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 draw back 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. And if not Alpha, then what?