Fr. Scott Anderson: Alpha for Catholics – be just a bit cautious

Fr. Scott writes on his blog “Ordinariate Pilgrim“:

open-sundays-sign

 

 

 

 

 

Just after Christmas a good friend and member of the Ordinariate wrote this to me: ”We have started Alpha training again, I am not convinced that this is the way to bring lapsed Catholics back to church. I have to resist saying, been there, done that! whilst some are so enthusiastic about things that we tried so long ago in the C of E. Our priest said that we must always make the Mass the centre, starting point, of all that we do. I worry that some members of the Catholic Church might try to ‘dumb down’ worship and look to Alpha, Messy Church etc etc ….. and church just becomes another Social Group, nothing too intimidating and certainly not challenging.”

It may seem a bit mean to begin a post on Alpha (especially at the conclusion of the Christian Unity Octave) in this way. You can dismiss this as ‘Ordinariate Sour-Grapes” … as “the Traditionalists on the march again”, but hold fire. I’ve been writing for years about convincing and robust approaches to evangelisation; I started going to Church Growth Conferences thirty years ago; I’ve done evangelistic training, and after all this I just want to say that my experience makes me a bit cautious.

Christina Odone in the Catholic Herald asks how she could have been so wrong about Alpha. She points to the joy and enthusiasm of so many who take part in the courses, pioneered at the Anglican church of the Holy Trinity, just behind Brompton Oratory. She regrets that more Catholics are not outgoing and celebratory in their faith, and more impelled to share it with others. I share this longing, absolutely. But is Alpha the answer?

Alpha is now an international phenomenon: indeed I was amused recently to hear that it is such a feature of Church life in France, that many French Catholics think they invented it! But it does concern me that, after decades of Alpha courses in the Church of England, the numbers of people in church on Sunday, and the numbers of those describing themselves as Christian in the census, continues to decline. In 2001 Stephen Hunt wrote ‘Anyone for Alpha?’ His conclusion was that Alpha has been effective in renewing and invigorating the faith of those who were already practising Christians, but much less effective in bringing to faith those who were not!

In 2009, while I was still an Anglican, I went to a parish where the Alpha Course was being run. Now this was unusual among Anglo-Catholic parishes, and I was keen to take part and see how it could be developed. The food was excellent, the fellowship warm and affectionate, nearly everyone had done the course the previous year. We watched the DVD with Nicky Gumbel speaking in Holy Trinity Brompton, and at the end our (lay) leader asked if there were any questions or comments. The following year the same format was repeated. I asked if we could consider members of the congregation speaking instead of the DVD presentation, and I wondered whether the ‘discussions’ were straying rather far from the core topics. The third year Alpha did not happen. Reflecting now I think that an evangelistic and evangelical initiative had been (perhaps unintentionally) hijacked by the liberal agenda of mainstream English Christianity, which is certainly the most influential movement in the C of E. For the liberal Christian evangelism is as best unnecessary, and at worst impossible. It is often embarrassing. ‘Faith’ is a matter for the individual – and each person will discover what is fulfilling for him or her – ‘all faiths and none’ as we hear so often in public prayer and exhortations! But the faith you choose (and you are free to choose as you wish) has little to do with your salvation, your destiny, and what happens to you after death. For universal salvation is now the common belief of the mainstream churches, and if all are saved (providing only that they are true to their own beliefs) what is the point of evangelism? Indeed, if you have rejected any idea of personal existence beyond death, (and it is a publicly held belief now by some influential Anglican clergy) evangelism becomes quite irrelevant.

Archbishop Runcie expressed privately his concern that Charismatic Evangelicalism represented more of a threat to his sort of Anglicanism than divisions over women priests. Indeed in recent years there is anecdotal evidence that young clergy from the Evangelical colleges are being more and more appointed to ‘liberal Catholic’ parishes in the C of E. This has led to the Alpha Course, the worship which goes with it (which in the main is not centred on the Eucharist) and the type of leadership which emphasises ‘ministry’ rather than ‘priesthood’, spreading to many more parishes. But there has been another interesting and parallel change, and that has happened as Evangelicalism has come from the edge to the centre – the liberal establishment centre – of the C of E. Yes, one can point to its Bishops who have taken to wearing the ‘robes’ like the cope and mitre. But insofar as it now has to deal with the Cathedrals, and even more with the ‘State Religion’ so its attitudes on salvation, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and personal sin, have all softened. Evangelicals has always been at home among the middle classes, and as their attitudes over moral issues like divorce and homosexuality have ‘liberalised’, so has the face of English Evangelicalism. Since the break with Rome in the 16th century the C of E has been a ‘lay’ Church: it is the attitudes and habits of the lay middle-classes which have shaped the doctrine and moral theology of the C of E. It’s why Anglo-Catholicism for all its achievements, for all the beauty of its worship and the coherence of its theology, could never win.

So, has Alpha a place among Catholics? The great drawback is its attitude to ‘basic Christianity’ which embraces God, sin, redemption, the Bible, and prayer – but regards the Church, Eucharist, Mary, and the sacraments as ‘additions’. For the Catholic the Church is at the heart of Christianity – no Church, no Christian Faith. For the Protestant, a Christian is ‘one who accepts Jesus as personal Lord and Saviour’: for the Catholic a Christian is ‘one who celebrates the Sunday Eucharist where he or she meets Jesus, Lord and Saviour.’ So we cannot have an Alpha with a Catholic ‘add-on’. Catholic Alpha starts with the Holy Spirit and the living Church, moving through the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God, who works today among his people in the sacraments. For Catholics there is in the very teaching of Jesus a call to decision, made in baptism and lived out in Christian life directed towards heaven and the vision of God. Here the Catholic cannot make common cause with the modern liberal.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Catholic Church in this country needs first to renew its people in faith and the Holy Spirit. It then needs to teach them how to evangelise, how to share the Faith and bring those who do not believe to Catholic worship, Catholic believing and Catholic living. Can Alpha do this? I’m not sure, but the question is certainly worth asking.

renewal-holy-spirit

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fr. Scott Anderson: Alpha for Catholics – be just a bit cautious

  1. Matt C says:

    Although I’ve seen very little of the Alpha program first-hand, I’ve did some searching online and read that there is a slant towards so-called charismatic prayer in it which is highly problematic for Catholics (to say the least). A large part of the trouble with this is that this manner of praying highly emphasizes how one feels. As we all know, our feelings are liable to change very quickly and living our spiritual life based on feelings is not wise. In the case of prayer, it subjects Faith to feelings. When (and not if) one experiences dryness in the spiritual life, the loss of pleasant feelings in prayer (or in the practice of religion in general) can cause people to think they should give up because they don’t feel the same about it or think they have done something wrong and are being punished for it by God. St. John of the Cross writes about this a good deal in his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Pastors should give heed to the warnings he gives about what we would call in our day “charismatic” prayer and spirituality. Perhaps someone more familiar with the courses could confirm if there is a large section of Alpha that promotes a “charismatic” manner of prayer and spirituality?

    Matt

  2. The Catholic Church and Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis fully embrace the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and charismatic spirituality for about 40 years now, as practised by about 60 or 80 million charismatic Catholics now all over the world. Pope Francis had a high-profile prayer meeting with 50.000 charismatic Catholics some months ago in Rome’s olympic stadium. So charismatic prayer is fully tested and approved by the Heir of Peter and the heirs of the apostles, the bishops, all over the world for decades. Let’s be confident that so many and so holy and wise shepherds know what they support, even if this kind of prayer is not for your particular prayer life.

    About the Alpha Course: I have run 2 in Barcelona and another 2 in Madrid, both with young adults and with adults: in two parishes, in a Catholic university and at home. It does really “renew people in faith and the Holy Spirit”, it does “teach them how to evangelise and how to share the Faith” and it does “bring those who do not believe to Catholic worship”. Also, Alpha is a starting point, is the first letter, not the fullness of teaching; you have to design “Betas” and “Gammas”. The Eucharist is the center of the mature, fully catechised adult Christian, but Eucharist has never been in Church History a way of evangelizing pagans or igniting cold believers… Mass has always been for mature believers. Alpha is for starters (and many church-going Christians are starting) and to equip them as good evangelizers. I highly recommend it as a tool for evangelization, and dozens and dozens of Catholic bishops around the world have been recommending it for many years now.

  3. Rev22:17 says:

    David,

    From the article: His conclusion was that Alpha has been effective in renewing and invigorating the faith of those who were already practising Christians, but much less effective in bringing to faith those who were not!

    It seems to me that “renewing and invigorating the faith of those who were already practising Christians” is the first step to “bringing to faith those who [are] not[.]” In other words, this approach is putting the horse before the cart — and it’s the essence of the last pope’s programme of a “New Evangelization!” If you want to light a bonfire, you first light some tinder. When the people in the pews get excited about the faith, they talk about it with their neighbors and coworkers — and that’s where evangelization begins.

    Of course, the first step of “renewing and invigorating the faith of those who were already practising Christians” may well be renewing and invigorating the faith of their clergy. If you want to light some tinder, you first light a match. The people in the pews are not going to get excited about the faith if their clergy are not excited about the faith.

    Also from the article: So, has Alpha a place among Catholics? The great drawback is its attitude to ‘basic Christianity’ which embraces God, sin, redemption, the Bible, and prayer – but regards the Church, Eucharist, Mary, and the sacraments as ‘additions’. For the Catholic the Church is at the heart of Christianity – no Church, no Christian Faith. For the Protestant, a Christian is ‘one who accepts Jesus as personal Lord and Saviour’: for the Catholic a Christian is ‘one who celebrates the Sunday Eucharist where he or she meets Jesus, Lord and Saviour.

    Rather, the real Catholic is one who meets “Jesus personal Lord and Savior” in the eucharist on Sunday — and not only in the eucharist on Sunday, but also in the scripture, and in private prayer, and in the persons of other believers through fellowship, and in those to whom he or she ministers, and in those who minister to him or her.

    One has to know who God is before one can encounter God in the liturgy and the sacraments. The true Catholic lives in a personal relationship with our Lord, of which the Church and the liturgy are a central part.

    From the quoted article: Reflecting now I think that an evangelistic and evangelical initiative had been (perhaps unintentionally) hijacked by the liberal agenda of mainstream English Christianity, which is certainly the most influential movement in the C of E. For the liberal Christian evangelism is as best unnecessary, and at worst impossible. It is often embarrassing. ‘Faith’ is a matter for the individual – and each person will discover what is fulfilling for him or her – ‘all faiths and none’ as we hear so often in public prayer and exhortations! But the faith you choose (and you are free to choose as you wish) has little to do with your salvation, your destiny, and what happens to you after death. For universal salvation is now the common belief of the mainstream churches, and if all are saved (providing only that they are true to their own beliefs) what is the point of evangelism? Indeed, if you have rejected any idea of personal existence beyond death, (and it is a publicly held belief now by some influential Anglican clergy) evangelism becomes quite irrelevant.

    Yes, this will recur in the Catholic Church if liberals hijack the Alpha programme. Liberals tend to focus on our relationships with one another, which are horizontal (-), but this is not Christian faith. Conversely, Traditionalists tend to focus only on one’s individual relationship with God, which is vertical (|), but this also is not Christian faith. Rather, true Christian faith comes into being only when the vertical (“Love the Lord, your God, with your whole being”) and the horizontal (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) come together (+).

    Norm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s