Magazine article Anglican Journal

Alpha Program Suspended at Toronto Church: Signs of the Spirit Cause Sharp Division

Magazine article Anglican Journal

Alpha Program Suspended at Toronto Church: Signs of the Spirit Cause Sharp Division

Article excerpt

Toronto

Speaking in tongues, spontaneous laughter, falling down and healings may be signs of the Holy Spirit but they have caused a split in one of Canada's largest parishes and a moratorium on the popular Alpha evangelism program.

Alpha is an intense introduction program to Christianity. Developed in England, there are about 5,000 churches around the world using the program. Most Canadian dioceses have at least a few parishes offering Alpha. It was introduced last year at St. Paul's Bloor Street at a conference that attracted more than 800 people.

"Some see (Alpha) as an alien spirituality which threatens the spiritual life of St. Paul's," said priest-in-charge Ven. Harry Hilchey. "Others think it will benefit its spiritual growth."

One of the hallmarks of Alpha is physical manifestations of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and falling down -- what is sometimes referred to as being "slain in the Spirit" and what Alpha people call "doing carpet time." But critics say participants who fail to show these signs feel like "second-class Christians."

Ted Ward, a parishioner who set up Alpha at St. Paul's with his wife Carol, said he is disappointed the program has been suspended.

"I don't think there's ever been a program that's mushroomed out of one parish like this." He said he is still committed to the program, which has resulted in a number of adult baptisms at the church. "This is an incredible work of God."

Although Alpha supporters were reluctant to discuss problems with the program, most agreed it ran into trouble because it went beyond the comfort level of many parishioners. "When there is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, it causes some discomfort for people," said Mr. Ward. There needs to be more preparation done before introducing such programs, he said. "The theology needs to be explained to people the way in which the program is going to be handled so there's no cause for fear."

One of the fears is that Alpha is too closely tied to the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. The airport church is reknowned for its so-called laughing revival, which causes people to burst into laughter and collapse to the floor. There is "no institutional connection" at all between the two, said Mr. Ward.

"The perception of a close link between Alpha and the Airport Christian Fellowship continues to be a concern to a significant number of parishioners," said Archdeacon Hilchey. He is chairing a review of Alpha at St. Paul's.

"There are those in the parish who have found the Alpha program helpful and strengthening in their Christian life," he said. "Others have found certain aspects of Alpha manipulative and coercive. So, while one group of people will say it will be a tragic mistake to discontinue this program, others will say some aspects of the program are hurtful and traumatic."

The review group is expected to recommend that the moratorium on Alpha be extended until a new rector is appointed. (Former rector Rev. Bill Hockin became dean of Fredericton last fall. His successor is not likely to be named before September.)

"The interim between rectors is not the time for new programs," said Archdeacon Hilchey. "It is the time for maintaining the mission and ministry of a parish."

One of the believers in Alpha is Rev. …

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