“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.
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 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.
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.