I doubt Pope Benedict XVI had Alpha in mind as Anglican patrimony when he published Anglicanorum coetibus, but the 11-week introductory course in the basics of Christianity began in 1977 at Holy Trinity Brompton, a London parish of the Church of England.
If you were to wander into Holy Trinity Brompton, you would more likely find contemporary worship music and the church packed with worshippers hands raised in the air than the traditional collects of the Book of Common Prayer. That said, is Alpha something Ordinariate parishes are using or could investigate using?
I know of one parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, St. Thomas More in Scranton, PA, that uses Alpha to help catechize adults, to give inquirers into the Catholic faith a basic introduction into the Christian faith.
Since Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton recorded the video series to accompany a meal and time of fellowship characterizing Alpha, the course has exploded. Millions have taken part in countries around the world, and is presently being used as a tool for evangelization in Catholic churches.
According to the website, more than 4,500 Catholic parishes and organization around the world ran Alpha in 2018, involving more than 265,000 participants.
Fr. James Mallon, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Halifax in Nova Scotia, has made Alpha a centrepiece of his Divine Renovation: From Maintenance to Mission apostolate.
Last May, Fr. Mallon spoke at the New Evangelization Summit. Here’s an excerpt from my report on his talk:
“At some in any organization, when it becomes more concerned about the past than the future, then it becomes a museum,” Mallon said. “At that point it levels off; we become preservers of the past.
“We have the duty to conserve and preserve that which was handed on to us, but it has to be handed on to others,” he said.
If a parish becomes a museum, it is not long before “it becomes a mausoleum,” Mallon said. Maintainers and curators of a museum eventually become palliative care workers who are “accompanying the dying process of a parish.”
He spoke of a young priest who told him, “I feel like I married a dying woman who doesn’t have to be dying.” Sadly, the man eventually left the priesthood.
Meeting the challenge has to go beyond making tweaks, like putting new tires on an old car, he said. “Self-preservation is not a bad thing — it’s a good, God-given instinct — but when that’s a primary motive, it can become a form of spiritual vampirism,” he said.
Mallon stressed engagement with the world, and avoiding the temptation to pull up the drawbridge, with “rarified expressions of the liturgy” where “no outsider would feel comfortable.”
“Any organization for whom its method is more important than its mission will become irrelevant and will die,” he said.
“If we’re willing to cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing there’s hope,” he said, noting that even as the dominant system in the church is going into decline, “God is already bringing forth the new reality.”
I wonder if Fr. Mallon came to our parish would he see our Divine Worship as a “rarified expression of the liturgy” at which “no outsider would feel comfortable.”
Yet, I continually ask myself why all efforts within the Catholic Church regarding mission and evangelization focus on charismatic renewal? Does the Holy Spirit only operate in settings of contemporary worship music? I don’t think so. In fact, perhaps someone like St. John Henry Cardinal Newman might look askance at charismatic worship styles as emotional forms of worship that fail to go very deep.
Many of us at our parish have been through or touched by charismatic renewal on either the Protestant or the Catholic side and found it was not enough, and that the Holy Spirit guided us to a more traditional expression of the liturgy. Yet how do we respond to seekers, to those who don’t know Christ at all? As I have often written, we’re on the “deep end” when it comes to Christian conversion. What do we have to offer that’s “shallow end,” where people who know little to nothing about Jesus can put their toe in the water, where they can connect with a loving Christian community and feel included before they are catechized well enough to be received into the Catholic Church.
Fr. Mallon uses Alpha to reach out to the unchurched, but recognizes many of those evangelized through the course to come into a personal relationship with Jesus, need more time to be fully catechized as Catholics. While that catechesis takes place, they are incorporated into fellowship groups to keep them connected to faithful Catholics while they grow in the faith and come into an understanding of the Catholic Church and sacraments.
When I attended a Baptist Church, I participated in several Alphas in the 1990s. In the 2000s, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, then a parish of the Traditional Anglican Communion, ran a couple of Alpha courses. In a subsequent post, I will discuss what I learned from participating in Alpha and what I think are potential pros and cons for ordinariate parishes. Also, my experience is based on the Nicky Gumbel videos, and I understand the newer course has been considerably updated. To be continued!