I am a big fan of the Alpha Course. I’m sure the Latin Pimpernel and many of our other commentators can’t stand the Alpha Course, but I consider it a wonderful approach to evangelization and to bringing people to experience a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The course began at the Anglican parish of Holy Trinity Brompton, a Canterbury Communion Church that was touched by the Toronto Blessing. Barrister turned Anglican priest Nicky Gumbel’s videotaped courses have gone around the world and have been translated into many languages. There is also Alpha for Catholics. Gumbel has often been invited to the Vatican and was present at the last Synod on New Evangelization.
A Catholic priest friend of mine, Fr. James Mallon, calls the Alpha Course Catholicism 101 and created a follow-up course for Catholics called Catholicism 201 that deals with Catholic teachings on the nature of the Church, on sacraments, on Mary and so on.
The Alpha Course deals with what many would consider Christian essential doctrines. The course is set up around fellowship so there is usually a meal, then the group’s listening to the lecture of the day which might have the engaging Gumbel taking about who is Jesus Christ, Who is the Holy Spirit, What is the Trinity, how one prays, can one believe the Bible, does God heal today, that sort of thing. After the lecture there is supposed to be a freewheeling discussion where group leaders are only there to facilitate discussion, not to teach.
So, in a sense it is an overview of the teachings in the Nicene Creed, with an explanation of the Trinity, the incarnation, Jesus as both God the Son and fully human born of Mary, of the historical and authoritative relevance of Holy Scripture compared with any other ancient texts about historical figures. Alpha does not deal with issues that quickly become contentious such as baptism—can infants be baptized or should only those who have made a commitment to follow Christ be baptized, or whether Christ is truly present in the Eucharist or whether the meal is only symbolic.
What has me thinking about Alpha and essential Christian doctrines are some of the comments over at Fr. Anthony Chadwick’s blog.
Someone wrote that for the Lutherans, reunion with Rome is impossible because of disagreements over indulgences and Purgatory. For Anglicans, it is papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas.
Then came a discussion about women’s ordination and whether it is a first order doctrinal issue or second or third order.
Here are some of the comments that I found interesting in a post about the future of ACNA:
Stephen K says:
Dear ed, I was struck by how you expressed the line-in-the-sand by which you hoped rupture would come: the “woman-ordainers and those who will not.” This sounds as though you regard this as the greatest and most fundamental issue of division between Anglicans. Is that true? Even more, say, than beliefs in miracles, physical resurrection, real presence or ecclesial authority?
I admit, of course, that I do not believe women cannot be priests, but even were I to deny they could be, I would surely think that other things were more critical and irreconciliable.
Presumably, the argument might go: if women cannot be priests, then the whole sacramental integrity goes out the window so it IS pivotal. Is that how you would put it? Is that how others see it?
ed pacht says:
Well, obviously ordination of women is not the one most crucial issue in Christendom, but, yes, your last paragraph is right on with regard to the crucial nature of this doctrine/practice. If women purport to be priests, and even more crucially, if they purport to be bishops, sacramental integrity is indeed compromised or even destroyed. That and other considerations do make it a watershed issue. ACNA is conservative theologically in all its divisions, in substantial (though not perfect) agreement on central issues of the Faith. There is not the disbelief in miracles or in the Resurrection that has become endemic in the episcopal Church from which ACNA has emerged. The Creeds are taken for what they are, without the necessity for ‘crossed fingers’. Except for a Calvinist minority, the Real Presence in the Eucharistic elements is strongly affirmed. The fault line of division within this particular body is the irreconcilable presence of those who insist that women MUST be ordained and those who insist that they CANNOT, resulting in a church that is not in communion with itself. That just can’t last long.
One other matter regarding this ‘ordination’ is the way arguments for it distort anthropology and theology. If there is no ontological difference between male and female, there can be no real objection to homosexual practice or even ‘marriage’. I see a very clear progression in the historical development of these opinions, a developing androgyny that has led, in The Episcopal Church and elsewhere, to bizarre distortions of the nature of God Himself. No one in ACNA has arrived at that place, continuing at this point in the objection to homosexuality that brought about the split when Gene Robinson was consecrated. However, the logical progression is so clear and inexorable that, when the ick factor has worn off, they will find it very difficult to maintain that position.
Yes, in this particular situation this issue is the crucial one, in a way that may not be true for other bodies. At least that’s how I, along with many others, see it.
While I think Alpha Courses are on the right track not to teach about Holy Orders and the male-only priesthood in a course meant to draw seekers and Christians in need of renewal into a personal relationship with Christ, I do not think women’s ordination is a second order issue.
It almost seems that when you start to pull on one thread or try to cut it out of Catholic doctrine, you see other threads unraveling and starting to impact those essential teachings such as the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and so on.
The three central things which are at the center of our Faith:
1. The Passion of Christ.
2. The Death of Christ on the Cross.
3. The Resurrection of Christ on the Third Day.
Remove one, and all others make no sense. But all Three are made real in the Eucharist, and subsequently the Sacrifice of the Mass, continuously performed for 2,000 years. In the Eucharistic Celebration, we participate in these three events because of the eternal nature of the New and -Everlasting- Covenant. Hearts become united by great love- it is true for husband and wife, parent and child, God and Mankind; they enter into communion with one another. And so, during the Mass, we share in His Passion, then we share in His Death, and then we share in His Resurrection, through this Heavenly Bread- which is truly Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
Through the Eucharist, all other things flow; the Papacy, the Sacerdotal priesthood, Apostolic Tradition, and so forth. A weak Eucharistic theology can only invite things like giving communion to dogs, women priests, or the denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the “Lord’s Supper”, and the bread and wine become mere symbols, props used by actors on a stage to entertain people who don’t know any better.
I will not die for a “symbol”, and I do not believe thousands of martyrs both known and unknown suffered on earth because they were playing “pretend” with bread and wine. If we believe that Christ is telling the Truth, we will not make excuses and talk about how Jesus Christ didn’t really say what He said the night before He was to suffer and be put to Death. If we don’t accept that we must eat His Body, and drink His Blood, will we leave Him like those crowds who abandoned Him 2,000 years ago? Where shall we go?
You wrote: The three central things which are at the center of our Faith:
1. The Passion of Christ.
2. The Death of Christ on the Cross.
3. The Resurrection of Christ on the Third Day.
Remove one, and all others make no sense. But all Three are made real in the Eucharist, and subsequently the Sacrifice of the Mass, continuously performed for 2,000 years. In the Eucharistic Celebration, we participate in these three events because of the eternal nature of the New and -Everlasting- Covenant.
In reality, the Last Supper and the pasison, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ are a single event. Note, however, that this event is also essentially linked to baptism (see Romans 6:3-5), the font of which is both the tomb in which the old, worldly, self is buried and that gives birth to the new self in Christ.
That said, this event depends upon other truths that are equally essential, including (1) the Trinity, (2) creation and the Fall, (3) the annunciation, incarnation, and birth of Christ, (4) the consequent nature of the person of the Christ, both human and divine, and (5) the final judgement (Heaven and Hell).
Additionally, one clearly does not have Christian faith without Pentecost and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer.
Oh, yes I meant to say the singleness of this event- There was this discussion at Fr. Stephen Smuts’ blog about whether the Eucharist is The Lord’s Supper, or the Sacrifice on the Cross- like you have said, they are all a single event because of theEternal nature of the New Covenant- we agree that Jesus calls it, “The New and Eternal Covenant” (I misspoke with the “everlasting”, but it also points to the same end) Which is to say, the eternal nature of this covenant transcends the notion of time- by the nature of its eternity, it exists where time is rendered meaningless, making those three things, prefigured in the Last Supper, one and the same event- and the same thing that occurs during Mass, when the priest celebrates the Eucharist and raises bread and wine, which at that point are truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord.
I wonder if it is too much an assumption to have an opinion that the Eucharist is the end-all, be-all of everything that has happened in our Salvation History? That Adam and Eve fell through their own will against the will of God, yet God, from all Eternity, had foreseen it, and had already planned the Salvation of mankind, as He revealed through the Prophets in the course of our history, and the unfolding of His Will at the present…
That maybe… The New Testament does not really end with the Book of Revelations, and the Acts of the Apostles in fact spill into Church History, or the Epistles of Peter are the first Papal Encyclicals. At the center of all these things, still, is the Eucharist.
You wrote: There was this discussion at Fr. Stephen Smuts’ blog about whether the Eucharist is The Lord’s Supper, or the Sacrifice on the Cross…
As usual in Christian theology, it’s both-and because the two are one.
In this context, it’s imperative to understand the nature of sacrifice in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the sacrifices of the old testament, the animal was slaughtered and then some parts of the animal (then considered to be the most succulent, but now known to be the fattiest and thus the parts that actually would burn) were burned as God’s portion and other parts were consumed by those offering the sacrifice. The whole concept is that of atonement (“at-one-ment”) — that those who offer the sacrifice are so united with God that they sit down at table fellowship and dine with him. Thus, the “altar” is a table and the “table” is an altar. This is true also of the Christian eucharist, where the sacrifice of Calvary becomes present and we partake of its fruits, albeit with a novel twist: the Jews were forbidden to drink of the blood of a sacrificed animal because to do so was to take on the life of that animal, which would have been beneath human dignity, but we partake of the blood of Christ as well as his flesh and thus take on the life of Christ, partaking not only of his humanity but also of his divinity.
You wrote: … we agree that Jesus calls it, “The New and Eternal Covenant” (I misspoke with the “everlasting”, but it also points to the same end)…
I’m not sure that you did misspeak. In this context, I don’t see a difference between “eternal” and “everlasting.”
You asked: I wonder if it is too much an assumption to have an opinion that the Eucharist is the end-all, be-all of everything that has happened in our Salvation History?
That’s a very insightful question. Clearly all of the sacrifices of the old testament prefigure the eucharist, which is also the “wedding feast of the Lamb” of Revelation.
Now that you brought up the connection with the ancient practice of animal sacrifice, I do recall Bishop Fulton Sheen state in one of his radio broadcasts that there cannot be any atonement without the shedding of blood- and now that I’ve thought more carefully about it- it makes sense: If we look at Scripture and human history, there was a system in which acts of disobedience and sin were countered with an acts of repentance, and what struck me is the consistent theme of the shedding of blood. From Canaanites to Aztecs and even in our time, there is always blood involved- The book of Leviticus states: “It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life…”
.Even in the most basic sense, if someone hurt you, you’d want to hurt them back, at its most extreme, capital punishment- but this form of justice shifted from a form of institutionalized human sacrifice (Killing another to satisfy an injustice) into slaughtering beautiful and perfect animals that you would prize as a source of nourishment. (Which is maybe why Abel’s offering was favored than that of Cain’s- it takes so much effort to raise and care for animals- at times, one gets attached to them and name them, feel for their sufferings- with all due respect to farmers, one cannot get attached to stalks of corn and call it “Betsy” or feel some sadness when it’s cut down- corn does not cry, nor does it wander off by itself. Maybe the entire episode of Cain and Abel is one of the many echoes of what The Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God did and still does for us?)
So what made Jesus’ death special was that it was foretold by the prophets hundreds of years before he was born to a people destined to have a relationship with God; that God would send someone to carry ALL of the world’s sins and restore the sort of relationship Adam and Eve had with God before they sinned against Him. Jesus’ sacrifice was consistent not only with the prophecies, but also the ritual of sacrifice to God- he was not sinful and was unblemished- what is the perfect sacrifice to God other than God himself?
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Your quote of one of the comments: The fault line of division within this particular body is the irreconcilable presence of those who insist that women MUST be ordained and those who insist that they CANNOT, resulting in a church that is not in communion with itself. That just can’t last long.
I agree completely that, with respect to ordination of women, the “musts” and the “cannots” simply cannot coexist in the same community because these positions are mutually irreconcilable. That said, this is an issue in which each extreme has a fundamental problem.
>> First, the “musts”: The plain reality is that the church did not ordain women for a period of over nineteen centuries. If ordination of women were necessary, an invalid practice endured for this period and apostolic succession could not have survived, with the consequence that apostolic succession would not exist today.
>> Second, the “cannots” (hold on a moment here while I don my flameproof suit for protection from what the Latin Pimpernel and others of similar mind are about to hurl in my direction): The plain reality is that the sacrament of baptism makes a male capable of receiving ordination, for one cannot ordain a male who is not baptized. The problem here is that if baptism does not also make a woman capable of receiving ordination, one in fact has two baptisms — one conferred on men and the other conferred on women — that differ materially in effect. This is, of course, irreconcilable with the plain teaching of scripture that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” (see Ephesians 4:5). Perhaps there is a way to reconcile this reality with the “cannot” position, but I don’t see how and the Vatican’s statements on the subject have not done so.
To be clear, I am NOT advocating any change in the present discipline of the church by raising the second of these issues. Indeed, such a change in discipline is far from opportune, the most profound being that it would create additional obstacles to ecumenical relations with the Orthodox Communion and the ancient oriental churches, none of which ordain women. I also should point out that the second of these issues does not in any way abrogate the canon declaring the ordination of women to be null and void, for that canon merely reflects the intrinsic defect of intent that is inherent in any action contrary to the intent of the universal church, nor is it in any way contrary to the statement by Pope John Paul II that he lacks the authority to change the discipline, for one whose ministry is to maintain and to restore the unity of the church (see the encyclical Ut unam sint) clearly does not have authority knowingly to create new obstacles to unity.
You make good points Rev22:17. Your point about the implications of one baptism is very important I think. But, if I may, I would like to tease out the overall problem a little further.
Though a conflict between “musts” and “cannots” may have the implication you describe, it is only if here “cannots” means “must not” and if “musts” means “always must have been” and then only if one assumes that the entire sacramental edifice depends on gender considerations which I think is akin to assuming what must be proved where the “cannots” position is concerned.
I think there is a simpler and less devastating conflict, between the “cans” and “cannots”. I am not so sure that most advocates for women’s ordination argue that an all-male priesthood is invalid, so much as that they argue that the possibility of women’s ordination should not be denied now and in the future, given a new moral and social consciousness about human relations and the place and dynamics of men and women in society etc. A “cans” position may imply – and I suspect usually implies – only “no reason why not” or to “ought to from now on”. I don’t see that the “cans” position – a permissive one – necessarily impugns the validity of the previous dispensation.
I admit that from a logical point of view, “cans” and “cannots” are direct contradictories, but what other disagreements do people co-exist with? Perhaps it is only when, as you say, the conflict becomes one of extremes that the force of a church’s claim to moral authority or pastoral effectiveness is wounded.
You wrote: Though a conflict between “musts” and “cannots” may have the implication you describe, it is only if here “cannots” means “must not” and if “musts” means “always must have been” and then only if one assumes that the entire sacramental edifice depends on gender considerations which I think is akin to assuming what must be proved where the “cannots” position is concerned.
Rather, “cannot” means impossibility. An attempt to do what cannot be done does not achieve that end. You cannot drive an automobile with an empty fuel tank because it won’t run without fuel. Of course, one normally does not attempt what one knows that one cannot do.
That said, the “can” position is permissive, but not compelling. Thus, the “cans” generally can accommodate either the “cannots” (by agreeing not to) or the “musts” (by agreeing to) in the interest of unity. Of course, there is obviously no way for the “cans” to accommodate both the “cannots” and the “musts.”
Any “must” position that does not include “always muat have been” obviously bears the burden to explain what event caused a change that makes a practice followed up to now cease to be valid for the future.
You wrote: I admit that from a logical point of view, “cans” and “cannots” are direct contradictories….
Not really. The key point is that “can” indicates capacity, but not obligation, to act, whereas “must” indicates obligation.
Thank you, Deborah, for this comment. It certainly is true that the Catholic Faith is seamless and that tampering, even in “lesser” matters can have unforeseen results. However, I don’t see this issue as one of cutting out, but rather of adding in something incompatible — applying the concept of holy orders where it had never before been applied — and finding the need to adjust theology to accommodate the new view. This applies to many ‘second order’ concepts whose introduction results in similar adjustments. I don’t want to get an argument going, and feel that your blog would be an inappropriate place to do so, but find I need to comment on why I, sadly, have not been able to take the road you’ve taken into the Ordinariate and the Roman Church. It is similar: I see the Papal claims, especially infallibility as similar weakening additions to the fabric of Catholic faith, and see how much of RC teaching has had to be adjusted to fit these claims. I just wanted to mention this viewpoint as an illustration of how distinctly secondary issues (such as I feel the papacy to be) impact the understanding of larger issues of the faith. I’ve said my piece and probably won’t be heard here again.
Strip away the “fellowship” opportunity and the personality cult around the presenter and I find the Alpha course pretty thin. Marketing hype has convinced many that it is some kind of magic template for successful evangelism whose theological bias is slight and safely overlooked. But to say “This is the lowest common denominator of Christianity, before we get on to sacraments and that controversial stuff” is already a polemical statement, in my opinion. Catholic teaching is not some kind of second layer to be put on top of a basic Christian crust.
Well. the Alpha course is, like all introductions, intended to be thin — not as a “least common denominator”, but as what you need to know in order to begin. In its essence it is not a course in theology at all, but an introduction to a Person, to Jesus Christ. This is just what the Early Church did. Instruction did not begin with sacraments, but with the basics: Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is sin? How can I be ‘saved’? Under the discipline of secrecy, Catechumens were not even allowed to attend the Mass of the Faithful, but only the initial instructional part of the liturgy. When one was instructed in these basics, however, one was not done learning. The three basic things Joannes mentioned were not complete in themselves, but led to the sacraments, to sacramental initiation in Baptism and the Laying-on-of-Hands, and to the Eucharist — but these latter (and highly important) matters were not taught or more than hinted at until the introduction had been made.
Alpha is not a course for Christians at all (though even mature Christians can always use a refresher, and their presence can be a strengthener for those for whom the course is intended). Alpha is a course for inquirers who do not yet know what Christianity actually is — who do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior; and Alpha is supposed to leave the inquirer hungry to know more, having met Jesus, to find out how to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling”. Any presentation of the course without those objectives (and I’ve seen such things) is missing the point.
Thank you, Ed Pacht. And frankly, many Catholics who know the propositions of their faith backwards and forwards make me wonder if they ever got the “basic Christian crust” or that foundational relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Perhaps mega-churches are able to fill Alpha courses with inquiring non-Christians but that would certainly not have been the experience at Mrs Gyapong’s parish or at any church I know of that has used it.
I know someone who was asked not to return to an Alpha course, after the third session, because he was “asking the wrong sort of questions”. He was rather bemused about this, as he’s quite an amiable and easy-going chap and went along as a “lukewarm Christian” with a genuine interest to learn more about his faith.
I don’t know whether it is the nature of the course, or whether it was a problem with that particular presentation, but the course leaders got quite flustered when he asked questions that weren’t on their list of discussion points or, on the last occasion, when he said that he didn’t think that a particular point had been proved by the foregoing presentation. He said that he asked no more questions than did others in the group and far fewer than some. At that time he was a Baptist but he subsequently became Orthodox (several years before that particular idea entered my own head).
You wrote: Perhaps mega-churches are able to fill Alpha courses with inquiring non-Christians but that would certainly not have been the experience at Mrs Gyapong’s parish or at any church I know of that has used it.
Unfortunately, many Catholic parishes could fill such a course with their own parishionners who never developed a relationship with the Lord. Even more sadly, there are more than a few Catholic dioceses that cold fill such a course with their own clergy who never developed a relationship with the Lord. But the same is true of the Anglican Communion and many mainstream Protestant denominations.
During a day of recollection at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana last month, the presenter attributed to “an Irish cardinal” a remark to the effect that Irish Catholics are the most catechized, and least evangelized, in the world. He went on to explain that “catechisation” is about teaching doctrinal truths, whereas “evangelization” is about developing a personal relationship with the Lord. It is no surprise that the pope’s “new evangelization” is directed internally at the clergy and the members of the Catholic Church.
Over the years, I have met more than a few adults who returned to the Catholic Church after a hiatus in an evangelical Protestant congregation. It was only when built upon the foundation of the secure relationship with the Lord that they formed in the evangelical congregation that the whole of Catholic doctrine made sense. Built on shifting sand, it had crumbled.
Pope Pius XII once said: Dogmatic Theology is sterile without Scriptural Theology.
Norm, I was responding to Ed Pacht’s comment that the Alpha course is intended as a course for inquirers, not Christians. He seemed to be stating this as a fact and I have no reason to believe otherwise. Mrs Gyapong was giving her opinion about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus and whether other people did or didn’t have one. This is not the sort of thing I would feel competent to comment on.
You wrote: Mrs Gyapong was giving her opinion about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus and whether other people did or didn’t have one. This is not the sort of thing I would feel competent to comment on.
How sad. Such a relationship is the real essence of Christian faith. The sacraments are intended to be expressions thereof.
But you are far from alone.
BTW, if you click the “Reply” link at the end of the post to which you are responding before typing your reply, your reply will appear under that post in the hierarchical layout. If there is no “Reply” link under the post (indicating that the post is at the last level), you can use the “Reply” link under its parent post instead so your reply will at least appear in the same part of the tree. This makes it easier for everybody to follow the threads of conversation.