Victory for ‘Alphas’ as Archbishop enthroned

Alpha male: Justin Welby at his ceremonial enthronement © Getty Images

Justin Welby was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in an ancient ceremony yesterday afternoon. But his ideas have been shaped by a very modern religious movement.

Yesterday afternoon the Most Reverend Justin Welby took his seat on the sacred Chair of St Augustine to become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the international Anglican Communion.

Welby inherits a tradition that goes back one and a half thousand years, to the days when St Augustine, the first Archbishop, was sent to England by the Pope to convert the Anglo-Saxons from paganism. The Church of England has changed a great deal since then. In 1534, it split from the Catholic Church of Rome. In the 18th Century, it became the state church of a worldwide empire. In the 20th Century, it saw membership and church attendance go into a rapid and continuing decline.

Now, in a way, Archbishop Welby finds himself in a similar situation to the one that faced St Augustine all those years ago. Only 20% of British people consider themselves members of the Church of England and just six per cent regularly go to church. The Archbishop might well think it is time for a second conversion of the UK.

This, certainly, is the idea that drives some of his old friends, a group of clerics involved with something called the Alpha Course. This started at the Holy Trinity Church in Brompton (where Welby was a member of the congregation) as a weekly meetup for people who wanted to learn more about the Christian faith, but has expanded to become one of the biggest recruiting tools the church has ever had.

Versions of the Alpha Course are now on offer in tens of thousands of churches worldwide, and have attracted more than two million participants in Britain alone.

The rise of the Alpha course is quite a big change for Anglicanism. Traditionally, Church of England churches are fairly quiet and conservative. But Alpha churches tend to be loud, modern and outward looking; places where you will hear electric guitars as well as hymns. If the new Archbishop backs the Alphas, the Church of England could become a much more assertive institution, dedicated to taking back its spot at the heart of British life.

Spreading the word

The idea of being preached to or ‘converted’ makes many people uneasy. In the modern world, people with all sorts of beliefs and religions live side by side. Surely one group shouldn’t start telling the others what to think? Shouldn’t everyone just keep their religious views to themselves?

But most Christian believers (like many followers of other religions) think that their religion is a path to salvation, the afterlife and the love of God. Given that sincere belief – that religion leads to great rewards – isn’t trying to convert other people the only moral thing to do?

You Decide

  1. Why do you think church attendance in Britain has been falling so fast for so long?
  2. If you believe you understand the truth about the universe, is it immoral to let others continue believing a lie?


  1. Imagine you worked for an advertising agency asked by the Church of England to come up with a new slogan for attracting converts. What would you suggest?
  2. Which religions in the world do you think have the most followers? Write down your guess for the top five, in order, then check the answer.

Some People Say...

“The world would be better if everyone believed the same thing.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this argument matter to people who aren’t in the Church of England?
Versions of this debate are going on within all sorts of religions around the world. Attitudes vary a lot. Some religions, like Judaism or Hinduism, do not seek converts at all, and can even make it hard for new worshippers to join.
What if I belong to no religion at all?
The argument still applies. There are several high profile thinkers in the world who want to ‘convert’ people to atheism, and to prove that all religious beliefs are wrong.
What if I don’t care about beliefs at all?
Then you needn’t worry about whether to convert others. On the other hand, you still might have an interest in whether other people decide to try to convert you!

Word Watch

Most Reverend
In the Anglican Communion, Archbishops are referred to as Most Reverend, instead of ordinary ‘Mr’. The various branches of Christianity have several of these ‘styles’, including ‘the reverend’ for an ordinary priest; ‘his eminence’, for a cardinal; ‘his beatitude’ for an Eastern patriarch, and ‘his holiness’ for a pope.
St Augustine
Not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the famous Christian theologian, St Augustine of Canterbury was a monk in Rome before being sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great.
The Anglo-Saxons were a collection of Germanic tribes who conquered Britain in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries AD, defeating the Christian Britons and Romans who inhabited the island before.
The Saxons worshipped traditional German gods like Odin and Thor. There were, of course, many different kinds of religion that Christians called ‘pagan’. Most of these ‘pagan’ religions shared a key feature: it was not necessary to stop believing in one god in order to start believing in another.

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