When we talk about the global phenomenon of the Alpha course, we often praise the men who champion and promote it, but women were pivotal to its inception and proliferation. Here, author of Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand, Andrew Atherstone shines a light on three of these “Alpha Females” and explains that they deserve proper recognition for the significant parts they have played in the impact of this global evangelistic movement.
The Alpha movement, originating at Holy Trinity Brompton, is a global phenomenon. Attention has usually focused on its key male leaders, like Nicky Gumbel and Sandy Millar who between them clocked up 65 years on the HTB staff. For many journalists and commentators, the sobriquet “Alpha Male” has been too tempting to resist – it has been used as the banner headline, for example, by The Independent for Gumbel; by the Financial Times for Ken Costa, investment banker and Alpha International’s first chairman; by GQ magazine for Alpha’s prison ministry; and by the Daily Telegraph for Gumbel’s friend, Archbishop Justin Welby, an Alpha fan. Everywhere you look, there seem to be “Alpha Males” dominating the popular Alpha narrative.
But in researching Alpha’s story, one of the most significant discoveries has been the women’s voices which have decisively shaped the movement’s global strategy and success, from its very beginnings. These “Alpha Females” deserve to be much better known. For example, Alpha was the brainchild in 1977 of Tricia Algeo, a 29-year-old trainee solicitor. She had previously worked as a “travelling secretary” for the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, supporting Christian Unions, and had a particular concern for evangelism and the discipleship of young adults. So Algeo launched Alpha, a new nurture course at HTB, in partnership with curate Charles Marnham. She was an experienced evangelistic speaker and shared the teaching on the early courses.
Alpha was the brainchild in 1977 of Tricia Algeo, a 29-year-old trainee solicitor.
Another key “Alpha Female” is Tricia Neill, appointed to the HTB staff in 1994 at a period when the church’s ministry was expanding rapidly in every direction. But this growth was largely reactive and uncoordinated, without proper strategic planning. Millar and Gumbel had plenty of ideas, but as former barristers they lacked professional business and management expertise. Neill had worked for Rupert Murdoch’s News International, running its exhibitions arms, responsible for large consumer events like the Schools Fair and the Sunday Times Festival of Fine Wine and Food. At HTB, she took charge of all Alpha conferences, and masterminded its strategic growth, building a culture of professionalism across all HTB’s operations. Her business acumen, and the infrastructure she created, were critical for Alpha’s global success.
These female Christian leaders, and others like them, have been sadly overlooked in previous narratives of Alpha.
A third leading “Alpha Female” is Emmy Wilson, pioneer of Alpha in prisons. A former nurse, she joined the HTB staff in 1985 and led its social transformation ministries. When the so-called Kansas City Prophets visited London from the United States in 1990, they gave Wilson a prophecy that she would become “a key to many, unchaining and unshackling those who cannot any longer free themselves”. Another inspiration was the revival sweeping through Argentina’s prisons. Wilson visited Los Olmos maximum security prison, near Buenos Aires, where there were more than 300 baptisms of new Christian converts every year. She returned to HTB with eyes opened to new possibilities, proclaiming that: “If it can happen in Argentina then we are going to pray it happens here!” Today more than 900 prisons run Alpha worldwide, with 45,000 annual participants.
These female Christian leaders, and others like them, have been sadly overlooked in previous narratives of Alpha. They deserve proper recognition for the significant parts they have played in the impact of this global evangelistic movement.
For more information on the Alpha course, check out Andrew Atherstone’s book Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand, published by Hodder & Stoughton.