I NEVER DID QUITE FIGURE OUT WHAT ‘TORONTO’ WAS ALL ABOUT A DECADE OR SO BACK. There was a lot of excitement about bizarre behaviour in church, people making animal noises, falling on the ground, and the like, a phenomenon that first broke out in Toronto, Canada. Across Europe, churches were divided over ‘Toronto’. For some, such division was itself proof of its diabolical origin. Others discerned fresh stirrings of God’s Spirit, like the first monsoon rains after a long dry drought, as veteran missionary-statesman Lesslie Newbigin described it.
Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican church in London, where Sandy Millar was vicar, was the main portal for ‘Toronto’ on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps now, ten years after Sandy addressed a conference of YWAM Europe leaders at the height of the movement, we can assess the fruit of that controversial era. For HTB, as the church is familiarly known, is now the mother church of the global Alpha movement, based on the course developed by Sandy’s curate, Nicky Gumble. Alpha was developed around the same time as ‘Toronto’, and quickly began to spread around the British Isles, across to Europe and then around the world.
Today countries offering over a thousand Alpha courses include England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Korea and the United States. Also growing towards that benchmark are Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Over seven million people have now participated in Alpha courses globally.
Alpha posters recently plastered the message across the backs of 3000 British buses as well as on 150 taxis in 10 major cities. The English media gave extensive coverage to Alpha, especially to the eye-catching 60-second film clip screened in cinemas all over the country and telecast repeatedly on Sky News. The clip features a mountaineer, a professional footballer and a catwalk model all asking the audience the question, is there more to life than this? (See it yourself on: uk.alpha.org/welcome/cinema_ad/default.asp). Today one in five British adults recognise the Alpha logo – a cartoon figure carrying a question mark – as identifying a Christian course.
Last week, HTB was abuzz with the multi-lingual conversation of delegates attending the second Europe, Middle East and Africa Alpha conference. I sat with my wife (an Alpha-Holland board member) listening to reports from Portugal and Spain in the west to Romania and Armenia in the east, from Latvia and Finland in the north, and from Macedonia and Albania in the south. The enthusiasm, hope and vision being expressed from countries not known for their spiritual life was highly promising. Along with the pentecostal pastor of a black mega-church in London, a Russian Orthodox archbishop was especially welcomed.
I recalled being in the same sanctuary a decade earlier with other members of our YWAM Europe Leadership Team. Sandy had welcomed and prayed for us as we had come to observe and learn about this Toronto movement. To be honest, I did not really gain much more understanding on that visit. But if what I was now observing was in any way related to those past events, then perhaps we could conclude that, in some strange way, they were birth pangs of a global movement both powerfully evangelistic and ecumenical.
For this archbishop was not the first senior Orthodox figure to become acquainted with HTB and Alpha. The Belarussian patriarch and his British counterpart visited HTB in the summer. An Alpha course is now running in an Orthodox monastery in Russia. I caught a glimpse of my Armenian friend Petros in the crowd, a professor at the university in Yerevan run by the Armenian Apostolic Church. Last year I had introduced him to Alpha and now he was back with half a dozen compatriots, all excited about the courses started in the capital and also in the city of Gyumri, devastated by the 1989 earthquake. Petros keenly showed me photos of the Apostolic monastery in the mountains where their Holy Spirit weekend had been held.
Could this movement signal the beginning of renewal across the eastern churches? Could Alpha be a key strategy of the Holy Spirit for bridging the Great Schism of the eleventh century in our time? Should we in YWAM and other organisations be engaging more with the Alpha movement as we seek ways to relate to the ancient churches of the first millennium?
The church was also abuzz with the news that Sandy had been appointed as a ‘Bishop in Mission’. Here was a clear affirmation of the confidence of the Anglican leadership in the work of Alpha and the HTB team. Billed as one of the speakers, the former vicar was conspicuously absent from this conference. He had been called away to Uganda, where yesterday he was consecrated as bishop in a ceremony with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primate of Uganda. In January a further service will be held in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, when the bishop of London will commission Sandy as an assistant bishop in the diocese.
The profile of Alpha across Britain was also boosted this past autumn by the effort to invite the whole nation to supper. From large ‘beacon’ suppers in high-visibility locations like cathedrals and football stadiums, to dinners held in prisons and military barracks, many thousands were introduced to Alpha in its various forms: Alpha for students, for youth, in the workplace, in prisons, in the armed forces, for housewives, for the neighbourhood, and so on.
Other courses are now spreading internationally from the same stable, including The Marriage Course and The Marriage Preparation Course. The Besom is yet a further HTB-related initiative mobilising Alpha-participants, church members or any other group of volunteers, to engage with the needs of the poor and excluded in the community by donating time, money or skills. This has taken root in Holland as Stichting Present in Zwolle, where the city council has gratefully received thousands of man-hours from Alpha volunteers in urban projects. The dream of Besom/Present is that the church would become the first place a person in need would seek help.
Last month two Alpha representatives, Emma Conlan and Jan Bakker, joined us at the Hope for Europe Round Table in Portugal to explore further possibilities of mutual cooperation among our networks and with evangelical alliances across Europe. Personally I doubt there’s been anything quite like this on such a global scale – or ecumenical breadth – ever in the history of the church.
Newbigin was probably right about those monsoon rains, don’t you think?
Till next week,