Nicky Gumbel on Alpha, holy spirit encounters, and hypnotic suggestibility
Back in 2015, when I was struggling to be a Christian, I interviewed Nicky Gumbel of the Alpha course about the psychology and ethics of ecstatic experiences in Christian churches.
Nicky Gumbel is one of the most successful evangelists of his generation. A former barrister, he was until last year (when he retired) the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an Anglican church in South Kensington where 4000 people come to worship each Sunday and which has helped to plant new churches around the country. He also ran Alpha, a 10-week course on Christianity, which over 27 million people around the world have taken, including 300,000 prison inmates. The app, Bible In One Year, written by Nicky and his wife Pippa, has been downloaded over a million times. Despite this success, he still lives in a vicarage, rides around on his bike, and is nick-named ‘Humble Gumbel’ by colleagues.
I met Nicky and Pippa in 2013, when I did the Alpha course. I liked them and admired their devotion to their vision of ‘re-evangelizing the nations, revitalizing the church and transforming society’. I’m also fascinated by the central place of ecstatic experience — or ‘Holy Spirit encounters’ — in Alpha and charismatic Christianity. This is an interview I did with Nicky in 2015, when I was writing The Art of Losing Control. At this time I had converted to Christianity after an ecstatic experience, but was struggling to make sense of that experience. I eventually left the church, but still admire Nicky for his humanity, and his zeal.
HTB is famous as the Anglican church which got the Holy Spirit, in the late 1970s, in the early 80s, and again in 1994 at the time of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.
Yes, there have been strong movements of the Holy Spirit, although our theology has never changed. Certainly, since 1982 we’ve regularly prayed ‘Come Holy Spirit’. I see it as like the ocean — there are always waves, but sometimes it’s more gentle and peaceful, and sometimes there are huge waves. I don’t know why sometimes we pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’ and dramatic things happen. We’ve always said that’s not important — sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. These days things are much more gentle.