Friday, 10 June 2011

Alpha - the most effective ecumenical movement in the world today?

I have been involved this week in speaking the Alpha International Week at HTB. It has been a remarkable week in all kinds of ways, people finding their vision for church and evangelism renewed, making new contacts and friendships, and hearing all kinds of fascinating stories from all over the world. Everyone feels they know about Alpha, but one of the most remarkable aspects of it for me, is a factor often unnoticed from the outside - the extent to which it brings together an unlikely, but astonishing mix of different types of Christians. I remember the first time I spoke at one of these events around 5 years ago, pausing half way through my talk, while the reality of what was happening dawned on me. I was speaking to a group of around 70-80 people in a seminar, and I realised that in the corner were a group of Russian Orthodox, gathered around a bearded black-robed priest; in another corner were a group of Nicaraguan Roman Catholic nuns, elsewhere were scattered groups of Northern Irish Presbyterians, American Methodists, Finnish Lutherans, English Anglicans - you name it, they were there. Most of the time when I teach, I speak to (mainly) Anglicans with a few scattered Baptists, independents etc. But never had I spoken to such a group representing the worldwide church like this.

This past week, I spoke to a group of over 100 bishops and archbishops from a bewildering range of churches. There were Roman Catholic bishops from Colombia, Peru and Brazil, Anglican bishops from  Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana, a Presbyterian Moderator from Belarus, Orthodox bishops with square-topped hats from Bulgaria and Romania. And those were only the ones I could idenitify - heaven knows where all the others came from. I went with them to Lambeth Palace on Tuesday for Morning Prayer with the Archbishop. It was a bit chaotic, with most of them completely ignoring the careful instructions as to how to say the Psalms and canticles, but the sound of the Lord's Prayer being said simultaneously in countless different languages will linger in the mind for a long time.

Having spoken at these things for a number of years now, I tend to take it all for granted, but once again this week, I found myself wondering where else in the world would you get this range of people in one room? Where else is there anything of comparable ecumenical power?

One the one hand it says something about the power of mission to unite. It is often conceded that the ecumenical movement of the C20th died a death of a thousand conferences, consultations, minutes, resulutions, agreement and disagreements. Apart from some notable succeses such as the churches of North and South India, there are precious few evidences of real organic and structural unity brought about by official ecumenism, and where there are, little evidence that the resulting amalgamated denominations arrested decline in any significant way. Focus on unity and you will never unite. Focus on mission, and you might have a chance. It is not accidental that the gathering I found myself in this week focussed around the Alpha Course, which is at the end of the day, an attempt to do something about evangelism in a difficult cultural context - an attempt to facilitate a conversation about faith in which people can discover Jesus for themselves. Only when we focus on something outside ourselves and our own concerns do we find some real unity happening. Ironcially, Alpha is ecumenically effective precisely because it does not focus on ecumenism.

On the other hand, it taught me about the sheer size and power of the Christian church when it comes together. Despite differences of language, culture, dress, liturgy, ethics, even doctrine, there was throughout the week a strong sense of how much we have in common. Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Church, Holy Spirit, the Future Hope - we might all understand these things slightly differently (and yes, being a student of the Reformation, I do know how different), yet the richness of classic Christian faith, the sheer weight of history, prayer, thinking, experience and suffering that binds this unlikely group together was almost palpable. Ultimately there is one church, not many, the church birthed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, existing in many forms and shapes, with the person of Jesus at the centre.

Alpha is sometimes dismissed as simplistic or too corporate - we all know the criticisms. But it has managed to keep its focus on the key task of sharing the faith, holding it out to a hungry world, and as a result, slowly, but surely this 'collateral blessing' (as the Bishop-designate of Durham called it) has emerged, bringing Christians together in a way few other things in the world can do. I think Jesus might have liked it.

Williams and Cameron

Two things strike me about the Rowan Williams media frenzy of the last couple of days. One is not so much what he says, but the level of interest in what he says. The New Statesman article is characteristically intelligent, thoughtful, perhaps even a little opaque at times, but if it had been written by any other person (except perhaps Prince Philip) would it have gained anything like the same coverage? On the surface it is a critique of current political debate similar to what you find every day in the broadsheets, but when the ABC says it, it has a lot more power. Christians sometimes moan that no-one listens to the church any more, or that our leaders don't speak out: but this shows the opposite. There is an intense interest when a Christian leader, as the voice of the nation's conscience, speaks to government, as Rowan has done.

The other thing is the level of misreporting. The piece seems to me a model of how to speak to government. It takes no sides, but has some uncomfortable questions for both government and opposition. The Government needs to explain its big idea more clearly. The Opposition needs to find one. Otherwise we are stuck:

"Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present. It isn't enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of, "This is the last government's legacy," and, "We'd like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit." To acknowledge the reality of fear is not necessarily to collude with it. But not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse. Equally, the task of opposition is not to collude in it, either, but to define some achievable alternatives. And, for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie."

Does that sound to you like the one-sided rant the Telegraph reported, or David Cameron responded to? The PM seems to have read the Telegraph, but not the original article, which just illustrates exactly the point about the poverty of political debate that RW is making.

At the end, the Archbishop starts to lay out a Christian communal vision, an idea of a society which is about "the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility". It perhaps needs a snappier title, but to my mind that is a more promising and attractive 'big idea' than either left or right have at the moment.

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