Simon Ellis looks at the reasons for the success of the Alpha course and in particular its appeal for Catholics, highlighting the importance of its local nature and its emphasis on listening
As Bishop Anselm Genders once remarked that he wanted the epitaph ‘I’ve never been to Taizé’ inscribed on his tombstone, I have met colleagues who might go for ‘I’ve never been on Alpha!’ on their grave. Incidentally, neither of these beat Spike Milligan’s ‘I told you I was ill’!
The Alpha course now has huge potential. Started in 1993, having grown from a confirmation course at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), the ten-week introduction to the Christian faith now runs in 169 countries – 58 of whom are Catholic – delivered in 99 different languages and in 36,000 churches.
Pope Benedict has said that ‘the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to man. And only when God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what God is’. For many of us, it is apparent that Alpha is providing the opportunity for this to be realised locally.
Structure and network
‘Local’ is the watchword. This does not necessarily mean the parish church: 75% of UK prisons now run an Alpha course. There is Alpha for the Armed Forces, for Small Churches, for Youth, for Students and for Deprived Areas. You can use it in the home, the church hall or a pub. There maybe 6, 20 or 150 people on the course. Talks can be delivered by local churches and leaders.
It seems to fulfil the prediction by Pope John Paul II that ‘the parish will necessarily be the centre of the new evangelisation’. Maybe here we have an opportunity locally to team up with other Catholic or Evangelical parishes and networks to deliver together what we simply cannot deliver on our own. As Cardinal Kasper recently said about Alpha, it strengthens ecumenical togetherness among Christians’ providing the setting for a ‘joint proclamation of faith in Christ in today’s world’.
Our experience locally in the Derbyshire town of Long Eaton with Christian introductory courses has not been all success, but it has been about a long-term building process, and it takes time to build ‘hospitable parishes’ which are truly places where people on the fringe can chew over the Christian faith without feeling threatened. We are grateful to have been involved in the Y Course, Credo, Start (CPAS) and Forward in Faith introductory courses, all with varying levels of success.
A new evangelization
In the end, strangely enough, I am sure that the success of the Christian introductory courses was not and is not actually dependent primarily on the course detail, but on how well structured it is and how it enables the process of profound listening and the friendship-building which occurs during this process. Listening precedes teaching.
Alpha enshrines this principle in the small group and the style of leadership. Furthermore, by working with Alpha you are part of a big network which helps with recognition and support. For example, many Ebbsfleet parishes have a network which began in 2005, and there is also the National and International Alpha network of support, prayer and training.
When I attended the International Alpha Conference at HTB in May this year, the extraordinary thing that struck me was simply how many Roman Catholics were in attendance: around 250 in a hall of 1,100 people. I chatted to an Italian priest, a Lithuanian Benedictine Nun and a number of Spanish lay Catholics. All were fired up to reach out to the lapsed and those who have never heard the Gospel, as well as reinvigorating the faithful. In Nicky Gumbel’s key address at HTB, he poured praise on the past three popes, as well as St Philip Neri and modern Catholic writers such as Fr Rainero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household. What is going on? A realignment guided by the Holy Spirit across Europe?
Fr Cantalamessa delivered the opening address to the International Alpha Conference in 2005, which is significant in itself. In his address (available in booklet form from Alpha publications), he defined the problem and the opportunity which face us as Catholics in modern Britain as we approach this crossroads:
It seems we are still lacking a suitable instrument for coping with this new situation. Owing to our past, we are better prepared to be ‘shepherds’ than ‘fishers’
of men; that is to say, better prepared to feed the people who have stayed faithful to the Church than to bring new people in or ‘fish back’ those who have wandered astray. This shows how urgently we need a new evangelisation, which, while being open to all the fullness of the truth and the Christian life, will yet be simple and basic. It seems to me that…[Alpha] answers precisely this need of ours; the very name shows this.
Need to look outward
Criticisms of the course can be aired and can be worked through. Personally I think that Alpha material shows an obsession with young middle-class people. I would also prefer to see more of the theology of the incarnation in Alpha, whilst many Orthodox would no doubt say there should be more on the Trinity, and less (solely) on the Holy Spirit. We know that there are issues of how the Alpha course portrays the practice of prayer and we also would differ in our approach to the detail on the atonement.
Others say the problem is the Alpha culture, that all that pasta indicates a southern bias (although maybe that is why the Italians are taking to Alpha!). Pasta aside, much of the criticism forgets that the course is not called ‘Alpha and Omega’ as Revelation 1.8 may suggest. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church is developing a range of resources to meet the need for further teaching, particularly the ‘cafe’ resources (Catholic Faith Exploration). These complement RCIA and they build on the initial experience of Alpha, with DVD modules on the sacraments, Lent and Advent and the purpose of retreat, to name a few (see
Set against the turmoil created by the decision of General Synod of 7/7, the last thing on the agenda for many parish priests and people will be a renewal of evangelization. But surely this is, once more, a moment to look outward. Keeping the show going is simply not an option. Not only will evangelization keep us focused, we shall be fulfilling Christ’s will for us now – for, as Pope Benedict has said, Anyone who has discovered Christ must lead others to him; a great joy cannot be kept to oneself.