We have been informed that the Alpha course is once again rearing its head in a number of parishes in England & Wales. We are are, therefore, re-publishing this warning article from CF NEWS


Tim Matthews

CF News Editor Tim Matthews writes : In an email of December 3, 2015, Raymond Cardinal Burke wrote a ;’It has come to my attention that a program called ‘Alpha in a Catholic Context’ has been recommended to some Marian Catechists. ‘Having studied the program, both from the perspective of doctrine and methodology, I must make it clear that the program may not be used, in any form, in the Marian Catechist Apostolate and that Marian Catechists are not to become involved with it. [My emphasis]

He continued: ‘While, like so many similar programs, Alpha may seem to offer a more attractive and effective form of evangelization and catechesis, it does not have the doctrinal and methodological foundations required for the teaching of the Catholic Faith’.

The Cardinal recommended that, instead, catechists should base their teaching on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the courses of Father John Hardon, S.J., and his own Commentary on the General Directory for Catechesis.

Alpha was started in 1977 by Charles Marnham, a curate at Brompton’s Holy Trinity church,  later developed by curates John Irvine and the Rev. Nicky Gumble, a non-Catholic who believes that all religions in general are the same and that within Christianity, not much really separates Catholicism from those who follow the Protestant heresy.

Alpha is big business built on copyrights, target figures, line charts and multi-million pound advertising campaigns, and because it is copyright ‘Catholic Alpha’ MUST use the basic Alpha course as it stands. (Gumble was especially resistant to the idea of local adaptation: `If I went to McDonalds in Moscow and was given a ham sandwich, I would say that’s not on’) But the program is so theologically deficient (Catholics are actually told that ‘denominational distinctives’ must left out of Alpha) that a Catholic Office’s Post Alpha Catholic Teaching [PACT] appendix has had to be added to it.

This PACT appendix gives unequivocal support and praise of Alpha as a starting point but it does not clarify and correct any of Alpha’s basic errors as regards the Church’s teaching. These errors, absorbed after ten weeks of Alpha teaching of 15 video sessions, are therefore allowed to stand with the apparent blessing of the Church.

The Catholic Gazette called Alpha a ‘pre-catechetical course’, claiming that ‘it looks at some of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith’ [p. 5] – but this is just not true. Alpha is, rather, based on Gumble’s Questions of Life, which by commission and omission, proposes (as Cardinal Burke says) an ecclesiology and a sacramental theology, contrary in essence to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Alpha teaches that Revelation is based on the Bible alone. But, as St John Paul II reminds us, 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].

Alpha’s understanding 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, N. Gumbel, p. 21]. Alpha’s understanding of ‘Universal Church’ is of an amalgamation, a sum total, of all who believe in Christ that consists of all those worldwide who profess the name of Christ’ [Questions of Life, N. Gumbel, p. 221].

The Catholic Church is referred to as one of many Christian denominations and Alpha implies that to link an understanding of the term ‘Church’ to any one particular denominational church is an image that should be buried [Questions of Life, p. 220] It is a view, according to Alpha, `wholly inadequate when compared to the picture of the church in the New Testament’ (ibid).

Gumbel drives this message home emphatically: ‘ 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

The Catholic Church, on the contrary, teaches the necessity of a unity of Faith.

Alpha’s teaching on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist is based on the lowest common denominator approach — of what will be found acceptable by the majority of major Christian denominations and traditions. ‘Teaching on the sacraments’, says Gumble, ‘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 as being instituted by Christ and as communicating grace.

Alpha’s key book, Gumble’s Questions of Life, is recommended as course reading. It contains all these errors and many more written in a plausible and readable style. Unless error is corrected at the time when Alpha is used in a Catholic context, the error will stand and, inevitably, will be absorbed by some of those attending. That, says one member of faithful who went on an Alpha course, was certainly her experience.

The errors, she said, 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 that the discussions went was such that it precluded any objective discussion. ‘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 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’.

`Local Church’ is understood by Alpha in three ways, in terms of ‘celebration’ — a large gathering of Christians, a ‘congregation’, a medium-sized gathering, and a ‘cell’ or 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 recognizes 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’ [p. 229]. This, of course, is contrary in essence to the Church’s teaching.

With regards to the Sacrament of Baptism, Alpha understands it in terms of a Church membership ritual alone that does not confer but rather confirms something that has already taken place. Alpha believes 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, lay or clerical, to invoke the coming down of the Holy Spirit.

There is a strong emphasis placed on healing (sixteen pages) and speaking in tongues. (eight pages). People are told to pray and ask for this gift of speaking in tongues 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].

Our Lady is not part of Alha and there is an implicit rejection of the Immaculate Conception..

In short, Alpha is not Catholic and 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 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 Alpha format of supper, video and discussion is undoubtedly a good idea. Their 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. They do little to get across what Catholic teaching is. It is unavoidable that the PACT material appears 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) is left to stand, unqualified, in its integrity.

In the PACT video Why should I listen to the Church? there is a lack of clarification over the understanding of what is understood by the ‘Church’. This leads to a watered-down understanding of the Catholic Church as a teaching church that has authority. Alpha makes it sounds like just another point of view, another opinion.

In the PACT video Why bother going to Mass?, there is a lack of clarification of the meaning of a Sacrament as communicating grace. There is one brief listing of the seven sacraments in name only, given in a somewhat offhand way as, in a jocular fashion, the priest speaker appears to momentarily forget some of the seven.

In spite of all this the Catholic Alpha Office claims that Alpha

  • provides an effective tool for evangelization
  • feeds RCIA and other programmes

In reality the Alpha program appears to run quite contrary to the Church’s teaching on the principles of Evangelisation and catechesis as set out in the encyclical Faith and Reason.; Alpha’s teachings are to a great degree contrary in essence to the teachings of the Church in fundamental respects; 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?


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