A new way to be a pilgrim

11 October 2013

Last week, the House of Bishops launched a new discipleship course designed to nurture newcomers to the Christian faith, or those who want to learn more. Is this a rival to Alpha, and how does it work? Madeleine Davies investigates


AT THE end of the first episode of the British comedy series I'm Alan Partridge, its hero, a former TV presenter, hits a new low. His ideas for a new series have all been dismissed by BBC commissioning editor Tony Hayers, and he sits, downcast, in his car, outside the house that he can no longer afford to buy. His faithful personal assistant, Lynn, spots her moment.

"You know, one can find some strength, when you are at your bleakest moments, if you open yourself up to . . ."

She is swiftly cut off.

"Lynn, I'm not coming to your church!" fumes Alan. "They always get people when they're down! I don't want salvation. . ."

It is a scene that has often returned to haunt me when I consider inviting someone to Alpha, the "nurture course" at my church. What if they say no, I think. What if they start avoiding me? What if they do come, and hate it?

Research would suggest that I am not alone in my reticence. A survey of 1242 Christians published by the Evangelical Alliance last year found that 48 per cent were, to some extent, "just too scared to talk about my faith with non-Christians".

Nevertheless, 38 per cent of them had invited a non-Christian to an event or activity that was "clearly a form of Christian outreach" in the month before the survey took place; and three-quarters said that they had seen courses such as Alpha or Christianity Explored "work effectively" in the past two years.

Research from King's College, London, links growth with the presence of such courses, though it does not do so causally. The Experiences of Ministry survey of 2011, completed by 2916 members of the clergy, found "an important association between the running of nurture courses and both forms of growth [spiritual and numerical]; growth is stronger when nurture courses are more frequently run."



THE House of Bishops is listening. In 2011, it commissioned "new material to help the whole Church grow through the making of disciples". On Tuesday of last week, three of its members presented Pilgrim, "a course for the Christian journey".

A library of eight six-session short courses, it is divided into two stages, "Follow", for enquirers or newcomers to the faith, and "Grow" for those who want to learn more. In the first stage, the courses are structured around four key texts: the credal questions asked before baptism, the Lord's Prayer, the Commandments, and the Beatitudes.

There is a very deliberate emphasis on tradition here. At the launch, the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, warned of a "culture of amnesia" in Church and society in which "we trivialise the past or jettison our tradition." Each Pilgrim session ends with readings from writers and theologians including St Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and St Anselm.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, another author of the course, emphasises its focus on spirituality, rather than doctrine.

"Pilgrim does contain doctrine, in fact, in many ways more than other courses, because of its length," he says. "But also it's really spirituality-led; so it is about saying 'let's learn how to pray, how to read the scriptures'. . . and I think that my hunch is that that fits in with our culture. Yes, of course there are some people saying 'is it true?' but I wonder whether there are rather more people saying 'how does it work?'"

The Priest-in-Charge of Roxwell, near Chelmsford, the Revd Karen Best, used the Lord's Prayer course with one confirmation candidate.

"I think the blessing and the advantage of the Pilgrim material is that it allows people to really incorporate their own experiences," she says. "It is discursive rather than persuasive, allowing people to just draw on their own personal experiences, and I think that is really important as we help people develop their relationship with God. It needs to be real for them."


THE press release announcing Pilgrim mentioned that it was "part of the Church of England's focus on spiritual and numerical growth".

Reading the Leader's Guide to the course, you sense that there is quite a lot riding on its success.

"Where are the time, energy and resources going if you do not have the time and resources as a parish church of the Church of England to offer one opportunity each year for new people to learn more about the Christian faith?" it reads. "In many parishes, a situation has become normal which is in reality a scandal".

The Revd Vernon Ross, Priest-in-Charge of Fyfield, Moreton with Bobbingworth and Willingale with Shellow and Berners Roding, in Chelmsford diocese, another Pilgrim "guinea pig", believes that part of the problem is a "lack of confidence that people have about their faith, and the Bible. And an embarrassment about it. One clergyman said to me that the Bible was really embarrassing to use. . .

"We have made handling the Bible too academic. We handle it in the culture of modernity, which is all about didactic teaching and facts, rather than handling it primarily as a spiritual document through which God speaks to us."

Each session of Pilgrim includes lectio divina, in which participants are invited to read a passage from the Bible three times before discussing it.

Janet Burrows, a regular church-goer at St Andrew's, South Shoebury, who joined a "beginners'" group using the first Pilgrim course, singles this aspect out for praise.

"It is like the meaning just lifted out - it seemed to almost jump out of the page at you. Anybody can read anything, and it is just a whole string of words. You need to really read it. That was brilliant."


HER Vicar, the Revd Louise Williams, agrees. "Everybody loved it. The slower people had time to think of something to say, and the faster people had to sort of bite their lip and think more deeply."

Each session also includes an article and discussion questions. Most of Mrs Williams's group of nine were new members of the congregation, joining after a wedding, memorial service, or baptism.

"It is best for people who are on the edge of faith rather than a long way off and just having a look," says Mrs Williams. "You have to be quite motivated. . .

"It's really solid content that does not require lots of preparation. You knew they were getting something meaty. . . There was a value in the whole structure. If invidual bits were a bit much, that was all right. Some sessions were quite difficult. There was one about the Kingdom of God and justice, and some were a bit flummoxed; but we got there."

Mrs Burrows appreciated the diversity of the group: "There was more than one instance where somebody completely new to the faith said something which made me think 'Oh, you can look at it in a different way.'"

Would she consider inviting others?


"I can think of a few people, particularly closer ones that know me well enough," she says. "Whether or not it would bring them to faith, I don't know, but I know they are open and interested enough to actually want to look and discover. . . Work people, not so much, because, myself included to a point, I think they might feel as though they were being forced to do things. The public likes to find out things for themselves. When Jevhovah's Witnesses knock on the door, most people tend to be out."


THE morning after the launch of Pilgrim, The Daily Telegraph described it as "Sunday school for adults", an attempt to revive texts that "in generations past, every schoolboy and schoolgirl knew by heart".

Last year, the BBC published a survey of around 1000 adults and 1000 children which found that 92 per cent of the adults said that they knew the Lord's Prayer as a child, compared with 55 per cent of the children.

But religious illiteracy is not limited to children, as the Revd Dhoe Craig-Wild, Team Vicar of Maltby and assistant curate of Thurcroft, found when she piloted the Lord's Prayer Pilgrim course with an adult confirmation class.

"One of the problems that I am experiencing for the first time is that we are dealing with people who have absolutely no church or faith background," she says. "They are not steeped in the scriptures; so all of it is new to them."

Her group consisted of two older people, one young woman who had just been baptised, and two young mothers who had recently had their children baptised. For these two women, "church just did not figure anywhere on their radar until they had their children and they wanted them to be baptised."

She is unsure whether she would use the course with similar groups in future: "I think what was required by the course was a higher level of understanding than we had within the group. I found it a little bit too academic."

When I tweeted the news of Pilgrim's launch, readers were quick to point out the existence of several nurture courses. "Why reinvent the wheel?" one asked.

The most famous is, of course, Alpha, so far undertaken by 1.2 million people in the UK and 23 million people worldwide. But since 2001, 750,000 handbooks have been ordered, globally, from Christianity Explored, which originated at All Souls', Langham Place, in London.

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, the third author (the fourth is Dr Paula Gooder), and Bishop Cottrell have themselves been here before. In 1996, they were among the authors of the Emmaus course, a 15-session course on Christian belief, life and growth. The news of the launch in the Church Times of 27 September 1996 issue has a familiar ring to it: the emphasis on faith as a journey and the insistence that the course is not a rival to Alpha.

"If you are using Alpha and it's great, please don't stop," Bishop Cottrell says of Pilgrim, 17 years later. "That's not what Pilgrim is about. But you may want something else to go deeper with people."

He also points out that, within the Church of England, about half of churches have never done an Alpha course, "and may never run one. It just does not feel like the right thing for them."


MEASURING the effectiveness of nurture courses is not easy. A spokesman for Alpha says that the evidence is "anecdotal", but suggests that bishops report that many of those confirmed have completed an Alpha course. Research by Dr Stephen Hunt published in 2001 found that 77 per cent of Alpha attendees were already churchgoers, although his sample size was small.

Many of those who testify to a conversion experience during Alpha cite the Holy Spirit weekend away, where guests are encouraged to speak in tongues, as a "turning point". I ask Pilgrim's authors about this.

Dr Croft emphasises that Pilgrim teaches people about the Holy Spirit "from the very beginning. . . And the sense of encounter with God is nurtured constantly through framing each session in prayer and quiet together, and also by encouraging people to explore what they feel God is doing in their lives in different ways."

As a parish priest he spent one evening a week teaching the faith. He acknowledges that many of the clergy are dealing with demanding workloads and multiple parishes.

"If there was one thing I would do again, it would be to set aside an evening of my week to teach the faith to enquirers and new Christians. You had a regular sense of people encountering God in their lives in very real ways, all kinds of different people. It was great really, and really, really enlivening."

He wants to release clergy from anxiety about numbers. "Sometimes people have felt that if they couldn't gather 12 or 15 people together, it wasn't worth doing," he says. "It is worth doing for two or three or four people. Eventually, they will grow in their faith, and they will be confident and equipped to help others."


Mrs Williams agrees that setting time aside to make new disciples has to be a priority. "That is what we are here for", she says.

Starting the pilgrimage

PILGRIM is published by Church House Publishing. The Leader's Guide is available at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09) and the first two volumes,Turning to Christ and The Lord's Prayer are available separately at £5.99 each (Church Times Bookshop £5.39). The pack of all three is available at an introductory price of £10, from www.chpublishing.co.uk or www.chbookshop.co.uk until 13 December 2013. For more information, visit www.pilgrimcourse.org. Further volumes will be published in 2014 and 2015.






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