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franciscan - May 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

On the Way

by Stephen Venner

The governors of a Church primary school were discussing candidates for a senior appointment. They were being very thorough and business-like, having all filled in professional-looking charts on each candidate and having awarded marks for each category of the job description and person specification. The chairman (the parish priest) then asked: ‘What marks did you give X for Christian commitment?’ The Head was flabbergasted. ‘How do you begin to mark someone’s commitment out of five? Surely only God can judge that!’ If I were asked to award myself marks, all I could say would be ‘I hope that I am a better Christian than I was. I hope that I will improve.’ In other words, I would hope that I was ‘On the Way’.

The Report of that name arose from a Church of England General Synod motion in 1991 which included a request that the House of Bishops (in consultation with the Boards of Education and Mission and the Liturgical Commission) prepare a paper on ‘patterns of nurture in the faith, including the Catechumenate’. Bishop John Dennis chaired this (a Franciscan Tertiary, incidentally) and Mrs Sarah James (also contributing to this issue of franciscan) were members, together with several others of us. The Report tries to cover the diversity of people seeking to join God’s Church, the different experiences they bring, the growing number of people who have little or no contact with, or understanding of, God or his Church, and the increasing demands of Christians to be helped to grow.

Two Starting Points

We found two basic starting points. First, baptism as a process and second, the faith caught more than taught. We have suffered from a long tradition, especially with infant baptism, of seeing baptism as an end. We prepare for it and celebrate it. The child is then baptised - i.e. ‘done’. This is even more true of confirmation. Congregations have often complained that this is seen as a ‘passing-out parade’. We need to re-discover that we are all in the business of learning to live out the baptised life. It is not insignificant that after his baptism, Jesus did not have a party to celebrate. Instead, he went into retreat in the wilderness, in order to discover with God what God wanted him to do with his life and how he might achieve it. Likewise, part of our Christian discipleship is to learn to be missionaries and evangelists: agents of the Kingdom of God. Bishop John Finney has shown that most people are brought to the threshold of faith by the influence of family, friends and other individuals. And that influence is largely due to what those people are and do, more than what they say. In other words, faith is actually caught rather than taught.

Catechumenate and Alpha

Stemming from the Roman Catholic Church, after Vatican II, but widely adapted for Anglican use (notably by Canon Peter Ball in his Adult Way to Faith and in other books), a process has been developed for those coming into the fellowship and faith of the Church. Called A Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), it traces a way for accompanying people from unbelief (or little belief) towards belief in Christ, and to baptism, confirmation, or an affirmation of a commitment to life as a committed Christian in the Church. It has been described as follows:

The catechumenal process begins with the welcoming of individuals, the valuing of their story, the recognition of the work of God in their lives, the provision of sponsors to accompany their journey, and the engagement of the whole Christian community in both supporting them and learning from them. It seeks to promote personal formation of the new believer in four areas: formation in the Christian tradition as made available in the Scriptures; development in personal prayer; incorporation in the worship of the Church; and ministry in society, particularly to the powerless, the sick and all in need . . .

It is very interesting to compare the five key elements in this process with the process of the Alpha Course, which began from Holy Trinity, Brompton Road, and which in 1995 involved 100,000 people. So popular has this course proved that there is an A-Plus now produced for more catholic congregations, a Star course promised from the Church Union and several other courses, published or in process.

The five RCIA ingredients are: welcoming people as they are; accompanying journey: going with people as they take time to change, incorporating them into small groups so that people learn from each other, share their insights and grow together in Christ; celebrations: by affirming people on their journey within the worship of the Christian community, by providing opportunities for milestones to be recognised and sanctified, and for commitments to be made to the next stage of the pilgrimage; faith sharing: through story and dialogue; and community: the involvement of the congregation, sponsors and group leaders.
The Alpha initials in their user-friendly pack indicate

:A - anyone interested in finding out about the Christian faith is invited to a ten-week course, designed both for non-churchgoers and as a refresher course;
L - learning and laughter: fifteen talks tackle key questions at the heart of Christianity: learning from fun;
P - pasta: eating together helps develop friendships;
H - helping one another: small groups of Christians and non-Christians sharing their faith;
A - ask anyone: no questions are too simple or too hostile.

There follow longer courses, and there are rumours of an Alpha II, with a more social and applied-to-life content. One of the key features of the Decade of Evangelism is the number and popularity of such courses. Underlying them all are the questions ‘how do we make new Christians?’ and ‘how do we make Christians new?’

Where are we at?

The kind of Christian we have always needed is one who knows God both in heart and head and can co-operate with that God in all of life. For this wholeness we need evangelism, education, liturgy and ethics, disciplines which overlap in each of our experiences. To come to wholeness, we shall all need the companionship of other seekers and the expertise of those with particular knowledge of the Christian way. The inter-action between seeker and educator and between individual experience and the faith-tradition of the Church will lead to growth and change on all sides. Good education in our homes, schools and colleges, evangelistic opportunities in personal and group encounters, celebratory and related-to-contemporary-life worship, continual nurturing in faith, help in working on the application of faith to life and moral choices: these are all parts of the work of the one God in building up his Church. He invites our co-operation.

The On the Way Report gives us plenty of food for consideration and is designed for application at all levels of Church life. The Diocese of Manchester’s Board of Education has produced an excellent grid which people might find helpful in assessing where they are in building up the Church of God (this is available from The Editor of franciscan - please enclose a stamped-addressed envelope).

Our faith is not a gift to hoard but one to share, as others have shared theirs with us. It is the vocation of the nurtured to become nurturers. f

Stephen Venner is Bishop of Middleton.

 

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