PIERS MCGRANDLE previews a powerful new tool for evangelism which has swept through the Protestant Churches and now is to be put to work in Catholic parishes in London this week. It may be effective, but is it truly Catholic?
DYN WIC. Revolut i onar y. Phenomenal. These are just some of the breathless words that have been applied to the Alpha course, a 10-week introduction to Christianity that has won converts all over the country.
The Alpha phenomenon takes another massive step forward this week. On Wednesday and Thursday, 15-16 May, the course will hold its first meeting for Catholics. This will be at Westminster Hall, next to the Cathedral. Cardinal Hume's support is published in the Alpha publicity literature. Growth of the Alpha course is phenomenal many Church leaders believe it could transform the state of Christianity in this country.
Four years ago there were fewer than 10 Alpha courses, and only in Britain. Emanating from the controversially evangelistic Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Brompton, there are now more than 4,500 courses throughout thre world, with many more registering every month.
The book of the course has sold more than 100,000; around 120,000 people are estimated to be involved in this country and abroad.
But what is the Alpha course? Simply put and Alpha is nothing if not simple the course splits into 10 evening classes, with a weekend away and a final supper to cement relationships established on the course. It is a slow and steady process; expect no Morris Cerullo-style histrionics on the first night.
The course, which has been described as "the single most effective form of direct evangelisation in common use today" is directed towards nonchurchgoers and those who have recently become Christians.
Critics claim that so far its clientele is predominately upper middle-class (it proves very popular with bankers and solicitors), but its appeal is to people from a wide range of backgrounds. And it works, which is why Catholics are so keen to jump on the bandwagon.
Its simple, direct, superbly marketed style attracts the young and fills Churches in a way that no other course has done.
When the Churches' big problem is in attracting youth, it is encouraging that Bishop Ambrose Griffiths of Hexham and Newcastle can endorse it as "a very fine and compelling presentation of the Christian faith". Fr Martin Thompson, the director of adult education in the Arundel and Brighton diocese, is equally supportive. "Alpha has two elements evangelisation of the unchurched, and renewal in the basics of the faith for those already going to church. Thus I think that it could be very useful for what needs to be done in our diocese."
But there are many Catholic critics of the Alpha course. Some fear that the Alpha course could supplant the Church's own RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). This implements Vatican II's renewed approach to the catechumenate and is similar to Alpha in its energising and evangelising effect. But with more Catholic churches adopting Alpha, the very flexible and community-rooted RCIA approach may be jeopardised.
CATHOLIC charismatic David Payne, who is running the Catholic Alpha course, says: "There are plans to link the course in to Catholic doctrine and parish life, and we'd want to cover that at the conference".
Another serious point is doctrinal. Recently, Catholic priests in Kensington deanery rejected plans to introduce the course into their churches. One priest muttered that he found the course "unCatholic".
UnCatholic? Recently, Rev Sandy Millar, the pioneering vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, gave an impressive defence of his course to a sceptical Catholic audience at Allen Hall, Chelsea. Many were impressed.
Dr Martyn Percy, director of theology and religious studies at Christ's College, Cambridge, is aware of the problem: "The Alpha course is very uncritical and evangelical; it doesn't seem to have the first idea what Roman Catholics believe in doctrinally, ecclesiastically or culturally.
"How do you learn about Christ, baptism and the Eucharist in a context that is wholly Evangelical?
You cannot forget that there is a repository of material; Christianity is not just one thing, with all denominations being cosmetic."
But where the Alpha course really falls short is in its unCatholic assumpdon that one can become a general "Christian" and then can pick out a Church to worship in. Dr Percy gives the course 10 years.
But judging by the demand for next week's course, that could be an underestimate.