DIVINE RENOVATION AND ALPHA at St Augustine’s, High Wycombe
Deacon Brin Dunsire – September 2019
Our single-church Parish is relatively large, 5-600, and fairly diverse ethnically. It has always been a reasonably active place, with plenty going on, although even the traditionally strong activities such as the four-part choir and the annual May Fayre have been struggling of late to recruit volunteers.
Last year a group of parishioners became enthused by the “Divine Renovation” book by Fr. James Mallon, and with the approval and participation of parish priest Fr.Jonathan Hill, a reading group was formed to study the book collectively and identify Good Ideas and recommendations from it which would be applicable to a conventional English parish like ours- as opposed to a North American one with numbers of paid staff.
Various ideas have already been implemented. Fr. Hill redecorated the main entrance porch and repainted and tidied up the noticeboards, acquiring a corner desk to form the basis of a hospitality location to provide information to visitors and new parishioners. We recognise the strength in Fr. Mallon’s arguments that in a big parish, people need to be encouraged to get to know each other, so we are intending to experiment with the idea of a “Name Badge Sunday”.
Most of the reading group had had prior experience of Alpha courses, so we were very keen on the recommendation that these should be regularly run in a parish. We ran our first one between January and Easter 2019, and were amazed when about 60 people signed up for it, although only 40 to 45 showed up for the first evening, and the numbers eventually settled down to 30 to 35, which was pretty good for a long course requiring 11 midweek evenings. Virtually all the attenders were existing parishioners, with only one or two guests from other churches in the town, and no non-Christians at all, but this is the way that Alpha usually works in its first outing so we were just pleased to have the numbers.
We had read that among the surefire way ways of ruining an Alpha course were skimping on the meal, and on the residential weekend away which forms a key ingredient in building community and leading people into an experiential encounter with the Holy Spirit. Accordingly we served a good quality hot meal and a dessert each evening with decorated tables and a welcoming ambience partly achieved through use of lighting and background music.
The whole catering question is one of the more challenging aspects of Alpha, since cooking for three dozen can stretch the capacity of a parish kitchen, and portion control is difficult when the numbers are unpredictable. But the quality of the cooked meals was a major factor in retaining the participants, and we would encourage other parishes to resist the temptation to substitute tea, cakes and biscuits ! There would be nothing wrong with a good cold buffet, especially in the summer months.
No charge was made for attendance at the parish sessions, although participants were very generous with their donations and we found it easy to cover the catering costs. However, the weekend away, at a retreat centre in the Cotswolds, cost £110 per head, which virtually all attenders were perfectly happy to pay, and only one person needed to make a request for a subsidy from the parish, the option for which had been publicised in advance
This weekend away was very much the high point of the course for the 20 or so who could come; it is always going to be difficult for those with work or childcare problems. Going some distance away added to the sense of a very special weekend, and the venue was enormously attractive and had all the qualities of a weekend break about it – and the weather was fairly good on at least one of the days! The venue did of course provide all the meals, which were excellent. Several people had very obvious experiences of the Holy Spirit’s presence during the time of prayer Ministry, and even for those who did not, they could see that something powerful was going on. The result was a group of people bonded together by this shared experience, much like a pilgrimage, and their enthusiastic descriptions have caused several people to rejoin the second course for the main purpose of being able to go on the weekend
We have just begun the second course, having resolved not to attempt one per term, as the burden on organisers and caterers is quite substantial. We had to hold our nerve on the numbers point, since only four people were signed up for the 1th September start a week before the commencement date, though having persuaded all the “returners” to add their names to the list, more new people have been attracted and we were surprised and pleased to find 37 people turning up for the first session, several of whom arrived unbooked; three weeks in, a number have inevitably dropped away, but we are still getting numbers in the high 20’s, and so it is again viable as a course for the main meeting room, rather than just being handled as a house group, which we were beginning to contemplate.
What are the fruits? Everybody has experienced a deepening and enlivening of faith, having been challenged to encounter Jesus in new ways. Even those who’ve been going to renewal meetings for years have been bowled over by the joy in the group. For some in particular, the experience has been transformative of life, faith and relationships, leading to them coming into more active roles in the parish. The more people that have experienced an Alpha course and found it positive, the more ready they will be to recommend it to unchurched neighbours and relatives.
We have found it fairly easy to secure volunteer helpers for the second course, especially among those who went on the first one, in the “easy” categories of washing up, welcoming, and setting up. “Returners” are also fairly willing to act as small-group facilitators, and to deputise for the principal leaders on the odd week when they will be absent. They gain confidence by watching the role being undertaken. The overall coordinator for the course requires a certain amount of strategic vision and organising ability, plus the capacity to think into details, which means that this role is often but not always taken by the parish priest or curate, deacon or pastoral assistant/ key catechist.
Fr Mallon recommends providing opportunities for people to experience an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One of the Divine Renovation reading group was an enthusiast for the “Fire and Light” meetings organised by the Cor et Lumen Christi community at Chertsey in Surrey, which have been replicated under Fr. Andy Richardson at Our Lady of Peace in Burnham, and he was very keen that a similar event should happen at our parish. It is basically Eucharistic adoration with contemporary praise and worship music. Helped by Fr. Andy’s assurances, Fr. Hill gave the go-ahead and planning and music preparation began a couple of months in advance of a date in early September the event was well-publicised with professionally printed posters, mentions in the newsletters, and announcements, and was circulated to other local parishes. (It would have been good, if it had been possible, not to hold it on a First Friday!) A small music group who had done this kind of thing before spent many hours rehearsing a repertoire of praise and worship songs, and a small amount of new PA equipment was acquired. A 6 foot tower of tables and boxes was draped in white to form a tall plinth for the Blessed Sacrament monstrance, adorned with flowers at the base. The colour of the words-projection slides matched the livery of the posters. We were expecting 12 to 20 people, and were amazed and gratified when around 50 turned up.
All attendees professed themselves delighted with the evening, as did Fr Hill, and there was an atmosphere of profound devotion and true adoration, with powerful prayer and healing ministry being exercised by a small team of people experienced in this field. Many people testified to sensing the presence of God’s spirit, and there was great demand for the event to be repeated. Its success illustrates a phenomenon seen annually at the big Catholic camping conferences, New Dawn and Youth 2000, and the “Celebrate” weekends – there is a widespread appetite for the traditional devotions when mixed with contemporary styles of worship. Fr Hill has taken the opportunity of promoting more “conventional “ evenings of Eucharistic adoration to provide a mix of styles for the parish..
For more information see the Divine Renovation website.
All the resources for Alpha can be found here.