Friday 25 June
RUSSIAN ALPHA - JUST THE BEGINNING?

By Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service


The Alpha course has neither prospects nor the potential to cause problems in
Russia,YELENA SPIRANSKAYA of the Department for External Church Relations
of the Moscow Patriarchate told Keston on 4 June: 'I don't think the Russian Orthodox
Church has an attitude towards it. I don't think it will grow at all here.'

The product of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) Anglican church in London, the Alpha
course is designed to attract 'atheists, agnostics and nominal Christians' to the Church.
Purporting to be suitable 'for any church or church organisation, irrespective of
denomination', the ten-week course is conducted in the homes of church members,
who invite friends and acquaintances to discuss the Christian faith over a meal. In
Britain Alpha has grown at a phenomenal rate - from a mere four courses in 1991 to
over 6,000 today - and is now operating in 60 countries. It is widely endorsed by the
Church of England, and a spokeswoman at Lambeth Palace press office told Keston
on 25 May that Archbishop of Canterbury GEORGE CAREY believed Alpha was 'to
be welcomed as a first step in people's faith journeys.' Its publication 'Alpha News' is
distributed as part of an Anglican national newspaper, the 'Church of England
Newspaper'.

MARINA SAVILYEVA, coordinator of Alpha in Russia, related to Keston on 6 April
Alpha's two points of entry into Russia: in 1994 a young HTB parishioner, ROLAND
DUNFORD-SLATER, introduced the course while working as an independent
missionary in Yoshkar-Ola, Mari-El (missionaries ROBERT and CHERYL HOSKEN
confirmed to Keston on 7 June that Alpha continues to run in Yoshkar-Ola Christian
Centre, a charismatic church in the town.) In the same year, said Savilyeva, the wife
of a British diplomat who she preferred not to name contacted her in connection with
the 'March for Jesus' in Moscow; she also gave her a video cassette detailing how to
give an Alpha course: 'There was already a course running within the British
Embassy.'

Following the first Russian Alpha conference in November 1997 HTB began to
provide them with support: MARK ELSDON-DEW at the church's press office told
Keston on 26 May that although he was not sure how much HTB's aid programme
currently gave to Russia, Russian Alpha was indeed subsidised through 'Friends of
Alpha' in Britain, which meant that, for example, Alpha videos had been dubbed into
Russian.

Savilyeva told Keston that courses were currently operating in 40 towns in Russia,
including Smolensk, Tver, Nizhny Novgorod, Tula, Krasnoyarsk and Rostov-on-Don.
In Tver alone, she said, there were 13 Alpha groups, including one composed solely
of teenagers, while in Moscow the course was even spreading among the higher ranks
of the army. She told Keston that there were currently 12 courses running in her own
church, Rosa, where her husband PAVEL SAVILYEV is pastor: '45 people were
baptised into Rosa last winter, and all but two or three came through Alpha.' However,
Savilyeva was unable to tell Keston the total number of courses running in Russia:
'All that sort of information goes straight to HTB.' At HTB, Mark Elsdon-Dew
confirmed that there were approximately 80 courses running in Russia, the figure
reported in 'Alpha News' March-June 1999: 'Russia is a place where it really is
growing fast - probably faster than many other countries. They've been just amazing
in their response.' When Keston related this figure to Yelena Speranskaya, however,
she was sceptical that the course was actually growing at that rate: 'It might not
actually be true. There may be 80 courses but there might not be very many people
going to them.'

Unlike Britain, where the course has been embraced by a variety of other
denominations, in Russia Alpha appears to have been adopted almost exclusively by
charismatic churches. Marina Savilyeva told Keston that when Alpha began in
Moscow in the autumn of 1996, the four churches in which it was set up were all
charismatic. Although she stressed to Keston that a registered Baptist community in
Morshansk, Tambov oblast, had taken up Alpha and that the Salvation Army in St
Petersburg was very interested in running the course, she admitted to Keston that the
only Pentecostals using the Alpha course in Russia were a group in Krasnoyarsk
and the Moscow church led by SERGEI RYAKHOVSKY. (On 12 April Ryakhovsky
confirmed that the three Alpha groups in his church were producing 'staggering
results'.) Various testimonies of post-Alpha converts published in 'Alfa Novosti' in
December 1998 would seem to confirm that Russian Alpha bears a markedly
charismatic character. When describing the Holy Spirit Weekend, an integral part of
the course consisting of three seminars on the work of the Holy Spirit, 15-year-old
schoolgirl IRA KULAKOVA states: 'The thing I liked best about the [Holy Spirit]
Weekend was when I spoke in tongues: Before Alpha I did not go to Rosa church.'
VASILI STEPANOV, a 30-year-old computer graphics and design specialist, adds
how, after prayer for the Holy Spirit to come to the participants, 'People began to cry,
somebody prayed, others fell down'.

Despite Alpha's origins within the Church of England, no one with whom Keston
spoke thought that the course would be perceived as an Anglican product in Russia;
Marina Savilyeva considered HTB to be 'almost no different from our church', while
Yelena Spiranskaya thought that Alpha would be viewed as 'a method of Protestant
evangelisation like Billy Graham or Novaya Zhizn.' Although parishioner PENNY
MINNEY told Keston on 3 June that the only functioning Anglican parish in Russia,
St Andrew's in Moscow, had run an Alpha course in English for expatriates in the
winter of 1998, 'It had nothing to do with Russian Alpha.' The course at St Andrew's
appears to have followed the British version more closely, as according to Minney the
Anglican chaplain CHAD COUSSMAKER had decided not to include 'a strong
emphasis on the charismatic side, as it is meant for all denominations, and he felt that
if it were excessively emotional it would drive away people who would otherwise
have no place to go.'

Although Savilyeva admitted that Rosa tried to get the majority of those who
completed Alpha to stay at their church, 'they can decide themselves where they want
to go, if someone wants to go to the Orthodox, Salvation Army, Presbyterians or
Catholics, then no one will stop them.' Russian Alpha's own literature, however,
suggests that Alpha participants are more likely to be drawn into the charismatic
churches where the courses are held. The testimony in 'Alfa Novosti' (January-
February 1999) of former atheist VASILI BALYBA describes how he was initially
suspicious when he started the Alpha course, and subsequently started catechism
classes in an Orthodox church. Following a service at Rosa church, however, he 'gave
up the catechisation. The critical moment, of course, was the [Holy Spirit] weekend. It
was there that I received the gift of speaking in tongues.' On Russian Alpha's website,
VERA DMITRIYEVNA, who started going to Rosa church after completing an Alpha
course, comments 'Although I was raised in Orthodoxy everyone ought to follow their
heart. That's why I recommend that people go to Alpha.' When Keston asked Marina
Savilyeva whether it was common for people to convert from Orthodoxy through
Alpha, she replied: 'Different people do different things; some were truly Orthodox
but see no attention or interest in them, they need someone to love them and take
notice of them.' Those who continued to be Orthodox, she maintained, would go to
the renowned liberal parish of Fr ALEKSANDR BORISOV: 'They can find a circle of
friends in SS Cosmas and Damian.' However, when Keston spoke to ANDREI
CHERNYAK of the missionary school of SS Cosmas and Damian on 2 June, he did
not think that anyone had come to his church after going to an Alpha course; 'although
there may be some people who have read some of the literature or heard about it.'

If Alpha is indeed winning few converts to Orthodoxy, and considerably more for the
charismatics, could it run into opposition from the Moscow Patriarchate, which might
regard those converts as nominally Orthodox? Penny Minney's husband ROBERT
MINNEY, advisor on religious education in the Department of Education of the
Moscow Patriarchate, told Keston on 3 June that in his view Alpha 'could cause
problems' in this respect if it were to grow in Russia. The reaction of Rev.
MALCOLM ROGERS, the Bishop of London's secretary for Russian church
relations, to Keston's request for his comments on how Alpha might be perceived in
Russia, was: 'I wouldn't have thought the Orthodox would be very keen on it, would
they? While it is operating quietly it is probably best - at an official level it could
cause problems.' In his view, Russian Alpha might prove to be a sensitive issue in
future: 'As it gets larger, the Church of England may have to say that it is the initiative
of one church.' Bishop of London RICHARD CHARTRES indicated to Keston on 2
June that relations with the Russian Orthodox Church were indeed delicate: 'after 70
years of Soviet winter we are trying to develop the habit of careful truthtelling with
one another.'

One example of this might be a speech given by Archbishop SERGI OF
SOLNECHNOGORSK, reportedly greeted by a 'huge ovation', when Bishop Chartres
briefly escorted him to an Alpha conference at HTB in July 1998. During the course
of the speech, the archbishop remarked: 'Our missionary work is within Russia
because it is our own people who are in need of taking these Alpha courses and
getting the basics of their Orthodox belief.' According to Bishop Chartres, 'the
archbishop said that there was a huge evangelistic task before the Russian Orthodox
Church and he was moved to find people able to study freely.' In Malcolm Rogers'
view, 'his speech was very cagey, I'm not sure if he knew it was operating in Russia -
it may not have been such an issue then.' Bishop Chartres told Keston that he had
given Archbishop Sergi some Alpha literature on their way to the conference and had
described the course as 'an introduction to the Christian faith.' According to Marina
Savilyeva, however, the archbishop 'didn't understand anything - he was told that it
was a means of catechisation in the Anglican church.' Yelena Speranskaya confessed
to Keston that she did not understand what Archbishop Sergi had meant; and
unfortunately did not response to Keston's request for elucidation. Although Bishop
Chartres stressed to Keston that it would 'be unfair to Archbishop Sergi to say he gave
it an endorsement', his statement is already interpreted as such in some Russian
quarters. Sergei Ryakhovsky thought that 'if he were not afraid to praise Alpha', it
would be good if Archbishop Sergi became the next patriarch, while in 'Alfa Novosti'
(March 1999) the archbishop was misquoted as having said: 'Russians need the Alpha
course. They must know the basics of their belief.'

Among those in Britain with whom Keston spoke there were nevertheless varying
degrees of hope that Alpha might be run in the Russian Orthodox Church, which, in
Sergei Ryakhovsky's view, needed Alpha 'like air'. Mark Elsdon-Dew pointed to the
fact that another traditional church, the Catholics, were 'a prime example of a group
who thought Alpha wasn't for them and have gradually discovered its value -
Catholicism is the denomination in which it is growing fasteSt' He was hopeful that
'the day will come when the Alpha course grows within the Russian Orthodox
Church', and recognised that this would be crucial if Alpha was to enjoy real success
in Russia. Malcolm Rogers commented: 'I would love to see it used by the Orthodox
to build up the Orthodox Church,' but feared that because of the course's nature 'it
would be geared towards Pentecostals and charismatics.' Bishop Chartres also pointed
to Alpha's success in Catholic churches and said that he had been working with HTB
on a supplementary Alpha course which would 'develop and enrich teaching on the
church: particularly in Catholic and Orthodox contexts.' When asked whether he
thought Alpha would be taken up by the Russian Orthodox Church, he replied: 'I've
no wish to be negative - living in the reality of the Holy Spirit is something
profoundly Orthodox and patristic.'

Those in Russia with whom Keston spoke were more sceptical. Marina Savilyeva
described her personal experience of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a participant in
Fr ALEKSANDR MEN's secret Bible study group in the 1970s, as 'almost like
Alpha', but admitted 'there is a big difference in the traditional church here: there is
great freedom in each Anglican parish, each vicar can shape the policy of his parish as
he wishes. There is nothing like that in Russia, just strong dictatorship'. However, she
prayed that there might be an 'awakening in the Russian Orthodox Church' and that
Alpha could start there: 'That would be a miracle'. So far, she said, Russian Alpha had
spoken with those at SS Cosmas and Damian about the possibility of their starting a
course, as in her view this was the only Russian Orthodox parish which might take up
Alpha, but they had declined: 'They are afraid of the Moscow Patriarchate.' Andrei
Chernyak told Keston that although he had 'a positive attitude towards the Alpha
course' he was not considering using it: 'What we do goes deeper than the Alpha
course. Alpha is only the beginning, but even at the beginning it could go deeper.'
Although he admitted that the course did not contradict Orthodoxy and said that he
was very glad that people were taking it up, Chernyak concluded: 'It is not for us.'

Robert Minney's experience also suggested to him that it would be difficult for Alpha
to take root in even liberal Russian Orthodox circles: a couple of years ago, he said, he
had given Alpha literature to 'a very, very liberal Russian Orthodox friend' - who he
did not wish to name - 'the most open person I could think of, he takes preparation
catechism classes for baptism and does a lot of youth work. His conclusion was that
the cultural difference was too great.' Minney thought that the main objection from an
Orthodox point of view was that 'a sense of sacred time and sacred space is totally
absent.' In his view, Alpha would be well-received among middle-class Russian
congregations in evangelical churches 'fed both literally and metaphorically by
Germany and America', but was unlikely to prove popular with the equivalent
Orthodox: 'They are much less well-off and more educated.' This view was echoed by
Andrei Chernyak, who told Keston that he thought the difference between his
parishioners and the kind of people who took up Russian Alpha lay not in theology,
but in psychology. Minney was doubtful that Alpha would prove successful among
the Orthodox even if it were adapted: 'the whole atmosphere is so very western - it
would need to be completely redone.' Even then, he said, he did not know 'whether
the Orthodox would ever be ready for it - or even ought to be.' When Keston asked
Yelena Speranskaya whether the Russian Orthodox Church would ever consider
running Alpha courses, she replied: 'What do we need it for? The Orthodox Church is
trying to set up its own mission in an Orthodox context. The Alpha course hardly
follows Orthodox tradition.'

A feature on Russian Alpha as part of a special Alpha edition of the popular BBC 1
religious programme 'Songs of Praise' screened in September 1998 promoted an
impression of harmonious relations in Russia: it featured the English hymn 'Amazing
Grace' performed in contemporary style in an empty Orthodox church interspersed
with images of icons and Orthodox parishioners lighting candles, and at the same it
did not reveal to which church the Savilyevs belonged. In addition, it stated that
Alpha had 'penetrated the heart of the former Soviet Empire', where 'freedom came in
1991' once a new law on religion had been adopted. It made no mention of the 1997
law, under which, having not existed within Russia for 15 years, Alpha does not have
the right to have attached to itself a representative body of a foreign religious
organisation, to invite foreign citizens for professional purposes, or to produce,
acquire, export or distribute religious literature, printed, audio or video material.
Nevertheless, Marina Savilyeva told Keston that she did not think that the 1997 law
on religion would pose any problems for Alpha: 'It takes place within the home - that
is not forbidden even under the new law. Even if the situation becomes more difficult
we think we'll be able to continue in this way.' In her view the evangelisation methods
of the early 1990s - preaching in stadia and on the street, knocking on doors, staging
Christian drama and pantomimes - were neither permitted nor effective in today's
Russia: 'many churches are coming to the conclusion that Alpha is the only method
left.' (END)