Many of us reading this blog will owe a huge amount to the HTB network… sometimes for its direct and sometimes for indirect influences… today’s blog instalment adapted from my thesis sets out some of the reasons HTB is such a significant and influential church at the moment, and begins to ask the question of how that informal and formal power might also be impacting the church and network itself…
(key terms: normative theology: the theology you think you believe; espoused theology: the theology you talk about (what you say in public); operant theology: the theology that is in evidence by your actions. HTB: Holy Trinity Brompton
The Significance of the HTB Network
HTB and the HTB network are inseparable from the Alpha Course which Professor Andrew Walker describes as ‘spiritual nitro-glycerine… in a safety bottle’. It is a ‘process approach’ to evangelism with what has been described as a ‘crisis theology of conversion’ that Walker asserts makes it ‘undoubtedly the most successful evangelistic tool to come out of the United Kingdom in decades’.
The statistics on the uptake of the course are impressive. Heard outlines its growth well in Inside Alpha and Hunt describes its explosive growth from four courses in 1991 to 2,500 courses in 1994. 1994 was the year HTB became the UK epicentre of the phenomena known as The Toronto Blessing [TTB] (which is explored later), and the year the Alpha Videos were launched. Alpha continued increasing in the 1990s to a peak of 10,500 in 1998. It was injected with a new lease of life in 2015 through the ambitious free-to-access Alpha Film Series which allowed for a further expansion of online Alpha during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020-2021. This £700,000+ project involved 200 contributors, 38 interviews of celebrities and experts, 12 location countries and 3 presenters, including Nicky Gumbel, a children’s TV presenter Gemma Hunt and then curate-in-charge of Alpha, Toby Flint, (now leading a City Centre Resource Church in Bristol). As Warner asserts, Alpha is the great success story of British Evangelicalism since the 1990s, bringing new hope and life to many churches.
But the success of Alpha is not the sole reason to focus this study on the HTB network. There are three other factors and one key appointment that have combined to position it as a church and a movement of unrivalled influence within Anglicanism. These are its leadership pipeline, church planting, institutional penetration and Archbishop Justin Welby.
HTB’s leadership pipeline is epitomised by the growth of St Mellitus theological college partly out of St Paul’s Theological Centre in 2005, which merged with the London and Chelmsford Dioceses’ local ministry training course in 2007. Operating primarily from a London base in a church owned by HTB, by 2019-2020 St Mellitus’ had 25% of the market share of all ordinands in the Church of England, (including 80% of ordinands from Leicester diocese). The Dean of St Mellitus ostensibly answers equally to the Bishops of London, Chelmsford and the Vicar of HTB, which might exemplify both the scope and limits of HTB’s influence over the wider college. The Dean and an Assistant Dean are part of the HTB staff team and expected to attend the weekly HTB staff meetings along with over 100 other colleagues.
The model and methodology of St Mellitus’ context-based training is important in considering the theological influences and trajectory of younger HTB network leaders. It enablers young leaders to be identified within the network, trained on the job through placements in churches within the network and then deployed in church planting or revitalisation roles into churches that remain in the network. To enable this production line of clergy St Mellitus have had to show that they are sufficiently Anglican in staff, theology and structure to be a trusted delivery agent for a wider cohort of Church of England ordinands. Key to this is the College’s self-descriptor “Generous Orthodoxy” and this thesis will consider how this broad and embracing ideal that enables an eclectic group of students to study there, has impacted normative, operant and espoused theologies within the network members themselves.
This leadership pipeline links very directly to HTB’s church planting strategy and has been further developed through the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication which is another key mechanism for HTB to impact the wider Church of England. Despite the reach of Alpha, and the efforts in 1997 to standardise the “product”, Alpha alone has after four decades failed to bring the ‘evangelisation of the nation, revitalisation of the church and transformation of society’ that are now HTB’s three stated ambitious priorities. Central HTB leadership saw that the weakest link in their delivery mechanism was local churches delivering Alpha then failing to replicate the Alpha ‘experience’ throughout the rest of their church life. Hence a pattern of church planting, that began with the visit of John Wimber in the early 1980s, was intensified to reach beyond the Diocese of London to the nation and beyond, building on the extraordinary success in particular of St Peter’s Brighton. The clear strategy was to establish a ‘City-Centre Resource Church’ [‘CCRC’] across the major urban areas of the country, and from them to establish a network of smaller church plants aligned to the HTB network. The Centre for Church Multiplication [CCX] has been the central delivery agent for this and is also funded by the Church Commissioners. Training is run for churches across all traditions but is led primarily through leaders closely associated with the HTB network. Through adept relationship management future leaders are identified from a variety of church backgrounds and nurtured to propagate the CCX methodology whilst also being trained on the job, usually at HTB network churches. They are then deployed into CCRCs many of which have come from an HTB stable. From 2015-2020 CCX supported 43 City Centre Resource Churches outside London in 30 Dioceses, magnifying HTB’s impact on the wider church.
Key to this multiplication of influence were the permission-givers within the Church of England who were increasingly aligned with HTB as its institutional penetration increased. Two pairs of characters stand out. The ambitious incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, partnered with Philip James, the Director of the Strategy and Development Unit for the Church Commissioners; and the long serving Bishop of London Richard Chartres (1995-2017) with his innovative appointment of Ric Thorpe as a ‘Bishop for Church Planting’ and founder of CCX.
The consecration of Ric Thorpe as ‘Bishop of Islington’ was one of the outgoing acts by which Richard Chartres sealed his influence over the Church of England post-retirement. Thorpe had been a long-term Associate Vicar of HTB, church planter in East London and Chartres’ Diocesan Director of Church Planting since 2012. Chartres had advocated HTB church planting across the Diocese and developed a symbiotic relationship with HTB which included making Sandy Millar an honorary assistant Bishop in the Diocese. In 2015 he gained approval to take the see of Islington out of a 92 year abeyance and both make Thorpe into a Bishop with a national reach, and bring the HTB network even more firmly onto the top table of the Diocese. In the Lambeth Lecture later that year Chartres explained how at the beginning of his tenure in 1995:
The local hierarchy was unwilling to see HTB as much more than a conventional parish in the Area, and in particular was keen to restrict the numbers of curates that the Church could employ, even though there was finance available to enlarge the staff. The restrictions were fuelled by a liberal distaste for charismatic evangelicalism and a conviction that the supply of curates should be evenly spread throughout the Diocese, irrespective of the capacity to pay.+Richard Chartres
By contrast, 20 years on, the ambitions of the Diocese had become national, leveraging learning particularly derived from HTB.
The revival of the See of Islington is intended to provide greater capacity to achieve our pledge of establishing 100 new worshipping communities in London by 2020, but it is also intended to be a gift to the Church nationally. My prayer is that it will be possible to learn from our experience and especially our mistakes so that other places will be able to surpass our successes.+Richard Chartres
But it was another ‘homegrown’ cleric, Justin Welby, who enabled that national influence to flourish. As an active member of HTB in the 1980s he was at the heart of the first HTB church planting season. Key members of his pastorate group went with John Irvine to revitalise nearby St Barnabas. Contemporaries like Nicky Gumbel and Nicky Lee left their legal and teaching careers respectively to train for ordination. According to his biographer it was at HTB that Welby learnt many of the key lessons he would bring to later ministry:
He witnessed at first hand a growing and innovative church, and knew that such things were possible, even in pluralistic modern Britain, even in the Church of England, whatever pessimists said to the contrary.Andrew Atherstone
Welby’s own call for ordination was only rekindled in 1987 after the visit to HTB of John Wimber’s close Vineyard colleague John McClure. In responding to this he gained first-hand knowledge of intransigence in an institutional church which his vicar, Sandy Millar, described as ‘geared for maintenance not mission’. His Area Bishop, John Hughes, reportedly told Welby:
‘there is no place for you in the modern church of England. I have interviewed a thousand people for ordination, and you do not come in the top thousand.’+ John Hughes
His training took him in the footsteps of Sandy Millar, and HTB curates Nicky Lee and Tom Gillum, to Cranmer Hall Durham where Anthony Thistleton provided a learned environment for charismatically inclined open-evangelical ordinands. From this platform Welby’s ordained career seemed to take him further and further geographically and spiritually from HTB, drawing him to inner city ministry, reconciliation work and a broadening spirituality that made him comfortable in the silence of a continental monastery. Nevertheless for 13 years he still brought his growing family to the charismatic New Wine bible weeks which were still influenced by John Wimber.
When his rapid ascension to Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013 brought him back to London, evangelical Anglican commentator Andrew Carey predicted Welby’s theology would move beyond its origins and become broader still, cautioning against expecting that Welby would replicate ‘too exactly the HTB model at Lambeth Palace.’ This thesis will suggest that both have been influenced by the other. On the one hand the HTB network’s theology that has continued to broaden in a similar ‘generously orthodox’ manner to Welby, and on the other hand Welby has actively sought to replicate the growth of HTB through facilitating its plants around the country. He has done this by both commending it to Diocesan Bishops in the strongest of terms, and by incentivising its duplication with a Strategic Development Fund deployed by close ally Philip James from the Church Commissioners with an overall budget of £136million, much of which is aimed at City Centre Resource Churches [CCRC] which are predominantly from the HTB stable. The role of the central church finances should not be underestimated, nor overlooked for several reasons which we will return to in Chapter 4. The money impacts accountability, affiliation, allegiance, authority and autonomy of the church plants as well as being firmly linked to numerical markers for growth. All of these, this thesis will argue, have a propensity to impact the network’s theology.
With great power… comes great responsibility
With an activist Archbishop, access to central church finances, the most prolific theological college, a Centre for Church Multiplication with national reach and episcopal backing, a recently revamped Alpha Course, and a multi-million pound turnover, HTB has come a long way from being a ‘society’ church in Knightsbridge. It is now a considerable enterprise needing to sustain finances, protect reputation and manage risk. Such substantive power in the life of the Church of England, tending towards what Weber termed a ‘structure of dominancy’, carries with it the risk to the Church of England of HTB exerting what Thomson labels ‘illegitimate power.’ For HTB the risk is of equivocating on core values to maintain such structural dominancy.
Although the dynamic works in both directions the key consideration for this thesis is whether holding on to legitimate or illegitimate power may impact the voices of theology within the HTB network. Put simply, if a Diocese has sponsored a church plant, how far will the church planter adjust their espoused theology to fit into the culture of that Diocese? Or again, if the Church Commissioners are bankrolling much of the CCRC development, how closely aligned to and uncritical of the Archbishop who is loosening the purse strings will the central leadership of HTB need to be, even if theological or ethical developments within the central church take them further away from previously held normative theologies?
Influence beyond the Church of England
Furthermore, HTB’s influence is not only constrained to the national Church of England. Through the ministry of Alpha International, Relationship Central, Worship Central, Prison Ministry, Leadership Conference, the Love Your Neighbour Initiative and more besides, this is a church and network with an increasingly global reach. The 2019 Alpha International Annual Report claims that 114 countries hosted an Alpha course in that year alone, and that other high-risk countries will have held courses that have not been reported for reasons of persecution. One fifth of the known courses were Roman Catholic. Worship Central’s annual report shows a similarly ecumenical intention, with training events held in 14 countries, over 100,000 people accessing their training since 2007 and their hit song ‘Stir a Passion’ achieving 3 million hits of Spotify in one year.
Influence goes two ways…
The espoused and operant theology in the network and derivative charities hence has significant potential to impact the wider church in the UK and beyond. But influence is rarely a one-way street. Evidence gathered in this thesis will suggest that maintaining an intentional ecumenical engagement, among other factors explored below, has led the network to deemphasise core doctrines in its public theology.
This then leads to the hypothesis which we will explore: As the HTB network has expanded its influence and power by 1) broadening its espoused and operant theologies to have mass appeal and by 2) limiting what topics/theology it talks about, has it also distanced itself from normative theologies previously considered to be essential? If it has, did this happen intentionally, or is it an inevitable by-product of factors we will consider – such as marketing the gospel, success culture, preaching the positives and more…?
 In his forward to Heard, J Inside Alpha 2012, xv
 Hunt ___
 Charisma magazine estimates that by May 1995 over 4000 UK churches had been impacted through this phenomenon (Strange, Stephen. “More, Lord”, Charisma Magazine, May 1995.) Guardian writer Jon Ronson, writing after interviewing Gumbel also credited Toronto as ‘just the kick start Alpha needed… it caused Alpha to explode in the 1990s’, and quotes Gumbel saying that ‘1994 was such an amazing year’ and ‘a wonderful, wonderful thing’. [nb TTB began in Canada on 20/1/1994]. https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2000/oct/21/weekend7.weekend [accessed 2.12.19].
 Hunt 2004:18
 HTB saw Alpha attendances triple in online format: Heather Preston, “Alpha Course Sign Ups Triple During UK Lockdown” Premier Christian, 5 June 2020, https://premierchristian.news/en/news/article/alpha-course-sign-ups-triple-during-uk-lockdown
 See Alpha International accounts 2014-2016 on http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk, and annual review https://issuu.com/alphaannualreview/docs/alpha_annual_report_2015
 Warner, 2007, 115.
 https://sptc.htb.org/about [accessed 18/2/20]
 https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2019/6-december/news/uk/number-of-ordinands-in-contextual-training-increases-by-142-per-cent [accessed 18/2/20]. This impact will reduce from 2021 when a new college for North-West England will be founded outside of the St Mellitus network.
 Millar in Gumbel (2001) 207
 Cf Andrew Davies ‘The Evangelisation of the Nation, the Revitalisation of the Church and the Transformation of Society’: Megachurches and Social Engagement’ Chp 10,in Hunt, S (ed) Handbook of Megachurches (2019)214-239. HTB vision can be seen at https://crtrust.org and https://www.htb.org/our-story
 Gumbel, network leaders retreat Jan 2015. This was predicted much earlier by Percy (1997)14-15 who notes converts rarely properly integrate into local church and Ward, (1998) 286 who highlights the gap between regular church membership, Sunday worship and attending an Alpha course.
 An article in the 2015 Economist maps the growth from 30 people to 1000 since 2009. https://www.economist.com/britain/2015/01/15/go-forth-and-multiply
 See Churches Resource Trust www.crtrust.org for details including ‘Vision Video 2018’
 Most of the core team at the Centre for Church Planting have been drawn from HTB network, including five out of six clergy: Bishop Ric Thorpe, H Miller, Darren Wolf, Mark Bishop and John Valentine. Full team listed here: https://ccx.org.uk/about/ [accessed 4.4.21].
 See reports on www.ccx.org.uk including church directory [accessed 4.4.21]
 Described as ‘The last of the prince bishops’ including by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham in the Spectator 11 Feb 2017
 See explanation https://www.london.anglican.org/articles/the-revival-of-the-see-of-islington/ [accessed 1.3.21]. NB both Chartres’ 2009 and 2015 appointees to the role of Area Bishop of Kensington (where HTB is situated) met with HTB approval, with Paul Williams rapidly expanding HTB church plants around his area and Graham Tomlin having been on staff at HTB whilst being Dean of St Mellitus. This trend has continued since Chartres’ retirement with HTB network leader Adam Atkinson appointed Archdeacon of Charing Cross in March 2020.
 https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/speaking-and-writing/speeches/bishop-london-delivers-lambeth-lecture-church-growth-capital [accessed 2.12.19]
 Atherstone, 20___: 21
 Ibid. p.23
 According to Atherstone, Cranmer was also Nicky Gumbel’s first choice before diverting to Wycliffe Hall.
 https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/nov/10/justin-welby-archbishop-canterbury-holy-trinity-brompton [accessed 18.2.20]
 https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2019/15-november/features/features/the-magic-money-tree-sdf-a-progress-report [accessed 2.12.19].
 See https://crtrust.org/about. Others are aligned to the New Wine Network (stylistically similar to HTB), and some with the liberal-Catholic network ‘HeartEdge’.
 ‘Whatever Justin decides we will do.’ Nicky Gumbel, Leaders Conference 2015(?)
 Income for constituent charities closely related to HTB in 2019: Parochial Church Council £11,982,478; Alpha International £12,535,508; St Paul’s Theological Centre £2,050,414; Church Revitalisation Trust £2,479,163; Worship Central £141,213
 Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, (Berkeley, University of California Press: 1978); JD Thompson, ‘Authority and Power in Identical Organisations’, American Journal of Sociology, 62:290-301; See also Stewart Clegg, Frameworks of Power (SAGE, London: 1989), 189-190.
 2019 Annual Review, p.6-7 https://www.alpha.org/annual-review/ [accessed 4.4.21]
 2018 Annual Report, pp.3-4 accessed [4.4.21] via www.register-of-charities.charitycommission.gov.uk
I have listened to the Pastor’s heart (https://www.thepastorsheart.net/podcast/alphacoursereview) very critical of the Alpha Course and in Praise of the All Souls Alternative (Christianity Explored) Found that disturbing. Are the English Church “wars” being exported?
Sorry to hear that. We’ve found both courses can ‘work’ for different types of people – perhaps more personality based than either course realises.