Alpha grows in spite of controversy

Published July 1, 1998

Suspension by Toronto’s St. Paul’s Bloor St. of an Alpha group last year might have jolted the evangelism program – but it has not derailed it.

Alpha organizers and supporters say the worldwide movement aimed at bringing people to Christianity continues to roll along in Canada.

To help further spread the Alpha message, Canadian organizers hope to hold a major conference next spring to show how to integrate Alpha into local churches.

The 10-week Alpha course, developed in England, comes out of an evangelical/charismatic tradition. Aimed primarily at non-church-goers, non-Christians or fence-sitters, it has been called a “platform to Christianity.” It is also said to revitalize Christians.

Physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and falling down, are characteristic.

Critiquing Alpha for the Church Times about a year ago, Canon Robert Warren, the Church of England’s national officer for evangelism, wrote: “It scores highly on accessibility, publicity and promotion, but is weak on any connection with Anglican roots, eucharist, social action or changed lifestyle.”

The first Canadian Alpha conference was held at St. Paul’s in 1996. The conference attracted more than 800 people from 150 churches and 25 Christian denominations.

Nine months later, St. Paul’s suspended the Alpha program. St. Paul’s was between rectors at the time and a review of the program was initiated, chaired by the then priest-in-charge, Ven. Harry Hilchey.

Archdeacon Hilchey said some people found the Alpha program helpful and strengthening in their Christian life, while others found it manipulative and coercive. There were also those who feared the program was too closely identified with the much-publicized Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, known for its laughing revival. Organizers say Alpha is not connected with it.

Ted Ward, a vigorous Alpha supporter, was chair of St. Paul’s now defunct evangelism group. Although still a member of St. Paul’s, Mr. Ward now devotes much of his energy to a new church plant called The New City, a small interdenominational church that aims at injecting more Christian life into the city centre.

With temporary quarters in the downtown St. George-the-Martyr Anglican church, The New City offers adult and youth Alpha programs.

“Alpha has an emphasis on the ministry and word of the Holy Spirit and often involves contemporary worship,” he said. “A few people had a problem with the way things are done in Alpha and saw this as a threat to the traditional form of worship in the church.”

Alpha is designed to be nondenominational, says Rev. Brian McVitty of St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Pickering, Ont. It can be used by “Roman Catholics to Pentecostals and everything in between,” he said.

The Pickering church was one of the first Toronto parishes to try Alpha, and has conducted courses involving about 200 adults and 30 teenagers. Michael McAteer is a Toronto freelance writer and former religion writer for the Toronto Star.


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