Nicky Gumbel, the Anglican priest behind the success of the initial proclamation Alpha course didn’t always have faith nor did he read the Bible – but one day he picked the Bible up and started reading it and his life changed forever. Joanna Moorhead reports.
From the outside, Holy Trinity Brompton in central London is a typical late Victorian church; inside, it’s a rock venue. Or maybe an upmarket brunch restaurant; because the first thing that happens, after I’ve stepped over the threshold, is that I’m offered a choice of delicious-looking pastries, by a smiley young woman. There’s also coffee, tea, and various juices; all of which is how, a few minutes later, I find myself sitting in a pew while nibbling on an almond croissant, and sipping a frothy cappuccino.
The pew, in fact, is just about the only aspect of the interior of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB for short) that resembles orthodoxy. Because this church has been imaginatively, creatively, and rather wonderfully transformed. What was once an altar is now a stage; instead of candles, there’s a bank of coloured spotlights suspended from the rafters. Only the tops of the stained glass windows peeping over the back of the stage remind us of the building’s origins. And then the lights are dimmed, the drummer and musicians begin to play, and the female vocalist begins to sing (‘You called my name, and I ran out of that grave’). The congregation – old, young, black, white, straight, gay, transgender – are on their feet, dancing to the tune, croissants in hand.
So is it a service, or is it a concert? That question seems to be answered with the arrival on stage of the vicar, Nicky Gumbel: he’s wearing jeans and a jumper, holding a microphone. It’s a long time since the priests at HTB wore robes; this is just one more way in which they’ve leap-frogged many more conventional Christian churches, and catapulted themselves into the 21st century.
Gumbel is a phenomenon in Christian circles: he’s the Anglican priest who has popularised the Alpha course, which started at HTB in the 1970s and which was promoted from the 1990s by Gumbel as an introduction to Christianity for outsiders. Although mainly run through Anglican churches, it’s been taken up by other Christian churches, including some Catholic churches, in many countries around the world. To date, at least 1.2 million people have followed an Alpha course in the UK, and as many as 25 million worldwide.
Over coffee in the sitting-room of Alpha HQ, Gumbel tells me about his ministry and its focus on Bible texts. His latest book, The Bible In One Year, takes the reader through 365 days of readings – a psalm, and Old and New Testament texts – and offers a commentary on each. The project started, he explains, 12 years ago. ‘We thought it would be fun if all the congregation were reading the same passages each day,’ he says. ‘And then my wife Pippa and I started to send out comments by text. I wrote something every day for six or seven years: even when I was on holiday, or on Christmas Day, or my birthday: it took me two and a half hours to put it together, every day.’ It proved so popular that someone suggested an audio version, with David Suchet reading the Bible, followed by Gumbel’s thoughts and then Pippa’s contribution, which became known as a ‘Pippa Add’. ‘Pippa’s thoughts are far more profound than mine. They’re often slightly irreverent, and they’re fun and they make people laugh – she’s always very human and very honest.’
The audio version was a huge success, but HTB’s outreach includes prisons, and prisoners aren’t allowed phones. ‘So we had to come up with something that worked there, and that’s why we’ve done a written version,’ explains Gumbel. For him, reading the Bible is fundamental to life as a Christian. ‘What I’m trying to do each day is help people see the relevance of the Bible to their lives. Its power lies in the fact that it’s lasted 2000 years. And no one has ever managed to improve on it. No one has bettered the advice you read there: love your enemy, and do to others what you would have done to you. Self-help books are all well and good, but nothing is as good as the Bible.’
Gumbel wasn’t always such an avid Bible reader. He was raised a stone’s throw from HTB, in Knightsbridge, one of London’s most advantaged neighbourhoods. His father was a German secular Jew who emigrated to Britain after his licence to practice law was withdrawn by the Nazis. ‘My father came here with nothing. He met and married my mother, who was like him a barrister – she was Scottish, and an Anglican. They scrimped and saved to give me and my sister an education.’ It was always clear, he says, where that education had to lead: ‘I was put down for Bar school at birth…’
He went to Cambridge University, where one day his best friend announced that he had decided to become a Christian. ‘I was horrified,’ says Gumbel. ‘I knew I should do something, so I thought I’d start by researching it.’ He picked up a Bible, intending to find the holes in it; and found himself gripped. He read through virtually all of the New Testament in a couple of days, and instead of dissuading his friend from Christianity, he decided to join him. ‘Two days after he became a Christian, I was a Christian too,’ he says. ‘Reading about Jesus completely changed my life. Every question I had was answered, right there in the Bible. It was like: he’s alive. And knowing about him was transformative.’
The Bar still beckoned, though, and for a decade he was his father’s diligent son, following in his footsteps. ‘But I always felt called to this life, and in the end I was ordained at 31,’ he says. ‘I think when you believe, you feel as though the kindest thing you can do with your life is tell others. It’s like being in the desert and finding water: if you’ve found the reason you were created, you want to share it.’
Today Gumbel is in his mid sixties, and a grandfather; but his enthusiasm for life, and for the Alpha course, is undaunted. HTB is full of a genuine cross-section of the community, and the young are well represented; so he doesn’t share, he says, the pessimism of some about the future. ‘I know young people aren’t always interested in organised religion, but they’re very interested indeed in spirituality,’ he says. ‘There’s a real hunger out there. People are searching for love, for purpose and for community. And that’s what they find through Alpha. They know they’re loved, not judged – and they find a message that gives meaning to their lives. Alpha works because it’s a chance to talk about what really matters.’
HTB is going from strength to strength: there have been 19 new communities in the last ten years. ‘New plants, new churches, they grow very fast. When people see a church that’s vibrant, they’re attracted to it.’
For himself, the Bible remains at the very centre of his life. His favourite gospel, he says, is John. ‘That’s the gospel that spoke to me first. Jesus said: I come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness. I am the way, the truth and the life. And Jesus is the way to God, who is the truth.’
As we finish our coffee, he has a final warning – and a promise. ‘If you want an easy life, don’t become a Christian. But if you want a full life and an exciting life, then Jesus is definitely the way forward.’