Damian Thompson

Alpha male

Can Nicky Gumbel and Holy Trinity Brompton save the Church of England?

Alpha male
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Just before stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Robert Runcie told me — in a sotto voce conversation during the General Synod — that charismatic evangelical parishes such as Holy Trinity Brompton (‘HTB’) in South Kensington, with their American-style worship, near-fundamentalist teaching and smart social connections, posed more of a threat to the Church of England than divisions over women priests. I wonder how he would have reacted to the news that, 21 years later, an HTB man has been given his job.

Justin Welby, only recently appointed Bishop of Durham, is being translated to Canterbury with a minimum of fuss. His name just ‘emerged’; David Cameron, his fellow Old Etonian, had invited him to go to Lambeth before the media had even worked out who Welby was. Looking at the situation from the perspective of 1991, Dr Runcie (and I) might have said: ‘Aha! That’s how HTB works. Don’t be misled by the happy-clappy exuberance. Its urbane pastors spread their influence quietly. Look at the way they win converts to Bible Belt Christianity with a deceptively casual invitation to a drinks party. Like a cult, really. Welby? Must be a Manchurian candidate…’

But if he were alive today, and had kept track of Holy Trinity’s growing influence in the Church, I suspect Dr Runcie’s reaction would be quite different. He might say: ‘Thank God that, between them, Downing Street and the ecclesiastical appointments committee have found a man from the one bit of the C of E that actually works.’ Evidence? A simple introduction to Christianity known as the Alpha Course, devised by the parish in the 1970s and still very much the intellectual property of HTB, has now been done by 20 million people across the world. In the process, Holy Trinity Brompton has changed — to the point where choosing one of its alumni to become Primate of All England seems an entirely natural step. Or, to put it another way, the Church of England’s last chance to pull itself together.

When I visited HTB at the beginning of the 1990s, the vicar was Sandy Millar, a former barrister educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. His curate was a tall, thin man with saturnine good looks and crinkly black hair called Nicky Gumbel, also a former barrister educated at Eton and Trinity. Justin Welby is Eton and Trinity, too, though before his ordination he was a senior executive in the oil industry rather than a lawyer. My first impressions of HTB services were unsettling: there was a quaint mismatch between the Christian rock anthems, designed for Californian arm-waving, and the natural reticence of the Barbour-and-cords/Puffa-and-pearls worshippers, for whom waving was something normally reserved for your hosts after an agreeable country weekend.

OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. HTB in those days struck outsiders not only as very posh but also very Protestant — and not in an Anglican way. I interviewed one young woman who remembered the point at which she decided that the whole operation was too ‘cultish’ for her. ‘There was a carefully placed box of tissues at the prayer meeting, for the moment someone cried when the Holy Spirit descended,’ she said. ‘It felt like emotional manipulation.’ Archbishop Runcie had also heard that sort of story; it was one of the reasons he felt he had a cuckoo in the nest.

The charge isn’t fair now. Nicky Gumbel, still thin and handsome but with grey crinkly hair, has been vicar of Holy Trinity since 2005. He didn’t invent the Alpha Course — designed as an introduction to Jesus for non-believers or lukewarm churchgoers — but it’s thanks to his nervous energy that it has spread to 169 countries. In 1996, Cardinal Hume invited a team from HTB to Westminster Cathedral so he could discover whether it was compatible with Catholicism. ‘That really took us by surprise,’ Gumbel told me over tea in his vicarage last week. ‘It wasn’t just that they were so enthusiastic — it was that we hardly had to change anything when we developed Alpha for Catholics.’

Actually, the bigger surprise is that HTB — which at one point in its history would have regarded Catholics as barely Christian at all — is so Rome-friendly: literally so, in that Gumbel has friends and supporters in the upper reaches of the Vatican. ‘I love Catholics,’ he says with great emphasis, and it’s interesting that he doesn’t use the term ‘Roman Catholics’, which always sounds slightly sniffy to Catholic ears. He met Cardinal Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope, and told him about his own German-Jewish ancestors — something that, coincidentally, he has in common with Bishop Welby.

But doesn’t Holy Trinity sometimes use the Alpha Course to poach Catholics? ‘No! When they do Alpha I say to them: do not come to HTB but go back to your Catholic parish. It’s part of the Church and I love the whole Church.’ Again, this is a shift from the days when HTB, despite its comfortable berth in South Ken, seemed to represent a radical fringe — Bible-bashers using the C of E as a flag of convenience, said critics.

It didn’t help that Holy Trinity had a reputation for ‘planting’ congregations in moribund parishes and stripping the altars, obscuring the reredos with a projector screen and generally dismantling the liturgy. But one of its most recent plants, St Augustine’s in Queensgate, has kept its Sung Eucharist, vestments and incense. The internal divisions of churchmanship are collapsing here. No one should be surprised that Bishop Welby remains very close to HTB while also drawing on Benedictine spirituality.

What’s the next Archbishop of Canterbury like? ‘Justin’s a modest chap — for example, when we were at Trinity he never mentioned that the Master of the College, Rab Butler, was his great-uncle,’ says Gumbel. ‘But he’s also a natural leader, and the Church of England tends to be frightened of leaders because there’s always the danger that they might offend someone. So when he first put himself forward for ordination, it was made clear to him that of the thousand people interviewed he wasn’t in the top thousand.’

Gumbel is a natural leader, too: his confident but self-effacing holiness reminds me of outstanding Catholic priests such as Fr Alexander Sherbrooke of St Patrick’s, Soho, who would have been bishop long ago if the English Catholic hierarchy wasn’t even more terrified of talent than its Anglican counterpart. If we set aside, for a moment, important theological differences, we can see a chasm that runs through rather than between denominations. It divides Christianity done well and Christianity done badly.

At the 11.30 service at HTB last Sunday, the Christian rock anthems were performed by professional musicians. They sounded nothing like the disgusting racket of ‘folk Masses’ inflicted on Catholics throughout Britain; in security of intonation, if nothing else, they had more in common with the Palestrina and Victoria sung at the London Oratory, the giant neo-baroque church next to Holy Trinity which also falls into the category of doing Christianity well rather than badly.

HTB, like the Oratory, now has a multi-ethnic congregation. On Sunday I sat next to an obviously prosperous Chinese couple on one of the sofas that the church reserves for latecomers. (Incidentally, I can’t recommend the service-on-a-sofa experience too highly, though it’s hard to see how it could be made to work at the Oratory.) The worshippers were mostly well-off — and the sermon, by a young curate called Miles Toulmin, was artfully tailored to yuppie temptations: shopping, social media, internet porn and ‘the biggest idol of all’, the craving for success at work. Toulmin employed the split-second timing of a stand-up comic: that is, a professional expertise rarely displayed by the hand-wringing mediocrities who become archdeacons or monsignors simply by turning up to committee meetings.

In the end, leadership goes hand in hand with an attention to detail that can spill over into demanding perfectionism. This is as true of the Church as it is of society as a whole. As Nicky Gumbel says, Christian leaders can offend people — not by accident, as the current Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster manage to do, but semi-deliberately, because they know that worship and evangelism lose their edge at the first sign of sloppiness. A spirit of amateurism has been sucking the life out of English Christianity for decades now; we’ll know very soon if Justin Welby can use the lessons of HTB to breathe some of it back in.

Written byDamian Thompson

Damian Thompson is an associate editor of The Spectator

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