- An Analysis -
GILLIAN VAN DER LANDE
As a Catholic who has participated in full in an ALPHA Course in a Catholic parish and who has viewed, read and studied the ALPHA Course materials, my short answer to the above question is an unequivocal "No."
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, by commission and omission, the ALPHA material proposes an ecclesiology and a sacramental theology, contrary in essence to the teaching of the Church.
Secondly, the underlying principle of the methodology used in the small group discussions held after each of the 15 ALPHA video sessions, acts against the principle of religious freedom upheld by the Church. The questions are formatted in such a way as to elicit responses from subjective criteria alone. This does not respect and protect the right of participants to freely answer and clarify points from the objective criteria of the Church's teaching when the need arises. Thus, in effect, it silences that teaching and encourages the ALPHA 'magisterium' to stand, develop and be absorbed.
The purpose of this analysis is to show how and why I came to this conclusion.
A few years ago my attention was drawn to a notice in a local shop window inviting people of all denominations or none to join an ALPHA group to learn more about the Christian faith. Always interested in ecumenism, I signed on but due to unforeseen circumstances I was unable to attend any of the evenings.
A short time later I attended a day of adult catechesis in my diocese. ALPHA was heavily promoted in one of the talks given by a Catholic priest. He praised in an unequivocal way this evangelizing process initiated by the Evangelical wing of the Church of England and from Holy Trinity Brompton. He placed a strong and sensational emphasis on the weekend or day away which covered the Person and work of the Holy Spirit and focused in particular on the surprise turns that it could take. This caused me some disquiet which I voiced at the time.
Thus, when I learnt that we were to have ALPHA in a local parish I decided to take part in the Course in full. I felt it necessary to do some thorough background reading on the key ALPHA Course literature Questions of Life by the Rev. Nicky Gumbel, the ALPHA presenter. The Course is based on this book and participants at the ALPHA Conferences laid on by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal were encouraged to read it as pre-conference preparation. Not one of the leaders or helpers of ALPHA in this parish had read the book prior to the start of the Course, some appeared to have no knowledge of it, and this included the parish priest. I lent them copies of the same after the first ALPHA session. I also viewed the ALPHA leaders Training video and read other Course books.
In addition, I contacted the Catholic ALPHA Office which was set up to promote "the ALPHA course within the Catholic Church" by assisting "the situating of the ALPHA course within a Catholic parish or Organisation". [ALPHA for Catholics? Catholic ALPHA Office p. 6]. 1 did this as I was curious to see how this Protestant Evangelical Course could be used in a Catholic context without undermining the teachings of the Church; without misleading those who, in good faith, had chosen to follow ALPHA in a Catholic context in order to learn more of the basics of the Christian Faith from the Catholic perspective.
The Catholic Office sent me ALPHA in a Catholic Context, a tape of The ALPHA Conference held at Westminster Cathedral Hall in September 1997 under the initiative of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. "The Conferences are designed for leaders and leadership Teams" [Catholic Conference leaflet]. I was also sent the Post ALPHA Catholic Teaching [PACT] audio cassette which is designed, as is the video, to "provide a pointer to the further riches of the Catholic faith, particularly RCIA" [Catholic Gazette article, ALPHA in a Catholic Context].
The PACT tape and video, comprising two talks, begins with unequivocal support and praise Of ALPHA as a starting point. In the first talk - 'Why should I listen to the Church?' - Charles Whitehead, the first speaker, calls it "a wonderful course." ALPHA is the starting point. As ALPHA for Catholics? [AfC?] puts it: "ALPHA does not claim to be a total Christian formation. It is a launching pad. It presupposes further formation to follow" [p. 15].
The PACT tapes do not clarify and thus correct any errors as regards the Church's teaching put forward in the ALPHA tapes. The errors absorbed after 10 weeks of ALPHA teaching of 15 video sessions are therefore allowed to stand with the apparent blessing of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Gazette calls ALPHA a "pre-catechetical course" and AfC? states that "it looks at some of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith" [p. 5] - but this is just not true. ALPHA goes beyond the basic proclamation of who Jesus Christ was and is and basic doctrine. It proposes an ecclesiology and sacramental theology that are not in accord with and contrary in essence to the Church's teaching on a variety of fundamental doctrinal truths.
For example ALPHA teaches that Revelation is based on the Bible alone. As the Holy Father states:
"Scripture... is not the Church's sole point of reference. The 'supreme rule of her faith' derives from the unity which the spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others" [Faith and Reason 55].
ALPHA's understanding of "church" is reduced to "simply a gathering of Christians who get together to worship God, to hear what God is saying to them, to encourage one another and to make friends. It should be a very exciting place to be!" [Why Jesus, Nicky Gumbel, p. 21].
Thus, ALPHA's understanding of "Universal Church" is of an amalgamation, a sum total, of all who believe in Christ that consists of all those world wide who profess the name of Christ" [Questions of Life, N. Gumbel, p. 221].
Quite understandably, as ALPHA is an Evangelical programme, the Roman Catholic Church is referred to as one of many Christian denominations. However, the context in which it is referred to, along with other named denominations, implies that to link an understanding of the term "Church" to any one particular denominational church is understandable but an image that should be buried [Questions of Life, p. 220] and that "many Christians are seeking to bury ... as it is wholly inadequate when compared to the picture of the church in the New Testament" (ibid). Nicky Gumbel drives this message home in a strong way, and thus promotes his idea of a "universal church", when he says in his video presentation How can I be filled with the Spirit?: "No-one cares anymore what denominations we are, because we are one in Christ. Nobody cares tuppence. All that matters is that we know and love Christ, we are Christians. There is a unity of the Spirit. What matters is our relationship with God. Our unity in Spirit." The Catholic Church, on the contrary, teaches the necessity of a unity of Faith. Nicky Gumbel's vision confines itself to a unity of spirit based on belief in Christ alone.
It must be remembered that ALPHA is copyrighted. AfC? reminds us of this when it states: "Catholic ALPHA uses the ALPHA course as it stands..." [p. 6]. The underlining is as printed. Therefore it has to be used in its integrity. Indeed two of the priest speakers at the Catholic ALPHA Conference, although they recognised that the course had its weaknesses from the Catholic perspective, still chose to advocate that ALPHA be used in its integrity in Catholic parishes.
AfC? continues to do the same. It recognises its deficiencies yet still continues to advocate its use. It states: "On the question of Sacraments, ALPHA is seriously deficient from a Catholic point of view. There is only recognition of Baptism and the Eucharist explicitly" [p. 7]. It recognises also that ALPHA's teaching on these two Sacraments is based on the lowest common denominator approach of what will be found acceptable by the majority of major Christian denominations and traditions. It quotes Nicky Gumbel: "Teaching on the sacraments is limited, in the sense that we only teach on ALPHA what all the major denominations and traditions are agreed about," aware "that some denominations would want to add more" [pp. 17-8]. This results in no clear understanding being given of the nature of a sacrament in the first place, as being instituted by Christ and as communicating grace. The key book Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel is recommended as course reading. It contains all these errors and many more written in a plausible and readable style. This unqualified recommendation, in itself, reinforces this Protestant teaching as being acceptable.
Unless error is corrected at the time when ALPHA is used in a Catholic context, the error stands and, inevitably, is absorbed by some present. That then becomes the launching pad for that person. That, in my experience, is what happened on the ALPHA Course I attended. The errors were left to stand and the methodology laid down in the Team Training Manual for the leaders and helpers of the small groups ensured that they did. The method of discussion used was based on subjective criteria. Two basic questions - 'What do you think?' and 'What do you feel?' - formatted and controlled the way the discussions went in such a way as to preclude objective discussion from the criterion of the Church's teachings. My experience was of received hostility to any form of clarification and defence of the Church's teaching in relation to the teaching proposed by Nicky Gumbel, a teaching that was not Catholic in essence. Such a clarification and defence was labelled "negative". This would seem to deny the principle of religious freedom upheld by the Church. It is of great concern that ALPHA should introduce such methodology into any parish, let alone a Catholic parish.
ALPHA - SACRAMENTAL THEOLOGY
To return to the catechetical content of ALPHA: "Local Church" is understood in three ways, in terms of 'celebration' - large gathering of Christians, 'congregation'- medium sized gathering and 'cell' - small group, BUT NOT, as in Catholic teaching, as a segment of the Church under a Bishop's authority [Questions Of Life, p. 222].
ALPHA recognises only one priesthood, "The priesthood of all believers" [ibid, p. 230]. The priest is understood merely as an "elder", "a leader in the church" but one who "is not a sacrificing priest". Thus, it follows, that the 'Eucharist' is understood solely as 'the Lord's Supper' when "we remember his sacrifice with thanksgiving and partake of its benefits" but not as a holy sacrifice as in Catholic teaching. The explanation of this thinking is that "now Jesus, our great high priest (hiereus), has made the supreme sacrifice of his own life on our behalf. No further sacrifices are necessary and no further priests are necessary" [ibid, p. 229]. This, of course, is contrary in essence to the Church's teaching.
As regards the Sacrament of Baptism, it is regarded as being a visible mark of being "a member of the Church" and "a visible sign of what it means to be a Christian" in that "it signifies cleansing from sin, dying and rising with Christ to a new life and the living water which the Holy Spirit brings to our lives" [Questions of life, p. 221]. ALPHA teaching understands Baptism in terms of a Church membership ritual alone that does not confer but rather confirms something that has already taken place. I say this in that ALPHA understands that the Holy Spirit is received prior to Baptism when a person commits him or herself publicly to Christ and hands are laid on them, by committed Christians, ALPHA leaders, lay or clerical, to invoke the coming down of the Holy Spirit.
ALPHA'S ALIEN 'SPIRIT'
There is a strong emphasis placed on speaking in tongues. People are told to pray and ask for this gift according to a certain format. "Open your mouth and start to praise God in any language but English or any other language known to you" and "Believe that what you receive is from God. Don't let anyone tell you that you made it up" [ibid, p. 147]. The leaders on the ALPHA weekends are asked to pray for people to receive the gift of tongues "not because it is the most important gift but because the ALPHA course is a beginner's course and the gift of tongues is (considered a) beginner's gift... Both in the Bible and in experience it is often the first obviously supernatural gift of the Spirit which people receive" [Telling Others, N. Gumbel, p. 129].
I attended the Course 'ALPHA Day in the Spirit'. After the three video sessions, lunch and two small group discussion sessions we were invited to be prayed over by the ALPHA leaders and helpers. I am afraid I sought sanctuary in the church at that point, so sickened was I at the sight of lay leaders advancing to pray over others, rub their backs and cradle their heads. I do not know therefore if anyone received the gift of speaking in tongues and whether this was facilitated by the leaders or not. I returned to find another fugitive who was a convert from a Pentecostal Church in America. She was sickened too, having left that form of Church to join the Catholic Church. She did not return to complete the ALPHA Course. That day of the Holy Spirit did not begin with Mass even though the parish priest was a helper. It did not even include a visit to the church of the venue, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady. We did not even pray the Hail Mary, but of course Our Lady is not part of ALPHA and there is implicit rejection in ALPHA of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady.
ALPHA: CONTRARY TO THE FAITH AND REASON
In short, ALPHA is not Catholic. As a Catholic I am stunned that it can be promoted for use in Catholic parishes in such a way in leaflet handouts and advertisements in the Catholic press, as to give the impression that there is nothing in it that is contrary to the Church's teaching. I am still more surprised that the Catholic ALPHA Office can promote its use in its integrity in Catholic parishes and recommend its literature when it recognises publicly, in print, that it is deficient - at least as regards sacramental theology - from a Catholic perspective.
Those who in good faith come to a Catholic parish to gain a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith via a basic understanding of Christ will be sadly short-changed, albeit that they may receive a warm welcome and have an enjoyable evening and a good supper. One wonders whether participants are fully aware of the overall purpose underlying the ALPHA method, and whether they would be so keen to participate if they did. The overall purpose of the small group discussion, according to the ALPHA Team Training Manual is "to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ" [p. 1] through friendship with Christians. This is considered "the main reason why people stay in the church" [p. 6]. The purpose of the small groups is to help newcomers to experience Christian community and absorb the beginning of "a community orientation" [videotape 3a].
The numbers flocking to ALPHA clearly indicate that many are seeking and yearning to know more about Christian teaching. The ALPHA format of supper, video and discussion is undoubtedly a good idea. The ALPHA videos are professional and the Rev. Nicky Gumbel comes across as being sincere in his beliefs and is a charismatic figure.
The PACT videos contrast badly by comparison. This certainly does little to get across what Catholic teaching is contained therein. It is unavoidable that they appear to be 'tacked on' to a Protestant message because the ALPHA message - which offers a different understanding of key terms such as the Church, the local Church, the Universal Church, Tradition, the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the priesthood and omits the Mother of God, to name but a few key teachings - is left to stand, unqualified, in its integrity, and be used as a launching pad for the Catholic message.
This leaves a difficult task to the two key speakers on the PACT tapes. In brief, in the video Why should I listen to the Church?, lack of clarification over the understanding of what is understood by the "Church" leads to a watered-down understanding of the Catholic Church: described as "a teaching church" which "says that it has authority to teach and to take us on in the Christian life", as "Your" (Christ's) "teaching church". It sounds like another point of view, another opinion.
In turn, in the video Why bother going to Mass?, lack of clarification of the meaning of a 'Sacrament' leaves standing the ALPHA omission of the Sacraments as communicating grace. There is one brief mention and listing of the seven sacraments in name only, given in rather an offhand way in that the priest speaker appears to momentarily forget some of the seven in a jocular fashion. The principal focus of the talk is the Eucharist. It is a pity that the misunderstandings about the priesthood in the ALPHA talks are not set right in this talk. This results in the few words spoken on the Consecration failing to convey clearly how transubstantiation is confected: "So, in the Mass, the priest acts in the name of Jesus. He takes the bread and wine as Jesus did in the Last Supper, they call this part of the Mass, the Offertory .... then he gives thanks for them, as I said Jesus did, and he blesses them in a special prayer which we call the Eucharistic Prayer. The heart of the Eucharistic Prayer is a very special moment which Catholics call the Consecration. The moment when we believe that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ."
It is a fact that ALPHA's teachings are to a great degree contrary in essence to the teachings of the Church in fundamental respects and that ALPHA's methodology silences the truths of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic one is thus forced to ask questions:
One can only reflect on how contrary all of this is to the Church's teaching on the principles of Evangelisation and on catechesis itself, not to mention the Holy Father's teachings in his latest encyclical Faith and Reason. And one is left to wonder how so many Catholics, clerical and lay, can so readily take ALPHA on board.
THE RCIA CONNECTION
The Catholic ALPHA Office
states in its 'ALPHA for Catholics?' that
|- provides an effective tool for evangelisation
|- helps to reach the unchurched and the lapsed
|- feeds RCIA and other programmes
PACT is seen to "provide a bridge between ALPHA and the RCIA process" (p. 7): a lead in. RCIA is understood as "the next step", "the way to join the Catholic community/Church" (p. 25), while 'Evangelisation' is separated from 'catechesis'.
In view of all this and since ALPHA is being proposed as the fundamental launching pad, some brief clarifying points about RCIA are in order.
The Second Vatican Council decreed that the catechumenate, a period of appropriate formation for unbaptised adults in several stages, should be restored. RCIA, the new Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, was approved by Pope Paul VI in 1971. It comprises liturgical rites to be celebrated at various times to sanctify the period of the catechumenate and give spiritual succour to the catechumens.
However, RCIA is also understood in a wider sense by many. It is understood in terms of an umbrella pastoral strategy surrounding the reception of adults into the Church which enables whole parish communities to become actively aware of the evangelising mission of the Church at the personal level and as a unified community, To this end, a mountain of RCIA literature has been written and circulated and, in many instances, RCIA has come to represent a certain content and method of catechesis in itself - which, in many cases, does not conform with the norms laid down in The General Directory for Catechesis and the content and clear language laid down in The Catechism of The Catholic Church.
The result is that what should be a period of catechesis to learn more about the Church and the Faith of the Church - a period of personal growth in faith strengthened by prayer, reflection and sacramental rites - becomes instead, in many instances, an absorption into a particular 'vision' of the Church or 'a church community' and a formation according to that community.
RCIA cannot, therefore, be relied upon to set right the flawed foundation begun by ALPHA. The choice of catechetical material for the catechumenate period of RCIA is dependent on diocesan authorities and parish priests. This may or may not conform in total to the content and principles of catechesis laid down by the Magisterium of the Church. Some of this material appears to continue the ecclesiology and sacramental and other theology proposed by ALPHA.
To leave you with one example, typical of many, if we look at the understanding of 'a sacrament' in the key RCIA book in one diocese: Focus on Faith, a resource for the journey into the Catholic Church by Deborah Jones (without imprimatur), we learn on page 76 that:
'A sacrament is a festive action in which Christians assemble to celebrate their lived experience and to call to heart their common story. The action is a symbol of God's care for us in Christ. Enacting the symbol brings us closer to one another in the Church and the Lord who is there for us.' (Tad Guzie)
Could you understand from this, if you did not know, that the Sacraments were instituted by Christ, that they communicate grace to the recipient, the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ to heal and transform them? Could you understand that the Sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) that make present efficaciously the grace that they signify? I think not. A combination of this type of catechesis from the launching pad of ALPHA cannot be what the Church's call for evangelisation is asking of us as Catholics. In short, it cannot be right.
* * * * *
Commentary by Rod Pead (UK) in January 1999
The latest in the long line of New Age/Protestant trojan horses to be wheeled into Catholic parishes with episcopal blessing is ALPHA. Zealous in its application of commercial principles to feel-good evangelisation, ALPHA is big business - built on copyrights, target figures, line charts and multi-million pound advertising campaigns. It emerged from Holy Trinity Brompton [HTB], an Anglican church behind the Brompton Oratory in London. In recent years this church has ventured to the furthest edge of the charismatic movement in its promotion of the Toronto Blessing - a so-called Baptism of the Holy Spirit which induces hysterical, animal-like behaviour (uncontrolled laughter, shaking, gibberish, grunting, howling etc.) among congregations. Mr. Nicky Gumbel, who introduced this alien 'spirit' into England via HTB in 1994, is the prime mover behind ALPHA: "I believe it is no coincidence," he stated in May 1995, "that the present movement of the Holy Spirit [Toronto Blessing] has come at the same time as the explosion of the ALPHA Course. I think the two go together."
One would have thought this connection alone sufficient to alert Catholic bishops and priests to keep their distance from ALPHA; to dissuade them from flirting with "angels of light" [2 Cor 11:13-15]. Alas, such is their general loss of faith and blind panic at the massive yearly decline in the Catholic population that our Shepherds have rolled out the red carpet instead. Bishop Ambrose Griffiths of Hexham and Newcastle, who says that church attendance in his diocese "has been going down on a straight line graph for the last 25 years," has embraced ALPHA with uncanny zeal. Cardinal Hume, too, gave his blessing and personal message of encouragement to the 450 priests and laity who attended an ALPHA instruction course at Westminster Cathedral Hall in May 1997, conducted by Sandy Millar and Nicky Gumbel of HTB. The Cardinal claims to know people who have been helped by ALPHA - apparently oblivious to the many 'apparitions' and programmes like RENEW that promote serious error but claim "conversions."
"I am sure it will be of great benefit to the Church's mission," Bishop David Konstant has prophesied of ALPHA. "It doesn't contain anything that is contrary to Catholic doctrine," states Bishop Griffiths. After reading Mrs. van der Lande's objective analysis of an ALPHA course in a Catholic parish, readers may consider "hirelings" too complimentary a label for such Shepherds.