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.
Do you miss those earlier days, or would you like to see another big wave?
I don’t feel strongly about it either way. When there’s a big wave it’s often a mixed blessing — it’s certainly a blessing for the people who experience it, and they may go on to do great things in their ministries, but for other people it’s more challenging, because they’re either saying ‘that’s weird’ or ‘why is it not happening to me?’ I’m not pining for those days. We’ll carry on praying ‘Come Holy Spirit’. What strikes me is that even the Alpha weekends when you don’t see anything dramatic, you still hear amazing stories of what happened afterwards. Often the Holy Spirit does its work in gentle ways. Obviously on the day of Pentecost it was a powerful manifestation. But it’s not always like that. What matters ultimately is the fruit, and for people’s lives to become more loving, gentle and peaceful.
Why is the Alpha course so successful?
People know there’s something more than materialism. Materialism is not deeply satisfying, and you can see that. All the people who get to the top say there’s nothing there. However much money you have. I was talking to a friend of mine who is very wealthy. He’s in his mid-70s, and he said ‘money is so toxic, it’s destroyed my life’. It’s destroyed his son — he gave his son too much money and he’s never worked. Fame is the same. It’s very nice for the first year, but then you soon discover it’s quite complicated — you can’t go out for a walk in the park. It doesn’t satisfy. Sex is the same. Yes, there’s pleasure, but actually, people who live very promiscuous lives end up living very complicated lives and it doesn’t satisfy the deeper hunger. So there’s a spiritual hunger, a gap. And people want to discuss that, but they can’t find a forum to discuss it.
There have been efforts to develop secular versions of Alpha or church — secular sermons, philosophy clubs and so on.
I’m sure you could have a happy evening talking about those things with friends. But it would miss that ingredient which is God — it’s something beyond, outside. Alcoholics Anonymous are feeling after that, with the ‘higher power’. There’s such an interest now in spirituality, in prayer, in community. There’s a depth of community in the church that comes from the fact that you’re actually related, you’re brothers and sisters in Christ, not just a random bunch of people trying to have a community. There’s a different level of trust and intimacy. Of course that can be abused, but rightly used it can be an amazing thing.
To what extent do you think the things people might deem as ‘Holy Spirit encounters’ could be accounted for by psychological things like, say, trance states, or hypnosis, or social contagion? It’s striking that similar sorts of ecstatic experiences happen in other religious traditions.
There are three possibilities in the kind of experiences you’re describing. Either it’s demonic, or it’s psychological, or it’s God. Or it could be a combination, particularly of the last two. What matters is the fruit. You don’t know at the time. If it leads to a ministry for Alpha in the prisons, you say I think that was definitely God. If it leads to people coming off heroin and finding peace in their life, you say that looks like it was God. And if it was just psychological, maybe we need more of the psychological. I remember when John Wimber came here, and I and a lot of other people had a very powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, a psychologist friend of mine said ‘what he’s doing is a well-known form of mass hypnosis’. I said this to Sandy Millar [the head of HTB in the 1980s], to which Sandy replied ‘not well-enough known’. If the fruit is that people are healed, set free, their lives changed, their family lives restored, if they love their neighbours more, if they transform their communities, if it leads to the abolition of the slave trade, that sounds like God.
But still, there’s a risk in charismatic Christianity, going back through the Pentecostalists, the Methodists, all the way to mystics like St Theresa, of taking physical sensations as evidence for ‘God’s favour’. But physical sensations are very easy to manipulate through hypnosis and suggestion or auto-suggestion. I’ve been to services where the preacher says ‘you might be feeling dizzy, or you might be feeling warm’ or whatever. It’s not reliable evidence so there’s a risk in putting too much weight on it.
Yes, absolutely. On the Alpha weekend, when we pray for the Holy Spirit, I once said ‘these are the kind of things you might be experiencing, and if you are, that’s OK’. And someone said to me ‘that’s suggestion — people are feeling those things because you said so’. So the next weekend I didn’t say anything about what people might feel, and there were very powerful manifestations, and someone came up to me afterwards and said ‘why didn’t you warn us?’ So what I try to say now is ‘these things don’t need to happen, but if they do, that’s OK, it’s not wrong or weird’. The point I try to emphasise is, that’s not what matters. I use the analogy of falling in love — you might get tingling in your spine, but that’s not what’s important, it’s your relationship. The physical manifestations are not important, but nor are they bad. They’re beautiful in a way, because it’s part of the relationship with God. But pursuing the physical sensations is not what you should be doing.
Back in 2013, after I’d done the Alpha course with you, I went to a Christian retreat in Wales, which was highly charismatic. And in the midst of a very emotional service, the preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus. This was right after I’d had a powerful ecstatic experience. So I put my hand up. Charismatic churches often do that — the preacher asks, in the midst of very emotional services, if people want to commit their life to Jesus. But I wonder, amid all that emotion, are people really in their right minds to make such a long-term decision? It’s a bit like getting married in Vegas — can people really make deep life-long decisions in the heat of collective passion?
If it’s not real then it won’t continue. If it’s only an emotional reaction, it won’t last.
But why do churches do that — ask people to publicly commit their life to Jesus right in the middle of a very emotional service?
Well, not everyone commits to Jesus in a service. I did it when I was on my own. I don’t think it matters where you do it. On Alpha, we don’t ask people to come up to the front or whatever, we say they can commit their lives to Jesus by saying a prayer in their heart. The reason we do that is because of that verse of St Paul — ‘if you believe in your heart, and confess with your lips’. There’s something very important about confessing with your lips. The confessing with your lips doesn’t have to be a big public declaration — often on Alpha it happens in the small groups, and people tell others that they prayed the prayer. That moment is often the moment that something really happens in their life. Paul says that’s when people are saved.
The first time I came to HTB, what struck me was how well done everything was — the music, the videos, the welcoming, the talk. But that’s precisely what freaks out some skeptics or high Anglicans — they feel they’re being emotionally manipulated. Now, you could say religions have always tried to manipulate emotions. What do you think — should churches try to reach people’s emotions?
We should try and remove barriers. And things done really badly is a barrier. If you give people a plastic cup with rather disgusting tea and a stale biscuit, it might put people off. When they go to anything in the secular world, they get great food. Why not give them what they would get in the secular world? If you go to Glastonbury, they don’t put on ropey music. They make it as good as they can. We also should make the music as good as we can. If you go to a TED or Intelligence Squared talk, it’s very well done. Why would you want to listen to something that wasn’t well done? We’re trying to honour the Lord in what we’re doing. If Christianity means you have to have badly cooked food, rotten music and boring sermons with wonky slides, it’s not a very good representation of how things should be.
One thing I’m a bit wary of in charismatic Christianity is the confirmation bias. Any prayer that’s answered, or prophetic word that comes true, is seized on and publicly celebrated, without necessarily being investigated. All the prayers not answered, or healings that don’t happen, aren’t mentioned.
Yes, it’s a very interesting point. We used to have a newspaper called Alpha News. People used to say ‘this is just full of good news stories, every story is about someone being healed or a church growing — what about the bad news stories?’ Sandy’s answer was to joke ‘we don’t have enough newspaper to fit all the bad news!’. He’d also say ‘let the Devil publish the bad news, we’re going to publish the good news’. There’s plenty of places to hear bad news. Who’s telling you the good news? But still, we have to be very careful with stories. I make a distinction on Alpha — you can tell stories which are illustrations of something, where it doesn’t really matter if the story is true or not. It’s like Jesus telling the story about the Good Samaritan. Did it happen? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? It’s a story. On the other hand, if you tell a story about someone that was healed, you’d better get it right, and you better not exaggerate, because you’re telling a story about what God actually did. It’s the difference between the poetry of the Psalms and the history of the gospels.
On the Alpha course we’re not just taught that God loves us, but also that there’s an Enemy — Satan — who is trying to get us. I think that Abrahamic religions’ belief in devils and demons is often quite harmful, particularly if you assume that anyone who opposes you or thinks differently to you is ‘demonic’, or if you assume people with mental illness are demonically possessed (as has often been the case in the past). I’ve known Christians who think that Hindus are demonic, for example, or that ‘the gay lobby’ is demonic. You can get this paranoid world-view where every place you look you see little pointy horns.
The opposite of wrong use is not disuse but right use. Yes, there are huge dangers with believing in the demonic. The two you highlighted are real dangers and are extremely harmful. Mental illness is like physical illness. You could be healed miraculously but most people would get medical treatment and get healed. And yes there’s always a danger of demonising anyone who disagrees with you. You need a healthy appreciation of our own sinfulness, and the fact we don’t have the truth. No one has the truth except Jesus, who is the truth. The main issue though is, how do you explain evil in the world? Look at what’s going on in the world — the beheadings, the crucifixions, people throwing bombs into hospitals. It’s so evil. There’s a lot of evil in the world. I don’t want to think there’s demons or devils or evil in the world. But there is bad stuff out there. Part of it is free will — we choose not to love. But Jesus seemed to believe that there were demonic forces around. Paul also talks about how our battle is not against flesh and blood but spiritual forces. Occasionally, when I was working as a lawyer, I came across people who were sheer evil. Only twice. When you come across real evil, it suggests something more than you see here. We’re very protected in this part of the world, you don’t see much of it.
When I wrote about going on Alpha, some of my readers unsubscribed because they thought HTB was homophobic. Let’s say I have a gay friend who wants to find God but also wants to celebrate their sexuality, would they be welcome at Alpha?
We welcome everyone at Alpha, no matter what their lifestyle or sexuality. There’s no one that’s ever been turned away. We want everyone to feel loved, welcome and accepted here. That’s our philosophy.
But you still think homosexuality is a sin?
We are an Anglican church, but we’re also part of a global church. If you look at the teaching of the Orthodox church, the Catholic church, the Pentecostal church, the Anglican church, it’s pretty much on a par. HTB’s view on all these things is no different from the global church. You can not like it or disagree with it. But what you can’t say is ‘HTB has this view’ — it’s not HTB’s view, its the majority view of the global church.
Your work has touched a lot of people’s lives, and when that happens, they can sometimes idolise you, or demonise you, or both! They can project a lot of emotional neediness onto you. How do you handle that?
Anyone who’s married has a fairly healthy view of their own weaknesses and shortcomings. I try and tell stories that show my own vulnerability and weakness. If they didn’t know it already they soon discover it. Anyone who works at HTB knows we’re very far from perfect. At the same time you have to try and live an authentic Christian life. Paul was always trying to be a model, while also being aware of his own sinfulness and weakness. I’ve never been conscious of anyone idolising me, there’s a bit of demonizing. There probably are some who get idolised — the big figures like Billy Graham. On the other hand, they are amazing, they made a big difference in the world.
What do you think is the biggest barrier for modern people to God?
That’s an interesting question. What do you think?
Firstly, that we’re a very rational empiricist culture now, and only believe in things we can touch and measure — matter, in other words. And secondly, we don’t like kneeling. We don’t want any authority higher than us.
I think you’re right. I think the rationalist barrier is shifting. There used to be a lot of Dawkins followers coming along to Alpha quite a lot, but it’s totally gone now. I think the Dawkins thing is too depressing and too dark. But I think the second barrier is the one that’s beginning to dominate. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, or any authority outside of ourself. That’s why we’ve changed the order of the Alpha talk. It used to be the Bible first, then prayer. Now, people love prayer, but they’re deeply suspicious of the Bible because it’s an authority outside of ourselves.
For another piece on hypnosis and ecstatic experiences, check out my interview with Derren Brown.