Press Column

It’s a grim day for journalism when the best coverage of the Alpha story comes from an amateur, Gyles Brandreth. His interview with Nicky Gumbel in the Sunday Telegraph was the production of a man who had done his homework. He wasn’t about to be converted, but he was polite and thoughtful. Bryan Appleyard, in the Sunday Times described Sandy Millar as the "chaplin" [sic] of HTB; and Sholto Byrne in the Independent on Sunday called him "Sandy Mitchell". The coverage that followed was similarly sloppy and superficial. You have to look at pieces like these to realise what a good job the specialists manage, day in and day out.

Alpha is a difficult phenomenon to write about, partly, it seems to me, because it suits both supporters and opponents to agree on the one thing about it which is almost certainly not true: that it is primarily a way to turn unbelievers into Christians. It isn’t, and it can’t be, statistically, otherwise the churches would be full. I think it probably is a very effective way to convince already existing Christians that intercessory prayer is fun and profitable — at least for a while; but the real genius lies in its franchised nature. Just as the operators of a MacDonald’s will put effort into it because they feel it is their own, while no one from the outside can tell the difference between any of the different branches,. So Alpha spreads because everyone arranging a course feels they own it, while at the same time apparently producing something the same as everyone else. Whether it is in fact the same, despite the copyright that is intended to ensure that it must be, I really don’t know and it is probable that no one else does. The other statistics that would be worth having would explain just what happens and how often on the weekends away. Since everyone who doesn’t go on the course regards the charismatic weekend as the most sinister and unpleasant part of it, and everyone who does go regards it as the main point, all sides are united in the belief that something must reliably happen there. Possibly it doesn’t.

But it has to be said that the TV production is a huge coup for HTB, and has got the course more publicity, and more generally favourable publicity, than anything else could have done. When the course has been attacked, it has usually been for too much laxity, rather than rigidity. Terence Blacker, in the Independent, wrote: "God is omnipresent, of course, but somehow He always seems to be more omnipresent during the silly season. On Sunday night, a propaganda film on behalf of something called Alpha was screened by ITV and, astonishingly, another nine are to follow over the coming weeks. The first programme consisted of bright- eyed, smiling converts gazing at the camera and explaining how the Alpha movement had saved them from unhappiness, negative relationships, sin and moral confusion, to a background of gloopy, sentimental music. Introducing this shamefully partial and brainless farrago was none other than Sir David Frost in his smarmiest Through the Keyhole mode.

"The impulse is first towards personal fulfilment, then to recruit souls with the ruthlessness of a pyramid-salesman finding new suckers to support a scam.

Is this really what faith is meant to be? It sounds more like an exclusive moral health club to me. ‘The great thing about God is that He takes control of your life,’ a recently converted friend told me. Another said that, since becoming a Christian, he had become aware that temptation, doubt and scepticism (which he calls cynicism) were the devil's work - presumably, he would feel that Satan is guiding me as I write these words."

The backlash against David Frost’s series produced a wonderful reaction in the Guardian, which ran a piece on religious broadcasting generally: "Any relaxation is being resisted by the National Secular Society, which argues that allowing religious broadcasters more access to the airwaves would open the way to manipulative US-style evangelising, preying on the weak and vulnerable.

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the society, said: ‘We have no problem with freedom of speech but what are they going to use [it] for?’

The society says religious broadcasting is dangerous and does not deserve to be allowed to bid for licences."

It’s sad to see that even the National Secular Society bows down to its own idols. Why can’t he just say that he thinks some religious broadcasting is well outside the boundaries of permissible speech and should be censored? That’s what he means; and it is what the Advertising Standards Authority agrees.

The oddest thing I have ever learned about the Vatican comes from this week’s Sunday Times, where John Cornwell was considering the latest rupture between the Vatican and the historians attempting to discover exactly what Pius XII knew and when about the Nazis. Apparently the Secret Archive of External Affairs is housed in a basement which contains six desks and six lavatory cubicles. The mind boggles. Cornwell’s last book, Hitler’s Pope, probably did as much as anything to derail attempts to canonise Pius XII and is unlikely to have done his own Cause much good. It also caused huge offence to a great many Catholics who did not want Pius canonised but felt his title was absurd. But it does look as though he may have been right. The decision of a panel of six Catholic and six Jewish scholars to break off their researches after all fifty of their requests to see papers form the archives were refused certainly suggests that someone in the Vatican believes there is a lot to hide.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian Fiachra Gibbons had an appalled piece about the success of a Benedictine prayer book, sized to fit into a handbag, which has become the best selling book in Ireland this summer. Fiachra, as acute readers will have guessed is himself a lapsed, as he would prefer it prolapsed Catholic, though from the North. He lists all thew ways in which the Irish are turning back to religion after the materialistic Nineties, and ends. "The Catholic Reconquest cannot be far off." Remember, you read it in the Guardian first.

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