A TWIST OF FAITH; Can Tycoon Brian Souter's Conversion to a Radical New Face of Christianity Be Signs of a Midlife Crisis? 'No, I Haven't Got Time to Fit One In,' He Says

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BRIAN SOUTER, Stagecoach millionaire and family values' campaigner, is, in the popular eye, a dour, temperance-based morality freak of fixed religious beliefs and rigid churchgoing habits.

His particular branch of Wesleyan Methodism, the Church of the Nazarene, retains a strict tradition of Bible-based practice that attracts only about 500 adherents in Britain.

So if I told you Souter has not only persuaded his church to pull out its pews to make way for computerised presentations, but even to convene in the hotel next door (a hotel that serves alcohol) you might conclude he has gone soft or mad or both.

He has, in fact, gone neither. He has discovered Alpha, the fastest growing evangelical Christian movement in the world. It was recently featured in a television documentary labelled by its presenter Sir David Frost as 'Christianity meets Big Brother'.

Alpha's appeal seems to lie in its slogan - 'An opportunity to explore the meaning of life' - and in its discussion-based inclusive philosophy.

However, since it is marketed at those investigating Christianity, new Christians and those 'wanting to brush up on basics', it is not immediately clear what attracted Souter.

Alpha's supporters are mostly middle-class, English and tend to favour Home County accents - not natural soulmates for Souter, born and bred on a Perth council estate.

So what does he see in Alpha? Is this a sea- change in one of Scotland's most controversial and uncompromising businessmen? Are business difficulties triggering a midlife crisis?

Souter laughs and says: 'We should try not to be prejudiced against middle-class English people - although I admit that I do sometimes succumb to it myself. But whatever our prejudices, let's not pretend we don't have shared values.' If Souter is under pressure from the difficulties faced by Stagecoach, the company he and his sister Anne Gloag founded in 1980, it is not evident.

In its 1990s heyday, it was valued at [pound]4billion, although a collapse in share prices last October saw [pound]56million wiped from the family's personal fortune in less than an hour.

THE company is now run on a day-today basis by chief executive Keith Cochrane, but Souter still talks about it with passion.

Anyone who thinks his interest in Alpha indicates a cooling off towards the company which has earned him and his sister [pound]261million would be mistaken.

'I have not personally changed since we introduced the Alpha course into our church', he says.

'Nor does it detract from my business interests. I don't go to church either more or less.

Religious energy does trickle down into your work, but reinvigorating my personal religious life through Alpha has not really had an impact on my business life.

'Remember, Alpha has not, for me, signalled a conversion, just a revitalisation of something that was already there.'

So, no midlife crisis then? 'I would have a midlife crisis if I had time to fit it in. Maybe yuppies who discover religion through Alpha find their lives transformed. But for me, it has just meant doing things in the church a bit differently.'

I wonder whether we are about to witness a renewed zest for philanthropy.

His sister famously turned her back on the business, sinking her time and money into establishing the Africa Mercy Fundraising Ship to help some of the poorest people in the world. …