Alpha - the most effective ecumenical movement in the world today?
In this article Graham Tomlin talks about Alpha International Week and the power of ecumenicalism.
Graham Tomlin outlines that although there may be different interpretations and understandings of various theological and doctrinal subjects, such as the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, the Church, The Holy Spirit and Future Hope, that the riches and heritage of the Christian faith, the subjects of prayer and experience and suffering should be the glue that unites and holds ecumenicalism together.
Graham Tomlin writes...
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.