The Home of Alpha...
I've been promising for some time now to share some reflections on a visit I made in March to Holy Trinity Brompton, the home of the ubiquitous Alpha Course.
The background to me going needs some brief explanation.
I was exhausted. Mentally. Physically. Spiritually. I was as tired, crotchetty and cynical as I have ever been (and for those who don't know me... that is bad). So Sally and I took ourselves off for a short break to London, to meet friends, do a few museums, take in a show, and enjoy some good food. The hotel we booked was just across from the V&A and we spent most of our time there and the other 2 big Kensington museums. But that also meant that it was just across the road from HTB, so we thought (admittedly rather reluctantly) that we really should go over on the Sunday and check it out.
See, whilst I have used Alpha in all of my ministerial appointments to date, I have an abiding suspicion of all that is trendy and popular, and whilst many of my friends and colleagues were heading over to HTB in the first flowering of Alpha, particularly at the time of the "Toronto Blessing" I decided that I would opt out. And on previous visits to London I have usually gone to that other Anglican place of pilgrimage (for conservative evangelicals at least) All Souls, Langham Place, not because of its reputation, but largely because we have a number of friends who are members there.
So, if we hadn't been so near at hand, given my sceptical bent and my then cynical zenith, there is no way on earth that I would have gone to HTB on this precious weekend break. And even as I crossed the road on the Sunday morning en route for church, I was rehearsing all the reasons that I would hate the experience with a passion. Just being honest.
The thing is though, I didn't... In fact I came away spiritually refreshed, mentally stimulated and both chastened and encouraged in equal measure.
Now lets get things straight before you think I've gone soft all of a sudden. HTB has a disproportionate number of young and beautiful (upper middle class) people in attendance... ie the Alpha videos are a fair reflection of people who attend HTB, at least on that Sunday... but then Brompton, of which HTB is the parish church, has a disproportionate number of young and beautiful (upper middle class) people in residence, so its really only reflecting local society.
The music for worship was OK but not great... although the kids worship was excellent (making me wish I was going out to join them for junior church). There was an interview by Nicky Gumbel with associate pastor Nicky Lee and his wife Sila concerning their recently published "Parenting Book" which was probably a little too matey and inward looking for my liking. Then there was a sermon on stewardship by one of the church wardens who is also a merchant banker, which very effectively looked at some of the lessons for Christians and the church from the recent economic crisis.
But is wasn't the formal worship and teaching that was the big selling point for me... it was the announcements and the information available in the porch/foyer/vestibule/whatever, which spoke of a congregation creatively and spiritually engaging with the social problems of their community and the wider world, and not being too precious or stand-alone ("We're HTB you know...") in how they did it. Indeed the one of the most encouraging bits was where Nicky Gumbel was encouraging his congregation to back a number of initiatives and events organised for the G8 summit that was happening in London that week, particularly one by the Bishop of London, who, it must be said, comes from a slightly different theological camp than Mr. Gumbel and his colleagues at HTB. The social and global themes touched on in the announcements were then reflected in the subsequent prayers of intercession. All of this spoke to me of a church that was much more than the charicature of HTB as the home of Alpha and the hub of the "Toronto blessing" in Britain... but rather a congregation that was truly integrated with its local community and seeking to relate the gospel to that community and the problems of the wider world.
And it made me think that I wish there were more HTBs around. I'm not advocating emulating everything they do and producing miniature HTBs everywhere. Nor am I saying that the programmes they produce (Alpha included), or the music they use, or even their particular charismatic Anglican theology is the answer to every local church's problems. Rather, I wish that local churches of all denominations and theological bents would seek to be as sensitive to what is going on around them and reflect that in their worship and work...
To see HTB and Alpha as a Brand to be sold in the global spiritual supermarket is to belittle what they are doing there... and that is true of Willowcreek/Saddleback/Mars Hill and many other effective local expressions of church. We should learn from such expressions; learn from the negatives and the positives. We should use the tools they produce rather than seek to reinvent the wheel, but we must use them sensitively and contextually and not think that forking out X dollars or pounds will unlock the secrets of exponential church growth. We should learn from such expressions and even seek to emulate what is good in them, but to seek to replicate them is lazy and ignores the context.
So, in brief, I'm glad I went... I wish I always said that after visiting a church...