Sunday, 10 May 2015


If ever there was proof that God has a sense of humour it was  my participation in an Alpha Course. Moreover, I was allocated to a discussion group comprised of young people barely in their 20s. Someone had obviously misread my age on the submission form!  
That God-incidence would catapult me into fascinating territory. The lessons learned from those young people have stood me in good stead throughout my ministry.  (Remember, no church for me from the age of 17 to 50 and I hadn’t sent my two sons to church.)
In case you are wondering, Alpha is a 15-session introduction to the Christian faith and conducted all over the world. Developed by the Revd Nicky Gumbel, a former London barrister and vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, it is arguably the most successful tool of evangelical Christianity in recent years. Today Nicky’s services attract a regular Sunday attendance of around 4,500 people – most aged between 18 and 35.  If you’re dying to speak in tongues and consider yourself conservative, then Alpha is for you.
The Alpha format at my parish was a fellowship supper in the hall, then off to the church for prayer and far too many hymns for my liking. This was followed by the Nicky Gumbel video for that week. Then we would have group discussions.

I was almost old enough to be my group’s honorary granny, a cynical seeker of truth to boot. They brimmed with unquestioning faith and were into gospel music, Christian movies and coffee shop gatherings. Fresh-faced and privileged they were a-political and blissfully unaware of life in the townships. I was into progressive jazz, art movies, political activism, good restaurants and sometimes hectic parties. They spoke about keeping themselves pure for their wedding night. I’d been divorced and had two live-in partners, one for 11 years, the other for five years.

Not that I discussed my personal life with them but the dynamic meant (small miracle) that I had to mind my tongue and tread gently. My age didn’t seem to matter and I was afforded a privileged in-depth view of what young people expect from church - how action speaks so much louder than pulpit eloquence.

Many years later I served a parish deep in Soweto for the six-weeks of Lent. On the first Sunday I noticed that the extra-large and very youthful music group was dominating the Eucharist Service. The oldies were sitting through praise and worship with folded arms and glum frowns. Thanks to my Alpha group I felt confident enough to approach the talented young musicians and singers and challenge them to plan a service that would serve their elders. The following week they wowed us all with a traditional Prayer Book format interspersed with well-loved choruses and even a few ancient hymns. There was a beautiful solo during Communion. For the remainder of Lent they alternated between youthful exuberance and worship that they understood to be an important ministry to older folk.

But back to my Alpha Course.

It was providing plenty of fodder for me to take to my Spiritual Director and her husband, the rector. Through them I came to understand the meaning of “broad church”. They taught me the importance of respecting other people’s religious views and how I was entitled to question.

Fact is, the Anglican Church accommodates a wide range of opinions and people. In the process we embrace the high and hazy, the low and even the ‘speaking-in-tongues’ evangelicals.  

This broad approach is said to be Anglicanism’s strength and its weakness.

As I’ve mentioned before, we rely on three pillars, Scripture, tradition and reason. It is what allows us to disagree on matters like the definition of family and same-sex marriage. We are even allowed to question whether the bread and wine at the Eucharist is miraculously transformed into Jesus’ body and blood or if those who take communion in faith receive the spiritual body and blood of Christ.

(If you want to impress your bishop at a cocktail party, the first is called ‘transubstantiation’ the second is ‘consubstantiation’.)

So what do you think? Is the Anglican Church shooting itself in the foot by being too broad?

No comments: