Celia Walden

It sure beats The Priory

Celia Walden says that the evangelical Alpha course makes the rich and beautiful feel good about themselves and provides them with a dating agency

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The chances are that if you’re nearing 30, you have begun to feel the itch of dissatisfaction. You’ve struggled to find the perfect profession, job, partner and home, but have failed in at least one respect, and are suffering from a sense of existential disgruntlement that is becoming known as the quarter-life crisis. But however bad it gets, there is one temptation you must resist: the Alpha experience.

I came across this phenomenon when a friend invited me to a dinner party recently in Holy Trinity Church on the Brompton Road. Our collective hosts were to be Alpha, an organisation that offers an introductory course in Christianity, over a meal with speeches followed by ‘informal chats’. I hate to appear closed-minded, but it just so happens that she is the fourth person in my twentysomething entourage to be bitten by the Alpha bug and it’s making me increasingly uneasy. It’s not because I am an atheist that I disapprove; it’s more that smart, sassy friends of mine are losing their sense of humour and their cynicism as they plummet into the black hole that is Alpha. As I see it, they’re looking for a way out of their late-twenties blues, and so when Alpha comes along and says, ‘I will make your life better’, all critical intelligence evaporates and is replaced with a kind of bovine optimism.

I can see the temptation of Alpha. Like a shot of wheatgrass in your morning fruit smoothie, it offers an easily digestible boost, a reassuring sense of a purpose to life, without the nasty taste of actual sacrifice. Alpha also acts as a posh counselling and dating agency, minus the shame of both. So no wonder the ‘Beginner’s Guide to God’, a ten-week introduction to Christianity, has now expanded from London around the world, attracting celebrities like David Suchet, Geri Halliwell, Samantha Fox and Jonathan Aitken. (The line-up ought to have worked as a warning, but we are all fallible.) It has converted thousands across denominations and left the rest of us feeling deeply sceptical and slightly resentful of the trend — sorry, religion — that has made our friends unavailable to us when we want to see them, and unbearably sanctimonious when we do. And it’s all down to one man: not Jesus Christ but Nicky Gumbel, the curate at Holy Trinity Church who started the Alpha course and made a fortune with his self-help tomes, which have titles like Questions of Life or Tough Questions, Straight Answers.

On Sunday afternoons at the demure time of 5 p.m. the young and invariably good-looking spiritual hopefuls who aren’t dropped off in black cabs at the door of Gumbel’s Alpha centre arrive in their Porsches for their exonerating meeting with Jesus. ‘It’s the perfect way to escape the materialism of everyday life,’ I am told by a convert in Prada shoes. But she is serious, and she has a point. Once you’ve got the dream job and the most desirable handbag, or your Prada shoes and your City bonus, what do you do with them? Especially if you are momentarily lacking an ideal partner to match? Take your problems to the Church, of course. For these people, Alpha can satisfy the craving for masculine order as well as offering a framework of rules to live by. Perhaps because they show such discipline in other areas of their lives, in spiritual matters they yearn for the security offered by subservience to a guru figure.

As well as lifting your sights, Alpha will absolve you of your middle-class guilt, just as the gym rids you of your health- and vanity-related anxieties. Unlike their predecessors, whom circumstances obliged to scrimp and save till 60 before enjoying their wealth for a year or two before dying, the current generation can be both young and successful. But this entails a certain moral angst or queasiness — which is alleviated in a pleasant way over dinners and chats at Alpha. And if that doesn’t work, the odd stint serving soup to the homeless usually does the trick. I’ve put it to my Alpha friends that a sense of spiritual well-being in the monastic tradition was earned by total isolation, sex-deprivation plus hard manual labour, but they don’t seem to get the point. Why should they? They enjoy the quick fix. There’s no pressure to commit long-term, and studies show that interest tends to wane after the Alpha honeymoon.

After all, when you delve a little deeper into the theology, you find that they are good, traditional, orthodox Christians: against homosexuality and premarital sex. The rising numbers Alpha are so proud of would no doubt swiftly decline if the movement were to come clean about this at the start. So rather than concentrating on any unpalatable truths about sexuality or lifestyle, they present you with a ten-week course which, for the time being at least, eschews all uncomfortable preachings.

The other draw is a form of group therapy. Talk at Alpha is not just about Jesus and what he can bring to your life. ‘They give you answers to every question you’ve ever asked yourself,’ an Alpha habitué tells me, and I am sure that they do. More often than not these people’s ailments are not severe or specific enough to merit counselling or psychiatric treatment. And this particular breed of well-educated but self-questioning young professionals might see booking an appointment with a shrink as a little too self-indulgent. Nonetheless, in the words of another devotee, ‘Everyone’s in need of a little help from time to time’ — and who needs The Priory when you’ve got the priory?

Perhaps one of the most fruitful aspects of the organisation is that it provides a unique environment in which you are guaranteed to be making dinner conversation about Jesus with dozens of like-minded members of the opposite sex, all financially viable, excitedly discovering you all went to the same school or university or are doing the same jobs, and all desperately in search of something: maybe you. Dating agencies the world over could only dream of making a similar boast.

A few weeks ago the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, horribly misjudged his young audience in his anxiety to ingratiate himself with them. ‘Clubs offer regular celebrations where you can get out of yourself and join others in dance and song, liberated from any merely utilitarian purpose,’ he preached to a crestfallen congregation. ‘There are preparation rituals, like donning the right dress and saving up for the night out. Then there is a sense of belonging and openness to one another and sometimes even what people describe as a mystical experience, an oceanic experience induced by the music, dancing or, alas, by drugs.’ It was good of him to try to discover a spiritual dimension to drugs and clubbing, but the people who have been doing both or either haven’t. That is one of the reasons they go to Alpha.