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
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
"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.
* * * * *
ALPHA be used in a Catholic Context?
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
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].
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].
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
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
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
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:
- How is it that there are those in
the Church who choose to use ALPHA in the name of the Church in
a Catholic parish?
- How is it that material containing
such error can be used with equanimity by those concerned?
- Is it not a serious matter that the
faithful's understanding of the Faith will be endangered and confused
and those seeking to know the Catholic Faith misled?
- Is it not a serious matter that Catholics
are unable to freely uphold the teachings of the Church in their
own Catholic parishes?
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
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
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.