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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
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

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?