Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Alpha and the 'New Evangelization'

by Paul Likoudis


A look at "Alpha", the Protestant evangelization program, which is being promoted by Catholic bishops from England to South Africa, and Canada to Florida.

Larger Work

The Wanderer


1 & 7

Publisher & Date

Wanderer Printing Co., St. Paul, MN, March 7, 2002

St. Paul — In the February 2002 edition of the British Catholic monthly, Christian Order, New Zealander David Selby asks, in the feature article, "The Second Reformation Engulfs New Zealand," questions increasingly on the minds of fellow Catholics:

"What's going on here? Why are our churches full of Protestant ministers calling themselves Catholic priests, and Protestant congregations calling themselves Catholic? Harsh words you may say, but what would Luther, Calvin, or Cranmer recognize them as — Catholics or Protestants?"

What provoked Selby was a parish mission experience where the priest, dressed in his civvies, downplayed, ignored, or rejected every essential item of the Catholic faith, including the Real Presence, Confession, Holy Orders. About 80% of Selby's fellow "Catholics" agreed with the "priest" and rebuked him — Selby — for acting "unecumenical" by insisting on Catholic doctrine.

Selby's experiences are not confined to New Zealand; indeed, they are commonplace throughout the Western world. So the question naturally arises, with Catholics already more or less Protestantized: Why are Catholic bishops from England to South Africa, and Canada to Florida, rushing to promote a Protestant evangelization program called "Alpha"?

The latest American bishop to endorse Alpha, and promote it in his archdiocese, is Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul/Minneapolis. In January, he sent a letter to his priests, deacons, and seminarians praising Alpha as "one of the most effective" evangelization tools available today, and observed:

"Catholic leaders recognize that [it] is consistent with the foundational teaching of the Catholic Church . . . If your parish does not have an active program for the new evangelization, then I strongly urge you to consider Alpha."

What is particularly curious is the embrace of the program by Archbishop Flynn and other Catholic prelates — including William Cardinal Keeler, who is permitting its use in numerous parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore — is that there is no shortage of credible critiques, from evangelical, Anglican, and Catholic sources that the program is designed to create a new breed of "third wave" or "New Age" Christian who is cultish, charismatic, anti-dogmatic, and hostile to traditional Catholic worship, doctrines, and morality.

According to Christian Order's editor, Rod Pead, Alpha is merely "the latest in the long line of New Age/Protestant Trojan horses to be wheeled into Catholic parishes with episcopal blessing."

Pead further says that not only is it a big business, involving an estimated million participants worldwide, "built on copyrights, target figures, line charts, and multi-million pound advertising campaigns," it is a direct descendant of the Toronto Blessing. The latter is "a so-called Baptism of the Holy Spirit which induces hysterical, animal-like behavior (uncontrolled laughter, shaking, gibberish, grunting, howling, etc.) among congregations.

"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 go together'."

Introducing Christian Order's feature article on Alpha for the issue of January 1999, Pead continued:

"One would have thought this connection [with the Toronto Blessing] 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 Hex-ham 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."

And so have many other prelates, including the late Basil Cardinal Hume and Bishop Donald Konstant, the UK's pre-eminent catechetical "expert" who oversaw the demolition of religious education in Britain during the postconciliar period, Archbishop Adam Exner of Vancouver, B.C., among others.

Three years ago, Catholics in the English-speaking world were put on notice that Alpha, with its "Catholic" add-on "elements," was dangerous — specifically by Gillian Van Der Lande in Christian Order, January 1999.

She opened her essay with an admission she had participated in the program.

"As a Catholic who has participated in full in an Alpha course in a Catholic parish and who has viewed, read, and studied the course materials, my short answer to the above question [about whether the program is Catholic] is an unequivocal 'No,' she wrote.

"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."

In his letter encouraging Alpha, Archbishop Flynn asserts that the program is "a well-thought-out approach . . . to reach those outside the Church," and adds: "More Catholic churches in our area are using the course and are seeing lives changed as a result." He also says it "is aimed at those who are not currently churchgoers."

Alpha's official "questions and answers" on the use of the copyrighted program remind users that:

— "Catholic Alpha uses the Alpha course as it stands."

— "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," and quotes program designer Nicky Gumbel: "Teaching on the sacraments is limited, in the sense that we only teach in Alpha what all the major denominations and traditions are agreed about . . . "

As Van Der Lande observed: "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 . . .

"My experience was of received hostility to any form of clarification and defense 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 defense was labeled '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 recognizes only one priesthood, "The priesthood of all believers" (p. 230). The priest is the "elder" of the community, "a leader in the church" but "not a sacrificing priest." The "Eucharist" then is reduced to merely "the Lord's Supper" and is most emphatically not a "sacrifice."

"As regards the Sacrament of Baptism," Van Der Lande continues, "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's 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 himself 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."

Speaking In Tongues

Alpha's link to the Toronto Blessing is highlighted by its emphasis on "speaking in tongues."

Van Der Lande writes that "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, Nicky Gumbel, p. 129)."

Van Der Lande's insight and experience are not unique. Fundamentalist Protestants who are suspicious of the program because Roman Catholics have embraced it, have published hundreds of negative, critical assessments of the program, one of which, published by Mainstream, begins:

"A woman has walked out of her church and is holding services in her living room, because she says she cannot bring herself to 'snort like a pig and bark like a dog' on a Church of England course.

"Angie Golding, 50, claims she was denied confirmation unless she signed up for the Alpha course, which she says is a 'brainwashing' exercise where participants speak in tongues, make animal noises, and then fall over.

"She left the evangelical St. Mark's in Broadwater Down, Kent, with 14 members of the congregation and founded a church at home in Tunbridge Wells. She said, 'I'll be a fool for the Lord any day, but won't be a fool for a man'," reported the summer 1996 issue of Mainstream.

Personal Experience

Having analyzed the program from its own promotional materials, Van Der Lande then described her Alpha day experience:

"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."

Among the components of the "Catholic" add-on "elements" of the program are two tapes, Why Should I Listen to the Church? and Why Bother Going to Mass?

Both will give little reason for an affirmative answer and, indeed, may leave the viewer with reasons to think there are no convincing reasons to either listen to the Church or go to Mass.

The Program

In March 1998, Catholic Alastair Emblem offered a bit of positive publicity on Alpha, in an article titled, "Alpha: The Start of Something Big?" for InUnity, the web site of the Catholic Charismatic Movement in the UK.

"One of the most outstanding signs of revival [of Christianity in England]," he wrote, "is the Alpha course, a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity which is growing so fast and wide that it is difficult to grasp the true extent of its impact . . .

"In addition, the growth in international courses is now starting to follow the same explosive pattern. In 1997 there were 1,200 international courses running, and currently there are at least 67 countries running Alpha, including Russia and many other former Communist countries in Eastern Europe . . .

"What is behind all the impressive statistics? Essentially, nothing new — in fact at heart it is exactly the same as happened at the beginning of the Church: the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. The essential message of Christianity is presented in a clear, compelling, and vibrant way which makes it accessible and relevant to the needs of the 20th century.

"The format of the course has been developed and refined over a number of years, and includes five essential characteristics: A is for Anyone interested in finding out more about the Christian faith. Everyone is welcome. L is for Learning and laughter. It is possible to learn about the Christian faith and have fun at the same time. The talks are all available on video, presented by Rev. Nicky Gumbel in a relaxed, amusing, yet highly informative and compelling style. P is for Pasta and pudding. Eating a meal together at the start of their meeting gives people an opportunity to get to know each other, and develops important community and social links.

"H is for Helping one another. Small groups after each week's presentation give you a chance to discuss issues raised in the talks. A is for Ask anything. Alpha is a place where no question is regarded as too simple or hostile."

A contrary view was expressed by Stephen Sizer, the Anglican rector of St. John's Stoke, near Guild-ford, who has become extremely concerned about the New Age and charismatic origins of Alpha, which he has traced back to the Toronto Blessing and the Word of Faith Movement, and even to revived ancient gnostic heresies.

Sizer writes:

"The Word of Faith movement, also known as the 'Faith' movement, represents a group of powerful and influential neo-Pentecostal church leaders and televangelists who, through their broadcasts, reach several hundred million viewers worldwide every week (Ankerberg & Weldon, 1990, p. 9). They include Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Rodney Howard-Browne, Benny Hinn, Maurice Cerullo, and David Yonggi Cho.

"Central to their teaching is the concept that 'faith' is a force that once appropriated, unlocks the universe, and God's blessing. These men and their disciples like Rodney Howard-Browne are influencing many church leaders in Britain who have embraced their heretical ideas.

"The 'Faith' Movement believes that the human mind and tongue contain a supernatural ability or power. When a person speaks expressing his faith in supposedly divine laws, his positive thoughts and positive verbal expression allegedly produce a 'divine force' that will heal, produce wealth, bring success, and in other ways influence the environment.

"According to the 'Faith' teachers, God automatically responds and accomplishes what we command when we positively confess our needs and desires in faith (Ankerberg and Weldon, 1993, P.6).

"Benny Hinn, infamous for his claim that God revealed to him that there are nine in the Trinity, is representative of the 'Faith Movement,' and coincidentally worked in Toronto for many years. He has had a profound influence on the Church through his flamboyant ministry, unorthodox theological speculations, and extra-biblical revelations . . .

"John Wimber's Vineyard Movement shows similarities with the 'Faith' teachers. It has taught that the Western church needs a major paradigm shift in worldview from one that is rationalistic and 'Book' centered, to a more supernatural and experience related stance. Thus Wimber's emphasis has shifted from proclamation of the Word of God to a demonstration of the Holy Spirit's power — hence his 'power evangelism' and 'power healing' (Jo Gardner and Rachel Tingle, 'Ticket to Toronto' The Churchman, vol. 109, n. 1, 1995).

"Similarly, under the heading 'Purple Haze: The Inducement of Mental Minimalism,' Alan Mom-son traces the gnosticism and anti-intellectualism of some elements of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement, and in particular that of John Wimber. For example, former Quaker and rock guitarist John Wimber . . . openly advocates a 'paradigm shift' away from thinking with Western logic into the exclusively experimental way of Oriental thinking — a concept thoroughly in line with the mystical ideology of the New Gnosticism."

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