Church accused of `cult' methods

Critics of an evangelical C of E recruitment drive say it uses controversial devices such as `love bombing', report Suzanna Chambers and Susie Steiner

THE ANGLICAN Church next week launches its biggest-ever recruitment campaign. But the techniques it is using to win over new converts have been compared with those used by religious cults to lure the weak and vulnerable.

The National Alpha Initiative, which begins on 14 September, is co- ordinated by Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), the richest and largest house of worship in the Church of England, and is personally endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey.

Billboards across the UK will invite non-believers to discover Jesus, while leaflets will be dropped through more than 1.5 million letterboxes. Themed posters are to appear on the notice boards of more than 4,000 churches, in a pounds 500,000 advertising blitz.

The unprecedented initiative will offer everyone in the country the chance to join a free 10-week "Alpha course". But the methods used on the course have been likened to mind-control, and Alpha has been accused of creating "a Mickey Mouse religion which is cheap, graceless and addictive".

The evangelical push, paid for by donations and a pounds 100 contribution from each of the churches involved, has been warmly welcomed by Dr Carey. In a message of support, he said: "As someone who has strongly supported the growth of Alpha (in) recent years, I was delighted to hear of the proposals for the National Alpha Initiative this September."

But Alpha is not the traditional face of Anglicanism. It presents its brand of Christianity in a carefully scripted package. Recruits are entertained over a three-course meal, and the after-dinner conversation in small pre- arranged groups centres on fundamental questions of existence and social problems. Weekend seminars follow, and the course finishes with a celebratory supper party.

Alpha's appeal is twofold: the music, dinner parties and weekends away offer its converts a cohesive social network, while the discussion groups provide answers to life's problems.

And those who embrace Alpha's teachings are expected to receive the holy spirit in a fit of wailing, shaking and falling on the floor. This demonstrative form of Christianity is known as "the Toronto blessing".

HTB takes pride in its use of "the method of welcome": free meals and friendship to people who "walk in off the street". But some see this approach as "love bombing" - the deliberate manipulation of visitors' emotions by displays of affection, a technique often used by religious cults.

In a recent interview, Donald Reeves, the former rector of St James's, Piccadilly, said the Church of England was moving away from being a national church. Nothing that HTB does, he said, can be described as Anglican. "They are moralistic, sex-obsessed and unkind - more like a cult than a church."

A cult, according to Ian Howarth, director of the Cult Information Centre in London, is a group or organisation which uses psychological coercion to recruit and indoctrinate people, so that all previous influences - spiritual, social, intellectual, financial - are replaced with a new set of values and explanations which change the recruit's "reality". Mr Howarth, himself an ex-cult member, said cult leaders - who are self- appointed and unaccountable - frequently employ mind control techniques similar to those adopted by Alpha.

Graham Baldwin, spokesman for Catalyst, an organisation which offers support to those who feel that religious zeal has been a negative influence on their lives, said: "People want the miraculous. We want to see the power of God. Everything needs to be a bit more dramatic than it used to be. How can you confirm that God is good? By seeing a miracle."

He finds the raw emotion of the Toronto Blessing difficult to handle. "A lot of people say it gives them a feeling of euphoria. I would put that down to adrenalin rather than the Holy Spirit. You could get the same feeling on the Last Night of the Proms. There is a problem in attributing these things to God."

However, Mr Howarth said he did not believe Alpha members were in any danger of being harmed by cult leaders. "The definition of a cult is only used when considering a group's method, and not its message or philosophy. Alpha is a Nineties way of sharing the Gospel. It is very, very popular."

Mr Howarth's colleague, Michelle Shirley, said the courses, which varied in the way they were delivered in individual churches, were run in a "very professional and organised way". But she admitted the centre had received complaints about Alpha. "The bulk of complaints have been made by Christians who are concerned about theological content." However, a small number were lodged by people who had attended the courses and had felt failures when they did not "receive something" in the Toronto Blessing. Miss Shirley urged would-be converts whose curiosity was aroused by Alpha's advertising campaign to be fully aware of what they were signing up for before joining.

Alpha was started 20 years ago by HTB's curate, Rev Charles Marnham. Rev Nicky Gumbel rewrote the Alpha doctrine in 1990, and in the following year, he ran four courses. In the first eight months of this year, 9,000 courses have been run in 58 countries, using Mr Gumbel's book, Questions of Life, as their basis. Alpha has been used by members of every denomination, from Roman Catholic to Lutheran.

Inquisitive non-churchgoers can tune into BBC1 on 20 September for a special Alpha edition of Songs of Praise.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments