Arthur Middleton on catechesis

Modern liturgies have made us familiar with distinguishing Word and Sacrament. In the Primitive Church the Ministry of the Word was the Liturgy of the Catechumens. It embodied the transmission of the faith to new members as an essential part of church life. The need for Christian education has not diminished, but some methods need questioning, particularly when the Liturgy of the Word becomes an arena for experiment in methods of instruction. Too often there has been an intrusion of classroom models and technology, a teaching method academic in character, that reduces the understanding of the Word to the purely `verbal lever Little effort is made to find a way of spiritually reading the reality the liturgy expresses and communicates, a way of discovering its spirit, its eternal meaning, the essence and spirit of what liturgical action is.

Liturgical catechesis is an ancient way of teaching Christian doctrine and life. Its primary aim is to bring the individiral into the life of the Church rather than merely communicate `religious knowledge’ on a cerebral level. Its concern is edification, the `building up’ of a member of the Body of Christ, introducing people into the life of the Church rather than into an enfolding of its meaning, contents and purpose. This can only be by participation in the liturgical services and their explanation. `O taste and see how good the Lord is’. First taste, then see; that is, understand.

Ministry of the Word

In the seventeenth century this was fully understood and accepted. The pattern of instruction in the meaning of membership was through preaching, catechism and personal spiritual counselling. In an Episcopal Charge (1661), Jeremy Taylor told his clergy:

`Let every minister teach his people the use, practice, methods and benefits of meditation or mental prayer… Let every minister exhort his people to a frequent confession of their sins, and a declaration of the state of their souls; to a conversation with their minister in spiritual things, to an enquiry concerning all parts of their duty: for by preaching and catechizing, and private intercourse, all the needs of souls can best be served; but by preaching alone they cannot’

These seventeenth-century Anglicans saw catechesis as part of the Ministry of the Word. Richard Hooker commended it: `Catechizing may be in schools, it may be in private families. But when we make it a kind of preaching, we mean always the public performance in the open hearing of men’.

Sums of divinity

George Herbert in The Country Parson gives a whole chapter to the catechism `to which all divinity may easily be reduced’. He writes: The Country Parson values catechizing highly… He exacts of all the Doctrine of the Catechism; of the younger sort, the very words; of the older, the substance… He requires all to be present at Catechizing’.

He understood catechesis to be a doctrine-devotion synthesis: `For there being three points of his duty; the one, to infuse a competent knowledge of salvation in every one of his flock; the other, to multiply and build up this knowledge to a spiritual temple; the third, to influence this knowledge, to press and drive it to practice, turning it to reformation of life, by pithy and lively exhortations; Catechizing is the first point, and but by Catechizing, the other cannot be attained Catechesis is for the translation of devotion and doctrine into Christian living, into practical divinity. This understanding of catechesis is in the minds of the authors of the various catechetical books who called them `sums of divinity’. Doctrine and devotion are not separable. They form a synthesis, a combination of both elements in a complex whole.

Building up faith

It was a difficult time for the Anglicans when everything seemed lost due to Cromwel’s attempt to presbyterianize the Church of England. The catechetical books had a cumulative effect in building up Anglicans in their faith when outwardly all seemed lost. That great Anglican John Evelyn, the friend of Pepys and like him a diarist, complained that no real Christian instruction was being given in the parish churches. In his diary he wrote, `there was now nothing practical preached, or that pressed for reformation of life, but high and speculative points and straines … which left people very ignorant and of no steady principles’. He catechized his family on Sunday afternoons.

Lancelot Andrewes’s Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine published after his death in 1630 is probably the earliest of these books. Henry Hammonds Practical Catechism (1644), William Nicholson’s Plain and Full Exposition of the Catechism (1655) and Richard Sherlocks The Catechism of the Church of England Explained (1656) appeared. In The Golden Grove, which really started out as such an exposition, Taylor offers his book as an alternative to the view of those who had destroyed the Church that all religion is a sermon’.

Substantial contribution

The usual layout following that of the Catechism is an exposition of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer or prayer generally, and the sacraments, followed by an explanation of the Decalogue, and when the Church of England was restored such handbooks of faith and practice were still needed. Thomas Ken’s Exposition of the Church Catechism appeared in 1685 and William Beveridge’s The Church Catechism Explained in 1704.This kind of book then made a substantial contribution to the Anglican heritage both in theology and devotion.