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
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home