The Alpha Course

Calvin BrownRev. Calvin Brown is the Executive Director of the Renewal Fellowship within the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Jesus is described as Alpha and Omega in the New Testament. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The English word "alphabet" comes itself from the first two letters of the Greek language and, in effect, says your A-B-C's. There is a course, named Alpha, developed at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, England that teaches people the A-B-C's of the Christian faith. It is not merely a matter of a little course in theology but is a short course in the "experience" of Christianity as well. In some ways it reminds me of the Cursillo movement developed by Spanish Christians where people begin with a weekend course on basic Christianity and experience warm Christian fellowship as well. Cursillo, in which I serve as one of many spiritual Directors, has been adopted as an official program in our denomination but operates essentially independently within denominational structures, much like the Renewal Fellowship. Alpha, while not "officially" recognized, is being adopted by many congregations as a vital renewing movement and a springboard for evangelism and revitalization. It has the added advantage of being readily available and widely used ecumenically. As you will see from the articles in this issue some communities offer it on an ecumenical basis.

I think Alpha is indicative of a real spiritual hunger among the laity for answers to their deep questions. In many places the professional clergy no longer seem to be certain of the answers themselves and like so many other areas of life "lay" people are seeking their own answers through their own study. This makes us ask two important questions as we enter a new millennium. First: What lay education can the church offer to satisfy this spiritual hunger (and I would add whatever it is, it must take into consideration both the "experience" and the "understanding")? People are tired of the half-answers that come from either our over-intellectualizing the faith or forsaking the mind for a transient emotional experience.

The second question is: What went so far wrong with theological education and the training of clergy so that there is no longer confidence in their spiritual leadership? Both questions beg for an immediate answer. This year's General Assembly will be making decisions that address, in part, the second question. It concerns the matter of appointing Principals to our Theological Colleges. Often the leadership will determine the direction of the College and the resultant effectiveness. The Principals are charged by the church with the awesome task of leading the faculty in training pastors and teachers for God's people. But one College within the Toronto School of Theology (to which we belong through Knox College) has surveyed its theological faculty and discovered that the majority no longer believed in classical Christian beliefs like the physical resurrection of Jesus or the divinity of Jesus. It is no wonder that a graduate of that College, the current United Church Moderator, now publicly denies the faith, and says, in effect, it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you show concern for social justice (see John Stackhouse's article). Similarly, in the Presbyterian Church, USA, there is a controversy dealing with the same matters — an American church publication reports that the "official" study paper of the Social Witness Policy Committee entitled "Community Among Strangers" says that religious convictions divide the human community and concludes that Presbyterians should promote peace by denying the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Many are recommending the report be rejected. In a prominent American seminary a conservative but world-renowned scholar, Jack Kingsbury, is under pressure for speaking out against slipping commitment to the faith. It is reported that "Kingsbury found disfavour with the seminary administration in 1996 when he criticized publicly the work of Union professor Douglas Otatti, who denies the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, rejects historic Christian faith in a personal God, and teaches an interpretation of Scripture that undercuts its authority." In our own Canadian Presbyterian seminaries a similar left-leaning trend is growing in both theology and the public expression of support for sinful sexual practices. Although the church has always considered some acts sinful and which (like the American Presbyterians) we have again just recently — in general statements of sexuality and in our response to a particular case — said were not allowed to be practised by our church leadership, some of our College faculty press for its acceptance. Brian Fraser, in the official history of Knox College entitled Church, College, and Clergy, also noted the trend at Knox toward excluding from professorships those moderates or classical Christians he refers to as the "Orthodox Confessionalists" — that is, those who hold to traditional Presbyterian beliefs and the convictions that as Presbyterians we are accountable to our faith statements. Writing of the last several decades beginning in the sixties he observed: "One voice that was not heard from within the faculty during this period was that of the continuing confessional orthodox wing of the church. Though representatives of this worldview were nominated regularly for Chairs at Knox, none was appointed" (p.171). This, to the detriment of the whole church, is still happening. Perhaps it is time that the church through the Assembly insists that this trend which has greatly weakened the evangelism and church growth of our denomination be reversed. We need to "gird up our loins" and say it is time to appoint someone who is committed to classical biblical Christianity to lead us in training pastors who will be clear about their convictions and committed to the reformed Presbyterian confessions that reflect biblical faith and which God through time has used to transform whole cultures to righteousness and faithfulness.

This year's Assembly has an opportunity to continue the recovery — to renew — the church's basic commitment to traditional Christian faith. Studies show that conservative churches are growing churches and I believe that is because when the gospel is clear the results also become clear, and the lives changed bear ample witness to the power and reality of Jesus. As one recent sign reminded me: It is not so important that Jesus lived and died but that he died and lives!