God's own spin doctor

This week, the Alpha Programme began its big-budget rebrand of a world-famous but sadly diminished product. Its name? Christianity. And behind the relaunch? Nicky Gumbel, the Church of England's answer to Peter Mandelson
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If you came across Nicky Gumbel in his native Knightsbridge, you'd hardly notice him. He's a neatly dressed, nicely groomed, politely spoken 43-year-old, good-looking in a boyish way but otherwise an unremarkable product of the upper-class mould. You certainly wouldn't suspect that he was in any way out of the ordinary.

Yet this is a man who numbers his admirers in hundreds of thousands. If they're to be believed, he's one of the most extraordinary men of his age - a latter-day John Wesley, at the very least. He's certainly extraordinary in his ambition: he's aiming to do for the Church of England what Peter Mandelson did for the Labour Party - drag it into the modern world and, through sheer force of presentational skill, restore it to its former power and glory. More extraordinary still, he's showing signs of success.

You've probably seen some of the signs: a pounds 1m advertising campaign, unleashed this week, drawing our attention to something called the Alpha Programme. If that doesn't mean much to you, don't worry: by the end of this week, around one million households should have received invitations to go on the Alpha Course, a 15-session, 10-week introduction to the basics of Christianity. Ultimately, it is planned that everyone in Britain should be invited. Already, the number of people who have done the course is thought to have passed 1.5 million, more than half of them in Britain. In a country where the average Sunday sees scarcely one million people attend Church of England services, that's a significant figure. Six thousand of Britain's 24,000-odd Christian churches (of all denominations) are active participants in the Alpha programme; 4,000 are involved in (and are financially supporting) the current campaign; and the Archbishop of Canterbury has "wholeheartedly" commended it. None of which may be enough to turn Britain back into a Christian nation, but it's not a bad start.

The man behind this revolution, you might think, must be a spiritual tiger; a roaring prophet in the cast of Ian Paisley. Yet Gumbel, as befits a man of God in the New Labour age, is an altogether svelter creature, as smooth-edged as a breakfast television presenter. His background is inoffensive, to the point of blandness. The son of two atheist lawyers, he grew up in the parish of Holy Trinity Brompton - Britain's richest parish church, and, in the religious sense, one of its most charismatic. He has spent most of his life in the area, one of his longest sojourns beyond it being his time at Eton, where his hobbies included trying to persuade Christian pupils that their faith was absurd. At Cambridge, he read economics and law, had five close friends called Nicky, and was drawn to Christianity for the first time in a fairly undramatic way ("Some of my friends were getting interested, and I just started reading the New Testament and couldn't put it down"). He then returned to Knightsbridge, spent six years as a barrister, married - he now has three teenage children - and became an increasingly active member of the congregation at Holy Trinity Brompton. "I don't think," he says politely, "that there can be many people out there who could tell you that I did awful things in my youth."

In 1983, partly as a result of an encounter with an American evangelist who told him that he had "a gift for telling people about Jesus', he gave up his career at the Bar to train for the priesthood - "to the horror of my parents". His first job after his ordination, in 1986, was as curate of Holy Trinity Brompton, which by this time was acquiring a national reputation for its rather un-British approach to evangelism. Some eight years earlier, one of Gumbel's predecessors, Charles Marnham, had developed a series of talks designed to bolster the faith of existing church-goers - the Alpha programme. These talks were given in conjunction with informal meals and small discussion groups, with the option of a weekend away at the end of the programme; those who went through the course might in due course help to administer it themselves. By 1990, a few hundred committed Christians had tried Alpha. Then Gumbel was put in charge.

Gumbel realised that the real potential of such a programme was as a way of recruiting non-churchgoers, and he re-thought, re-wrote and re- packaged it with this in mind. Everything was made more "non-church-goer- friendly" and "non-threatening"; jargon was replaced by jokes, piety by human warmth; reactions to the talks were monitored by questionnaires and modified accordingly (shades of the focus group); and public interest in the course "simply exploded". Churches all over Britain - and, eventually, the world - began to ask for details, and, in due course, the revised material was committed to books, audiotapes and videos, written by and starring Gumbel, with lots of "study guides" and "manuals" to back them up. Today, Nicky Gumbel governs the Alpha empire from an office block adjoining Holy Trinity Brompton, employing around 100 people in an operation that spends nearly pounds 750,000 a year, which comes out of Holy Trinity Brompton's astonishing annual income from donations and investments of pounds 2.3m - on materials alone. (The cost of actually running the programmes is usually met by voluntary donations from participants.) Gumbel also puts on up to 50 conferences a year around the world for churches that want to learn how to use the Alpha programme.

According to Sandy Millar, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (and another Old Etonian ex-barrister), Gumbel's Alpha has provided overworked, uninspired vicars with an alternative to their usual response to non-believers who express curiosity about Christianity: "which is simply to say come along on Sunday - often with disastrous results." A pre-prepared programme of tried and tested talks on fundamental matters of faith ensures that thousands of churches remain smoothly on message, while modern media and marketing methods ensure that the programme can be disseminated with breathtaking efficiency. (Check out the countless Alpha websites on the Internet.) Gumbel may not get time to perform more than the occasional wedding or funeral in his capacity as curate, yet he's running an ideological machine of stunning power. In a sense, he's God's minister without portfolio.

A non-smoking, near-teetotal keep-fit enthusiast who spends most of his waking hours working - "although I don't really think of it as work" - Gumbel is tall and dark, performs well on video, and seems to be adored by many female Alpha enthusiasts. But he owes his impact less to any unique vision or cast of character than to the fact that, like Mandelson, he has faced up to and focused on problems that needed solving - most notably the fact that non-believers tend to see the church as boring and irrelevant - and worked on them with unrelenting energy and thoroughness. "Nicky's legal background is very helpful," says Millar, "in enabling him to isolate the key issues and to attempt to deal with them in a way that people can understand." It may be no accident that one of Gumbel's most prominent colleagues - who has just taken over Alpha's New York office - is Alistair Hanna, a former director of McKinsey's, the management consultants. Nor are the comparisons with Mandelson entirely fanciful. "I think," says Gumbel, "that one should try and learn as much as possible from areas of life outside the church. I would look at any political party and say: `what can we learn from what they're doing?'"

Yet it would be mean to push the similarities with the Prince of Darkness too far, if only because the Devil is, in a real sense, one of Gumbel's betes noires. "There are very good reasons to believe in his existence," he says of Satan in Questions of Life, the bestselling book based on his Alpha talks. "Any kind of theology which ignores the existence of a personal devil has a great deal to explain." He takes an equally fundamentalist line in other areas. "Does God Still Heal?" is the title of one of the Alpha talks; the answer is a literal and unambiguous yes. Alpha thoroughly disapproves of divorce, abortion, homosexuality and sex outside marriage. As for the direct workings of the Holy Spirit: "The gift of tongues has brought great blessing to many people."

This is the controversial side of Alpha. In 1994, Gumbel was associated with the arrival in Britain, via Holy Trinity Brompton, the phenomenon widely known as the Toronto Blessing (although Gumbel prefers to call it "The present movement of the Spirit that began at Toronto Airport Vineyard church in January 1994"). The "blessing" involves mass outbreaks of speaking in tongues, sometimes in conjunction with fainting and being "slain in the spirit". For enthusiasts, it can easily become the most important aspect of their faith. Critics of the Alpha programme have claimed that subscribing to Alpha means buying into the whole charismatic Toronto package. In fact, direct references to the phenomenon have now been removed from Alpha (most of whose material was written before 1994). But in practice, there's often a fair bit of speaking with tongues at the programme's climactic weekend session.

What is beyond doubt is that Gumbel, Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha all stand for a charismatic version of Christianity that would go down in many Anglican churches like guacamole at a Rotherham working men's club. There may be little scriptural or theological justification for the Anglican church's traditionally half-hearted approach to matters of literal and supernatural belief. None the less, that's how hundreds of thousands of old-fashioned Anglicans like it. "The Church is like... a feast and a celebration," says Gumbel in one Alpha talk, "and at a party everyone has a good time. There's fun, there's laughter... Paul says, `don't get drunk with wine, be filled with the Spirit. Come to a party where you can get drunk on God'... I was at a party like that last night... It was a party thrown by the Holy Spirit. It was a fun place to be." You can just feel the Church Fete Committee wincing.

But Gumbel seems set to have the last laugh. For much of the 1990s, the Church of England has been losing members at a rate of 1,000 a week. If he has the secret of putting bums back on pews - as his detractors most certainly have not - then tomorrow's C of E may well belong to him. This week's campaign could be a flavour of the church to come.