By Lu Stanton León
This spring the Diocese of Washington and Washington National Cathedral sponsored a pilot Alpha course, a small-group program that allows both church-goers and seekers to meet, share a meal, and explore those key spiritual questions that may be weighing on their hearts: Who is Jesus? Why did he die for us? How do I pray?
The Alpha course, a revised version of a program created by the Church of England several decades ago consists of eight sessions, each of which includes 30 minutes for a free, catered dinner, 30 minutes for a talk and then an hour for small group discussions.
The course at the Cathedral met on Thursday nights from March 2 through April 27, not including Maundy Thursday, and reached its 130-person capacity shortly after it was announced. Dean Randy Hollerith says it will be offered again.
“Alpha is designed as a discipleship class,” Hollerith says. “It was created for the unchurched and is a very evangelical interpretation of the Christian faith. We had to adapt it knowing that the people taking it here are not unchurched and are not big “E” evangelicals. We wanted people, through this experience of Alpha, to become more faithful and become more comfortable talking about their faith.”
“I love it,” says Christine Bingaman, a member of the Cathedral committee responsible for the logistics of the program. “The thing that is unique about this model is that no matter where you are on your faith journey, you connect right in. You are not being measured or judged. It is you and your relationship with God. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore yourself at a deeper level and to open yourself up to God.
“It draws us closer as a community. I think that, for us, we’ll come out stronger individuals, connected to God and connected to one another. It’s been just a joy.”
The Alpha course originated in the late 1970s at Holy Trinity, Brompton, a Church of England parish in London. It has been offered in more than 169 countries and its materials have been translated into 112 languages. Alpha is offered by Roman Catholic churches, Orthodox churches and churches from all of the mainline Protestant denominations. In all, more than 29 million people have tried the course, according to the program’s website.
Alpha’s popularity soared during the 1990s, and Alpha USA was founded during that time. Hollerith says he was a little hesitant about offering the course at the Cathedral because he knew that, in the past, it had been criticized as being anti-gay and inattentive to women’s issues.
“In the past, Alpha was perceived as offering a biblical worldview that was hostile to the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church,” says Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, who taught several of the classes at the Cathedral. “That, to be sure, is not part of the Alpha presentations we are offering.”
Hollerith, who also taught several classes, said he and Budde had “vetted” the program and become comfortable with it. “We’d love to see it be an ongoing thing throughout the year. I don’t know if we can swing it financially to do it all year, but we’d like to be able to offer it again.”
The Rev. Jamie Haith, who worked for years with Alpha at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and is now head of Holy Trinity Church, a nondenominational church in McLean, Virginia, also taught several classes. In addition to Haith’s assistance, volunteers from Holy Trinity helped run the program and pay for the meals.
“They see it as part of their mission to share Alpha with other churches of all denominations,” Hollerith says.
The volunteers from Holy Trinity were “wonderful,” Bingaman says. “Perry Auditorium is where we met for dinner. These folks just appeared and transformed the venue. They have been very helpful in sharing what their experience has been as to what works and what doesn’t work so well.”
Hollerith describes the Cathedral and diocesan sponsorship of the Alpha program as “a synergy, or you could call it a grace.”
“The Cathedral loved the DOCC (Disciples of Christ in Community) experience when Sam Lloyd was dean,” Hollerith says. “Those small groups and lectures were wonderful for the Cathedral. I’m a community builder, and I knew I’d want to do something to enhance the community. At the same time, Mariann was interested in using Alpha here in the diocese.”
They decided to use the Cathedral for a test case. About 70 percent of attendees are members of the Cathedral.
Budde says that while she served as interim dean, “members of the Cathedral worshipping community expressed a real longing for such an offering again, for the purpose of building community and also having a safe place of welcome for those exploring the faith.”
As she travels around the diocese, she recognizes that other congregations could benefit from similar spiritual offerings. For that reason, the diocese sought and recently received a Roanridge Grant from the Episcopal Church to help sponsor Alpha in rural parishes. With that grant, the diocese will be able to assist parishes in Southern Maryland not only to host Alpha but also to offer a weekend retreat that supplements the 8 weekly sessions.
“Vital, growing congregations have several things in common, and one is a regular opportunity for people to gather to explore foundational questions and experiences of faith,” Budde says. “Alpha has broad appeal across a wide spectrum of Christian denominations, and it is easily adaptable by congregations that use it.
The bishop sees Alpha as “an entry point into the faith or an opportunity to go deeper in a faith that Christians often take for granted or don’t make the effort to explore in depth. Alpha speaks of a deeply personal faith, a way of knowing God, experiencing the love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s power working in and among us. It also has all the components of Christian hospitality and community that make church real for people.”