trot back to our groups, where we have a discussion on the perception of Jesus today, and on the reality of miracles. I tell the group that miracles, to me, are astounding acts of humanity. I use the example of the feeding of the five thousand- where a little boy gave up his three fish so Jesus could do some shiny magic on them to share amongst everyone else. I make the point that the shiny magic part seems to be a nice embellishment, but the real miracle, the real thing worth celebrating, is the act of a boy giving away his food in a starving crowd. The group agree to differing extents, and conversation is stimulating, involved. I felt quite proud of myself, and retell my thoughts at work the next day. Week Two was fun, and I’m eager for the next session.

Alpha Course 2013

Week Three is different. The talk, “Why Did Jesus Die” by Toby Flint, kinda pisses me off. It’s essentially about sin, and comparing ourselves to God, and receiving forgiveness. I’m disgruntled, and a little offended by the off-hand remarks made in poor taste. My friend disagrees, and I sat fidgeting in my seat. Even this week’s song bugs me- something in the lyrics about unworthiness sticks in my mind.

The group session is a little more fiery this week. Our numbers have grown (which is unusual, groups tend to be whittled down as the weeks go on) and it’s sometimes a struggle to hear what everyone is saying. I’m trying to process my anger into coherent thoughts, ready to bring to the table. Someone has already brought up the issue of sin as a concept- arbitrary and outdated. They reference homosexuality.

The atmosphere is a little stuck. No one wants to sound accusatory, and most sentences are hedged with phrases like “In those days”. One person referenced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah- and was quickly accused of ‘totally demonising homosexuality’. Later, someone else inferred ‘the gays just want acceptance’.  Many people pointed out the significance of various ‘sins’, such as homosexuality and tattooing, have since radically culturally changed, and that the Bible was written by flawed people. I think the Christians felt a little attacked, and the athiests and agnostic a little hurt.

I was slightly offended, to be honest. I understand that it can be difficult to articulate yourself when talking about contentious issues, and not one person in that group could be described as homophobic, but the conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. It took me a while to stop feeling frustrated afterwards, and I decided not to return. I can’t buy into something that requires you to consider yourself a sinner as an intrinsic part of your belief system- it’s just so negative.

A few days later, having thrashed my thoughts out with a few friends, and even reading a passage of The Message (a version of the bible written in modern day English), I decide to go back. If this week’s session upsets me or directly contradicts my basic values, I won’t go again. The last session seemed tainted with a negative undertone, and feathers had clearly been ruffled. I write Week Three off, but it still lingers in the back of my mind.