Questions of faith tackled at new Alpha Course

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Student Alpha, a course aimed at discussion and exploration of all aspects of Christianity, is being run at Lancaster University this term.

The meetings are held every Wednesday at 7.30pm in the lower room in the Chaplaincy Centre. The course started on February 23 and was brought to the University by the Love Your Uni Society, described by one of the organisers Sarah-Jane Patel as “a student cell group from Father’s House Church, Skerton.”

Student Alpha is an incarnation of the world renowned Alpha Course, cut down to seven weeks of half hour presentations and subsequent discussion rather than the full ten week version. It is specifically tailored to universities and likely student questions and doubts about Christianity.

The meetings consist of a theme or topic question which guides the discussion each week, accompanied by course material such as video footage of evangelical presentations. Then the guests at the meeting divide into groups to talk over what they watched and what they feel about the topic, guided by loose questions provided in course booklets.

Everyone is welcome to attend the meetings, though usually Alpha Course attendance consists only of previous guests and people they’ve invited who have an interest in Christianity.

Such topics were outlined in an initial press release: “Questions such as ‘What is the meaning of Life?’ and ‘Does God Exist?’ will be bought up to be debated and tackled. There will be opportunities to ask questions and express your views of religion, Christianity and the meaning of life.”

The Alpha Course, founded in the late 1970s in London, has grown to be world acclaimed and prolifically run over the past 30 years. “What Alpha offers, and what is attracting thousands of people, is permission, rare in secular culture, to discuss the big questions – life and death and their meaning,” according to The Guardian.

The Alpha Course is run by all major Christian denominations, as a way into faith and as an exploration of belief rather than one particular denominations take on Christianity. The topics are intended to focus upon aspects of Christian faith on which denominations universally agree upon.

Incumbent President of the Christian Fellowship, David Sudell, who spoke on behalf of his society, welcomed the fact that the Alpha Course has been introduced. He said: “New perspectives on faith are hugely valuable, and it’s great that opportunities are being provided to explore Christianity and the important questions attached to it.

“It’s always a healthy thing, in this world, to be able to learn more about each other, and in this case there is an important opportunity to find out about how the Christian faith works.”

Though the Christian Union were contacted, no reply was received.

The course has not been without controversy in recent years, with some critics holding that members of the course are pushy and close minded despite the nature of the meetings being, purportedly , to discuss and debate faith.

One acclaimed believer who has attracted such attention is Jonathan Aitken, who found his faith through the programme. In his book Pride and Perjury, Aitken recalls attending an Alpha Course.

“’Everyone can have a second chance through Christ,’ was a phrase that I remember,” he says. “I needed one myself.” This admission has fuelled criticism that the course preys on people who are looking for a place to turn to and manipulates the vulnerable into faith.
The Student Alpha course being run in Lancaster, however, appears to fulfil the exact description put forward by the press release, that “Student Alpha is a safe place where you will have the freedom to share what you think.”

Christian, agnostic and atheist guests were all welcomed and listened to in the group discussions with equal respect and attentiveness, and debate and discussion was encouraged rather than closed out.

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