I suppose it must be a quarter of a century ago that I last wrote in The Catholic Herald about my antipathy towards the charismatic and pentecostal movement – with particular reference to my scepticism about “speaking in tongues”. I received my largest postbag ever and, almost to a correspondent, I stood condemned for my lack of faith.
On Sunday I watched on Channel 4, as some of you may have done, a programme which featured an Alpha course, as developed by the Holy Trinity, Brompton. I cannot criticise the movement for its lack of success: to get groups of agnostics discussing Christianity seriously – with the real possibility that some of them will seek conversion must be applauded. So my sense that it was over-simplistic, formulaic and highly dependent on the powerful psychology of small groups must be put down to sheer prejudice.
My greatest dislike was the attempt to summon the Holy Spirit and the encouragement to “speak in tongues”. I am of course familiar with what St Paul had to say on the subject but, even if I accept his somewhat cautious views, I can see no warrant for extending the use of public and meaningless utterances, attributed to the action of the Holy Spirit, as in any way part of the Christian tradition of prayer. Most certainly it has no place in an introductory course.
I have not attended an Alpha course, either in its root Protestant form or in any modified Catholic version, so perhaps I have no right to extend an opinion – although I am fairly well read in the topic.
Some of you may have had direct or indirect experience of Alpha, or other aspects of charismatic Christianity, so don’t hesitate to come back and show me why I am wrong. Or, if you are sympathetic to my views, I would be grateful to know that I am not alone.