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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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."
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
"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,
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
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.