Not in my backyard: Alpha's Kensington crusade

When a proselytising Christian movement planned to build a new global HQ in one of London's most exclusive enclaves, it didn't expect a few chaps in blazers to stand in the way of God. Ed Caesar reports on the battle for Onslow Square
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The Independent Online

In a leafy London square, an unholy war has broken out. Massed on one side are the battalions of Alpha, the evangelical movement that has swept through Britain and the world. On the other side is the redoubtable Onslow Neighbourhood Association. At issue: Alpha's proposed £15m redevelopment of an unused parish church into a theological college and broadcasting centre, designed by Norman Foster. Alpha is already planning activities for its new centre as early as the coming year. The neighbours have other ideas.

One might think this squabble would be a walkover. The Alpha movement, whose mother church, Holy Trinity Brompton, attracts 3,500 parishioners every Sunday, and whose 15-week courses have been taken by more than 8 million people worldwide since 1992, has cash and influence. Bankrolled by financiers including Ken Costa of UBS Warburg(and, it was reported this week, Philip Anschutz, although Alpha denies this), its congregation numbers Geri Halliwell and Jonathan Aitken. Moreover, it has the great planning consultant in the sky on its side: Alpha believes its opportunity to turn St Paul's, Onslow Square in Ken-sington & Chelsea, is "God-given".

But Alpha underestimates the locals at its peril. Onslow Square is a bastion of civic pride. Although popular with Swiss and American bankers, a hardcore of long-time residents has ensured that it is one of the most vigorously regulated residential areas in London. The façades of all houses, say the rules, must be painted white. "For Sale" signs are strictly forbidden. The central garden is a bureaucrat's paradise, where only one party is allowed every year - for the neighbourhood association.

In 2001, that same neighbourhood association, whose president is the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, harangued Michael Portillo on a pre-election walkabout with complaints about parking in "their square". Earlier this year, it saw off the developer Stanhope, which was planning to build 11-storey towers on South Kensington Tube station. And, on Tuesday, it forced Alpha to withdraw its initial plans for a centre in the square, although, admits Roger Baresel, the chairman of the neighbourhood association, "it's only round one".

So what, exactly, has irked the residents? Is it Lord Foster's building, or Alpha itself, they object to? "One tries to keep one's personal feelings for Alpha to one side and treat it like anyone else," says Baresel. A recently composed open letter, though, makes his grievances clear. "[Alpha's] plans," wrote the chairman, "apparently include: conference centre, college, café and kitchens, library, common room, marketing offices, family life administration department, prayer room, boardroom, bookshop, nine break-out rooms, lecture room, three flats and three guest rooms. There will also be the chance to turn the church into a TV studio or triple-screen cinema for international broadcasts. The church spire effectively prevents the creation of a helipad. Local residents are surprised at this bid to turn a parish church into the HQ of a marketing-led international evangelical outfit ... They are also surprised that the new façade pays scant attention to the elegant architectural styles that surround it."

The residents of the adjoining Rose Square have been equally vociferous in their objections. Tony Doggart QC, their eloquent spokesman, heard about Alpha's plans and hired the planning consultant Nick de Lotbiniere, at a cost of £265 an hour, to project what the square would look like if Alpha got its way.

"It was only when we engaged this planning consultant that we realised we'd be faced by a four-storey cliff-like façade which would obscure a charming Victorian church hall," says Doggart. "We said, back in Feburary, that really, this all looks too big. But the plans that emerged recently ignored that comment. They've gone ahead with exactly the same idea.

"Moreover, as we started to read more about the Alpha group, the more concerned we became about the sheer scale of the thing. This is going to be the global headquarters of the Alpha group, utterly inappropriate for somewhere like Onslow Square. None of us dreamt, when we first heard this proposal, that there would be 1,200 people turning up in congregations, several times a Sunday, as well as courses that run through the week." At present, St Paul's has no congregation.

Alpha, though, thinks the South Kensingtonians are over-reacting. "All we want is a worshipping centre at Onslow Square," says Alpha's spokesman, Mark Eldson-Dew, from its headquarters at Holy Trinity Brompton.

So, there are no plans for a broadcasting centre? "Well, there's an element of truth to it," he says. "Increasingly, what Holy Trinity Brompton does, as a parish, and as a worshipping centre, is of enormous interest to thousands of churches around the world. But at HTB, if we want to film a service, or a talk, to broadcast it, we have to draft in huge cameras in vans, and massive wheely trolleys with cameras on arms. When we develop Onslow Square, we'd love to hide some of those cameras in the scheme, so the filming can be as unobtrusive as possible."

But, while Eldson-Dew plays down the scale of the proposed site at Onslow Square, one of its most visible advocates and funders, Ken Costa, thinks the site could prove a springboard to extending Alpha's reach on television and the internet.

"Digital technology is to our era what Gutenberg was to the 15th century when he created the press to print the Bible," said Costa, when asked about the Onslow Square site. "This is a new technological revolution in the way Christianity will be spread. It is Christ for the iPod generation."

It is this kind of talk that terrifies locals. And, scratch the surface of their polite complaints about inappropriate façades, and one finds that several residents are harbouring an ocean of mistrust about the operations of Alpha. While Costa thinks he is providing "Christ for the iPod generation", one square-dweller spelt out what some residents really think - that Alpha "is the Tesco of modern beliefs".

And, while many residents' experience of Alpha is confined to watching a logjam of estate cars blocking Brompton Road every Sunday, one woman, who works close to the proposed site, had a much closer brush with the group.

"I was temping at the Holy Trinity Brompton a couple of years ago," she says, "and my job was to organise the reception. It was incredibly weird. Everyone who came in seemed to have been through some sort of personal crisis. Someone they knew had died, or they'd been through a messy divorce, or whatever. Alpha would get them in for an initial chat and say: 'Don't worry, we all love you, come on in.' I felt they preyed on these vulnerable people. They even tried to convert me, but I think they realised I was a lost cause. One woman said I had just lost my way, and that I hadn't found God because I wasn't 'ready'. It was incredibly condescending.

"What was weird was that no one came out, at the end of their 15-week course, and said 'It's not for me.' They were all instantly converted. It's not just church on a Sunday, it's social events all through the week. It seemed to me that many people wouldn't have that much time to give up, but they did, because they were at rock bottom. I'm sure, two or three years down the line, that many Alpha people lose touch with it."

These reservations about the ministry that Holy Trinity Brompton started in 1992 are not shared by everyone. The course has hundreds of prominent advocates in the Anglican Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is known to be a fan, even though his liberal credentials are seemingly at odds with the conservative agenda (notably its "homosexuality is a sin" doctrine) that lurks under the surface of Alpha's happy-go-lucky exterior. But some in the church are wary of Alpha's advance, and see its new venture in Onslow Square as an unwelcome development. "Alpha promotes a packaged, franchised brand of Christianity that, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest, satisfies people in the short term, but not in the long term," says Jonathan Bartley, of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia. "It takes a narrow view that I find very disturbing.Many groups of people who have been on Alpha are now questioning what they found there."

Feelings about Alpha's proposal run far deeper than a quarrel about Lord Foster, however inappropriate his cladding. But, this being a debate between groups of English people, those feelings have taken time to boil to the surface. Decorum reigns, even though, as Mr Baresel notes, some of the square's American residents can be boisterous in debate.

"They're always saying, 'Let's shove it up their asses!' I have to tell them, 'We're not shoving anything up anyone's ass. This is Onslow Square. Things are done a certain way'."

"I think the problem is that we were all too polite," agrees Mr Eldson-Dew. "At first, we didn't appreciate the strength of sentiment on this issue, and [the residents] did not express it. We'll work with them, now, to change anything they want."

But with neighbours such as Tony Doggart suggesting that Alpha change its proposed base "to perhaps a greenfield site in Wales, or, failing that, Battersea Power Station," does that mean the end for Alpha in Onslow Square? "Oh no," says Mr Eldson-Dew. "We'll find a way that makes everyone happy."

Ring the bell for Round Two.

Dinner, dogma and speaking in tongues

Many in the Christian community feel that the Alpha course is the answer to their prayers - a powerful tool of evangelism that has changed the lives of millions worldwide. To others, it is a strange, middle-class cult, with a peculiar take on the Gospel and a trite attitude towards spirituality.

Either way, there is no denying Alpha's popularity. Since 1992, more than 8 million people have taken the course in 156 countries. More than 2 million people in the UK alone have tried Alpha, and 7,289 organisations currently host the course - including the armed forces, the Prison Service and universities.

The Alpha Course has its origins in the late 1970s when Charles Marnham, a clergyman at Holy Trinity Brompton in South Kensington, designed a course to introduce new Christians to the basics of the faith. Nicky Gumbel, another minister at Holy Trinity Brompton, took over the course in 1990 and soon realised that it had huge potential for converting non-Christians. A 15-week programme of talks was devised, with topics ranging from "How and why do I pray?" to "How does God guide us?"

Course attendees are encouraged to believe that speaking in tongues "is a gift from God", and further Alpha reading reveals that the leaders believe homosexuality is a sin and pre-marital sex is unequivocally wrong.

The talks, and subsequent discussion in small groups, normally take place around a dinner setting. All Alpha course attendees must also participate in a compulsory "Holy Spirit" weekend.