A Catholic critique of Alpha

Should ordinariate communities for Catholics of Anglican tradition consider running Alpha, are there any concerns to keep in mind?

In previous posts, I have outlined my experience of Alpha, both in a Baptist church and at our  traditional Anglican parish in Ottawa, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary before it became Catholic.  With each of those posts, I have included some videos on Alpha for Catholics that have people like Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household under both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, extolling its virtues.

BqUyStKIYAEE8JONicky Gumbel, the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, a charismatic Anglican parish in London, who made the videos in the 1990s that launched Alpha as a worldwide phenomenon, has met with Pope Francis, perhaps several times.

So, before offering a Catholic critique, it is important to note the Alpha course has the approval of the Catholic Church at the highest levels.  Let’s take a look at some concerns. Furthermore, is it compatible with the ethos of the ordinariates? 

One of my prime concerns regarding Alpha  is the danger of indifferentism, the idea that there is some kind of free-floating basic Christianity based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that makes it somehow okay to gloss over denominational differences,  particularly the claims of the Catholic Church.  Been there, done that, and it wasn’t enough.

I have found this same kind of indifferentism in  charismatic circles where Catholics and Protestants will hold joint praise and worship services or conferences together.  The teaching, in my experience, is always one-way—I get the impression it is that the Protestants “have so much to teach us about the Holy Spirit and moving in the supernatural gifts” but there seems to be little openness from the Protestant side in the other direction.  For example, at one joint conference I attended, a Catholic priest gave his testimony that included a dramatic physical healing that involved the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Many of the Protestants attending were appalled at the name of Mary and boycotted the event the next year.  One would think the Holy Spirit would welcome mention of His earthly spouse, Mother Mary,  and open the eyes of all present, but I digress.

The other concern, related to indifferentism, is Alpha may encourage the idea there are first order and second order truths.  On one hand, one has to start somewhere in evangelizing people, an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.   You do not give a babe in Christ steak on his or her first meal, but milk.

On the other, what we discovered in the Anglican world and what then impelled us into the Catholic Church was realizing the hard way that there really are no second order truths.  Take Holy Orders, for instance, if you say that well, it’s not really important that the priest be male, this is a second-order or third-order truth, and we’re okay if we focus on Jesus, then you start pulling at a thread that begins to unravel other related aspects of Revelation. Catholic truth has a wholeness to it.  Alpha deliberately avoids talking much about sacraments at all because of the denominational divides.  Alpha in a Catholic setting would need to wean people off the milk, to gradually expose them to meat—in other words follow up is key.

CatholicCulture.org offers a pretty balanced analysis of Alpha that raises several points of concern worth considering.

A Charismatic Agenda. If we compare the amount of space given to different topics, we see that Alpha is not interested in giving “common Christian teaching” but is in fact advancing a specific theological agenda. Contrasting the one small paragraph on Baptism, and the two pages on “Holy Communion,” with the eight pages on “speaking in tongues”15 and sixteen pages on “healing,”16 we get a truer sense of what Alpha is about. Though Gumbel says not all have to speak in tongues, he encourages people to ask for it, and then to start speaking, starting with a limited vocabulary and developing the “prayer” “language.”17 The extensive chapter on healing presents the distinctive claims of the “signs and wonders” school of thought associated with John Wimber. Recall that these chapters precede mention of the Church (understood in a congregationalist way) or the sacraments (reduced to two, and understood in an Evangelical way). Recall as well that Catholics are told that “denominational distinctives” must be left out of Alpha, which only wants to present “common Christian teaching.” Clearly the claim is false.

An Anglican Criticism

As mentioned out the outset, Alpha was developed by a parish of the Church of England, Holy Trinity Brompton in London. From Anglicanism, it has spread to other Christian groups. Yet one of the first detailed criticisms of the course came from an Anglican source—an M.A. dissertation written by Rev. Mark Ireland, Diocesan Missioner for the Diocese of Lichfield, in the year 2000. Ireland questioned the 426 parishes in the diocese about the evangelization programs they were using, and then his Bishop followed up with a letter to the parishes which used Alpha, asking if they had any concerns. “The main theological areas of concern centred on lack of teaching on the sacraments, social ethics and the resurrection, and the perceived over-emphasis on tongues, physical healing and substitutionary atonement.” These issues were then raised in a meeting between Ireland and the Area Bishop of Shrewsbury with Sandy Millar and Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity Brompton.18

The greatest concern voiced by the Anglicans who replied was the lack of adequate teaching on the sacraments. The Area Bishop of Stafford commented, “…there is a danger I believe that a fairly minimalist understanding of the Eucharist in the Alpha material I have seen (but not used) is somewhat restrictive of one of the greatest well-springs of Christian spirituality and experience. And it was (is) the memorial that the Lord gave of His Passion (as St. Paul says!).” Gumbel and Millar gave no ground on the objection. Gumbel ducked the question by noting that Alpha is used “by both Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army, whose understanding of the sacraments differs totally,” and that “we should rejoice” in this. “What is written about baptism and holy communion in Questions of Life has been carefully scripted to enable as far as possible Roman Catholics, Baptists and the Salvation Army to all feel comfortable using it.” And Millar emphasized that those who want to add their own teachings, are free to do so afterwards.19

Another concern was the emphasis on tongues—and this, Ireland says, was raised by clergy at charismatic churches. Again, Millar and Gumbel rejected the criticism and said they were trying to steer a middle course between the Pentecostals who insist on tongues and others who reject it.20

Please go on over to read the whole article at CatholicCulture.org

Now to ethos.  We are more traditionally minded in the ordinariates.  A lot that goes on in charismatic circles, even Catholic ones, would be the opposite of what we are used to and maybe even shocking or disturbing.

I certainly don’t have a lot of experience visiting lots of different ordinariate communities, but I would give an educated guess that the “sign of peace” is either omitted among the people in the congregation as it is in Ottawa, or it is done according to the rubrics with great decorum.  There is no hugging, no hand-shaking even if there is the sign of peace.  If someone broke out praying in tongues during one of our services, I would imagine that individual would get the stink eye.  We had one young man who used to use the orans posture during the Lord’s Prayer but he didn’t know any better.  On rare occasions, perhaps during a rousing hymn, one might see a hand in the air, but for most of us such charismatic worship elements such as hands in the air, holding hands during the Lord’s prayer, hugging, or spontaneous prayers are not our style and we prefer it that way.  No one gets “slain in the Spirit,” or bursts into spontaneous and unstoppable laughter in our communities.  If someone did get slain in the Spirit the doctor or nurse in our congregation might rush forward to take the person’s pulse and someone else might be calling 911.

And when it comes to our homilies, well, we’re used to having steak at our Mass.  None of us, I would imagine, has any desire to dumb things down so as to be more seeker friendly.   We don’t get invited to be “saved” over and over again, by inviting Jesus into our hearts every Sunday, nor do we repeatedly get the same message about asking for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Our liturgy is also probably an acquired taste.  I imagine it might be pretty confusing and maybe even intimidating to someone who has no experience of it.   We love our way of worshipping.    Oh, I almost forgot to mention our hymns!  No repetitive praise and worship with simple tunes accompanied by guitar and drums.  We like our theologically sound hymns even if they are hard to sing and have seven or eight verses.

But could we not offer appetizers to those who would have a hard time with our regular services?  Could we not have milk available outside of the Mass for those who are not ready to digest steak?  Can we offer a shallow pool even though most of us prefer swimming in the deep end?  I continually ask myself these questions, because there is a world out there that needs to hear the Good News.  There is a hell and people do go there. What can we do better to make sure we and others don’t go there too?   Or are we meant for people who are either on the verge of becoming Catholic, having already undergone a lot of spiritual growth as Christians, or for those ready to swim in the deep end without floaties? What are your thoughts on this.  Any suggestions?


4 thoughts on “A Catholic critique of Alpha

  1. When constructing a building, the first step is to lay a solid foundation. If one fails to do so, the whole building will collapse.

    And if one wishes to learn Calculus, one must first become proficient in Algebra because it is impossible to do even the most basic Calculus without proficiency in Algebra.

    For far too long, I have witnessed Catholic parishes pushing people through catechetical programs that sought to teach the whole of Catholic doctrine without first ensuring that those people had mastered the most basic elements of Christian faith — the truths expressed in the Apostle’s Creed (or the Nicene Creed — they are fundamentally equivalent) — and embraced Jesus as their savior, submitting their lives to his Lordship. Without that foundation, none of the rest of Catholic theology makes any sense whatsoever.

    Over the years, I have witnessed more than a few people who lacked this foundation depart from the Catholic Church and find it in an Evangelical Protestant Church that taught it clearly until they “got it” and came to real Christian faith. Some of those who left subsequently come back to the Catholic Church and discovered that everything Catholic — the sacramental life, ecclesiology, etc. — now made sense. But the tragedy is that they had to leave to establish a solid foundation of Christian faith in their lives in the first place — and their culpability in this situation is greatly diminished by the deficiency of their earlier catechetical formation. And I’m not even sure that we can pass the blame to the pastors of the parishes in which those who left the church grew up, as many of those pastors are themselves victims of grossly deficient seminary formation.



  2. Pingback: Alpha testimony from a cradle Catholic | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

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