the St mary magdalen school of theology is  a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith. 

Beginning Catechesis

This was the first of three talks at the Learning Christian Living: The Task of Catechesis workshop, which was held at All Saints' Margaret Street on Nov 8 2017. The other two were on Discipleship and Doctrine


Christian catechesis began in the early Church as quite a rigorous process. The rigour involved in becoming Christian, in fact, lead Celsusthe Celsus Origen wrote againstto write in about the year 180 that if all people wanted to become Christians, the Christians would no longer want them. Catechetical practice as reported and instructed by people like Tertullian and in the writings attributed to Hippolytus might lend Celsus's criticism some credence. Imagine, after three years of receiving in-depth Bible teaching, then going through intense fasting, pretty extreme personal interrogation, ritual bathing, daily exorcisms, and an all night prayer vigil filled with further instruction and someone reading at you through the night leading up to your baptism on Easter.

All following, of course, being initially questioned about your life and profession upon your first visit to church, after which you quite likely would have had to quit your job to become a catechumen in the first place. Just think how hard the 'church growth' moguls of our age would come down on you if you questioned every newcomer about the morality of their life and profession upon their first visit to church before letting them in the door! Second- and third-century catechesis went a few steps further than watching a couple of bishops sitting on a park bench discussing the Eucharist in a Pilgrim video! [Not that there is anything wrong with bishops on park benches discussing this Eucharist...]

The strict separation from society required in the third century would later change, of course. Whereas for Tertullian one would not only have to change professions if one was a soldier or actor, but also a construction worker, stone mason, or basket weaver (presumably because these might be useful for the construction of and use in pagan temples), major cultural shifts in the fourth and fifth century would allow for a type of Christian living that is more 'in but not of' the world, to use a Pauline phrase. Catechesis then came to be a training up of a body of people who were in the world, living among and within the broader society rather than in more strict separation from it.

But there is a deep continuity here. In both cases, and in every case of properly Christian catechesis, the focus is on the formation of one's whole life – on transformation and not merely information. Catechesis is a cultivation of a lived faith within the community of the Church. Whether in the form of strict separatism in the third century, or holiness within society in the fourth and fifth, the aim and purpose of catechesis remain the same, and must remain the same for us.


Aim and purpose of catechesis: Living as the continuation of Christ

Christian faith and theology is a lived, practiced, performed reality - performed in the sacramental, communal, and missional life of the Church. And catechesis is an invitation into this lived reality.

In catechesis we are talking about the shaping of a certain and distinctive kind of life, the making of a certain and distinctive type of human being, for a certain and distinctive community. It is a shaping of the Christian imagination, offering a new vision of the world, ourselves, and of our God - this is not about merely disseminating the right information: memorizing creeds, or the ten commandments, or theological formulae.

Catechesis does depend on teaching but the aim of that teaching is the holistic formation of people's lives because that is what the truths of our faith do. That is what theology is all about. The gospel does not inform us. The gospel makes us new creations.

And so all of our teaching, all of our thinking toward God, all theology, is a lived practiced reality. Because the purpose of right thinking, the purpose of orthodoxy is not being orthodox. Having right belief, embracing truth, is important but the purpose, the aim, the end of that orthodoxy is not being 'right', it is to live a life of outpouring love and mercy in the world, drawing all people to God in Jesus Christ, because the love of God has been 'poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us', as the Letter to the Romans has it. The aim, the end, is to live as the continuation of Jesus Christ on earth. This comes through teaching, yes, but teaching which is wedded to the grace of the sacraments, the life of the community, service to the poor, evangelism of the lost, justice for the oppressed, hope for those in despair - it comes through the world looking more and more like the world Jesus shapes in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

We don't want to think rightly about the Trinity in order to not think wrongly about the Trinity, in order to not be 'Arian', or something. That's not the point. We don't want to be 'Arian', so-called, because to be so is to deny our salvation. We want to believe rightly about the Trinity because right belief about the Trinity is not having the right answer to a puzzle: 'how can 1+1+1=1?'! Right doctrine of the Trinity has to do with finding ourselves in the midst of God's salvific mission to restore all things to God's self, because the doctrine of the Trinity is not a puzzle at all, it is an invitation - an invitation into the divine life, that life of the Father, who sends the Son to us for our salvation, and the Spirit who draws all things back into the Father's love.

We do not want to think rightly about the Incarnation in order to score theological points or satisfy intellectual curiosity about how to best understand the two natures of Christ. We want to think rightly about the Incarnation because the Incarnation is where we meet God among us – from the humility of the manger to the agony of the cross, God among and within us, uniting us to himself.

And so it goes for all doctrines. We are not seeking right answers. Ultimately, we are seeking right or holy living in union with Christ through the Holy Spirit for the salvation of the whole world. Catechesis is inviting others to join us.

So the beginning of catechesis is ultimately the life and mission of Jesus Christ himself. This is what we are after as we train up the Body of Christ through the ministry of teaching, proclamation, and catechesis.

So, if I am going to talk about 'Beginning Catechesis', I have to begin by stating this end of catechesis. We cannot know where or how to begin without the telos, the end or purpose of the thing before us. We must be headed somewhere if we are to set off in the right direction. And so we must have the end in sight, and the end is to bring people into communion with Jesus Christ in the life the Trinity. Salvation. Redemption. New Creation. In catechesis, that is our end.


Encounter and Evangelism

With that end in mind, it seems quite obvious that we begin with encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that beginning catechesis actually begins before beginning catechesis. We cannot truly begin catechesis without the shocking, unsettling, trauma of encounter with Jesus Christ. Through the proclamation of the gospel, through our lives of service and mercy, and through the beauty of the liturgy and Christ's presence in the sacrament, we place ourselves on offer as a gift of Christ's love in the world so that people come into contact with Jesus, and this encounter is earth-shattering. The reforming of the imagination, the new vision of the world, is one resurrected from the trauma of the crucified Christ's encounter.

This is crucial because in catechesis we are not teaching about the Church and its beliefs. Catechists, priests, and teachers are not presenting an objective outsider's perspective. We are not putting on an interesting religion course. We are not talking about Christianity to show what 'it' is, but who we are. We are saying the Church lives, moves, thinks and believes in these ways, and you might like to live, move, and believe along with her.

Believing God or believing in God is always first a matter of placing our trust in God. We give ourselves over to God and spend our whole lives trying to figure out what it means to trust him. Our teaching and formation of others must reflect this. We are calling people to God, more than attempting to explain God. We are moving people by and toward the truth, more than proposing it. 

And doctrine flowing from trust is indeed how we get good and true teaching, where creeds come from, where what we have come to call orthodoxy was made. The doctrines of the Trinity, or of Christ, or of salvation, or anything else, come from people loving and trusting God and working out what that means as a human community living before God. The creeds are not abstract principles floating around in some ethereal truth sky which we pluck out and write down so that everyone can check their ideas against them and make sure they aren't heretics. All proper Christian doctrine is the expression of the Church living with and before God, giving herself to God and being received and made new by God. There is no such thing as theology in the abstract.

Catechesis must first, then, be a call to renewal, to repentance, to devotion, worship, and prayer. It must be that newfangled and trendy buzzword, Evangelism. [I always thought it was pretty basic but some people seem to think it's a shiny new thing!]

If there is no encounter with the risen Christ, no trauma of meeting God among us, then catechesis doesn't make much sense, as it is about going deeper into that relationship with the triune God.

We have the perfect example of this in Acts 2. Peter proclaims the gospel of Christ, crucified and risen, the people ask what they are to do, he tells them to repent and be baptised to receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. Verse 41 says 3,000 were added to their number that day. Verse 42 goes on to say that they 'devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers', in other words, to catechesis.

A winsome and persuasive presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ which convicts hearts and transforms minds must be at the beginning and bedrock of our catechesis.

Because it seems to me that we have lost confidence in our own story, indeed, what we would say is the story of everything. We are constantly looking to the world around us for reasons for our own existence, to justify a purpose for the Church, for effective ways to minister or present the gospel, because we have somehow lost confidence in our own identity as the people of the crucified and risen One. And I think because of this, we have lost the ability to present our story with beauty, persuasiveness, and winsomeness. We must begin by proclaiming: 'Here is the story, the heartbreakingly beautiful story of our Saviour who is God-among-us for our salvation, meeting us in the depths of our human life and struggle and bringing every part of us into the warm embrace of God'. We must begin here, with evangelism towards encounter with Christ.


The School of Prayer

If the aim of catechesis is to become the people of the crucified and risen One, to encounter Christ and live as the continuation of his love and mercy in the world, then catechesis must also be and begin as a school of prayer. If we are to be renewed and shaped to share in God's mission in the world then both catechist and catechumens must live a life in God's presence through prayer. Catechesis might involve much more but it cannot be less than learning to pray.

Prayer is, first of all, simply acknowledging the truth that God is always present with and among us. To pray is to respond to God’s presence and activity, by living our own lives in God’s presence and directing our own activity towards God. So if catechesis is about union with God in Christ and our own lives being shaped after God's action in Christ, then we must begin with prayer. God has given himself to us in Jesus and a life of prayer is a life given over to God in love and service – responding to God’s gift by giving in return. In this sense prayer is a most basic action for living in the way of Jesus.

Learning the faith, learning Christian living, is learning through prayer. And if catechesis is not going to be just about learning facts or propositions about faith, but a lived faith, an active life of progress towards the living God, then catechumens must be actively learning to pray. So as with evangelism and encounter, we must begin in the school of prayer.


Beginning with the Bible

And both these two aspects of beginning catechesis – proclaiming our story and learning to pray – necessarily mean that catechesis begins with the Bible. Scripture gives us a grammar to know God and speak about God and how to speak back to God, as it is the witness to Christ, God the Word. It also connects us with the full story and life of God's people, helping us to find ourselves in the midst of our 'family tree'.

The example of the apostles makes this biblical beginning of catechesis clear. Whether we look at St Peter preaching his first sermon at Pentecost, St Stephen giving his defence to the Pharisees, St Paul speaking in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, and so on, the mystery of faith in Christ is explained through the whole of the biblical narrative. And the apostles learned this honestly from Jesus himself, of course, who demonstrated the truth about himself from the law and the prophets, and claimed, 'Moses wrote about me'.

So as we begin with evangelism and encounter, and with the school of prayer, so we necessarily begin with Scripture.


Virtues and sacramental life

The next point I want to make, is that if the aim of catechesis is to encounter Christ and live as the continuation of his love and mercy in the world, this means that catechesis, while having nothing to do with a moralist agenda, is about shaping virtuous lives – forming lives from which Christian virtues flow into the world; lives which show the produce, we might say, of the fruits of the Spirit. I don't want to tread over onto the path of today's session on discipleship, but here it must be said that this is not just about right moral thinking or keeping commandments, but about the whole of one's life being shaped in a certain direction, the direction of the cross, the direction of the new creation – lives that look like Christ's life of self-giving love.

And this brings out the emphasis on the sacramental role of the Church's life in catechesis. If catechesis is about virtuous living, about living a life that looks like the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then we have to begin with the worshiping life of the Church. The grace which indwells us to live such lives flows through the waters of baptism and down from the altar, out of the doors of the church and into our streets through those who meet Christ at the font and at the altar.

While the sacrament is of course the summit of catechesis – we are bringing people to the point of meeting Christ in the sacrament –, we cannot forget that the sacrament is also the source of catechesis, and the Christian life as a whole.

And this is so naturally because of the grace that comes to us through the sacrament,  but also in that the sacrament and the liturgy supporting the sacrament have a didactic role in themselves.

Take the example of small children. From the time they are newborns, we read to them, talk to them, sing to them, and they cannot comprehend a single word of what is being said. Why do we do this? Well, all of the sudden, often at around two years old, they start spouting out sentences. And it becomes clear that all along, even though they might not have been able to comprehend anything early on, their minds have been being shaped, the language was taking root and they were growing up into that language and comprehension of it.

The worship of the Church works similarly as it gives us a grammar for and teaches us the language of the faith. It is catechetical in that going through the motions of the liturgy opens us up to comprehension of the faith in new and deeper ways. People who are new to the liturgy may not understand everything that is going on, but they are being shaped and moulded more in the way of Christ through their act of worship. And this means that we must lead and participate in the Church's liturgy with unabashed confidence. Many people seem to think that the fullness of the liturgy is something to be shy about, or that maybe children or people who are visiting or new to the Church aren't yet ready for it. On the contrary, the liturgical life of the Church is for them as much as it is for the seasoned Christian, and it works to reform our relationship to God, one another, and the world.

And so as with evangelism and encounter, prayer, and the scriptures, we must begin at the sacramental and liturgical heart of the Church's life and mission.


Life of the catechist

I want to point out one more thing we find at the beginning and foundation of catechesis. If catechesis is about union with the triune God through Christ, and if catechesis is a school of prayer shaped by the scriptures and the sacramental life which manifests Christ's self-giving love in the world through the Church, then catechists themselves need to be on that road of learning Christian living through prayer, study, sacrament, and self-gift themselves.

And this involves not only devotion to the sacraments and to prayer, but also to theological learning. We should have a storeroom, a well of theology being filled up by immersion in the Scriptures and the work of great theologians from which we continually draw.

And if we are ordained we have promised ourselves to this. The ordering of deacons and priests requires the one being ordained to make a vow to a life of study and teaching, particularly of the Scriptures. In fact, in the ordering of priests in the Book of Common Prayer, five of the eight promises made by the person being ordained are centred upon study, teaching, and formation of the life of the flock, which it calls 'the great treasure' committed to the priest's charge. We are to 'study to show [ourselves] approved unto God, [workers] that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth' (2 Timothy 2.15).

The anti-intellectualism in our society has greatly influenced the Church, so that it seems priests are at times actively encouraged to forsake their vow of holy learning. I cannot tell you the stories of priests being turned down for jobs or refused promotion for being too clever, or intellectual, or knowing too much theology.

And I think this has a great influence on what I mentioned earlier about a lack of confidence in our own story, a lack of confidence in the gospel. This is something we must resist and overcome if we are going to begin and continue catechesis in a way that honours our Christian heritage, honours our life as priests for those of us who are ordained, and honours the people entrusted to us for their growth in holiness. We must begin with ourselves and our own unwavering devotion to prayer and study.

If the life of the catechist, though imperfect, is not driven in the direction of prayer, contemplation, love, generosity, holiness, and sound learning, they have already failed before they have begun. And so we must begin our catechesis with the catechist.


Where we do not begin

I just want to say something briefly about where we do not begin. I hope it is clear by now that as catechesis is not simply about acquiring right answers to 'God questions', that it follows on from this that catechesis is not apologetics. If you look through much of contemporary catechetical material, the vast majority – from Roman Catholic to presbyterian – begins with attempting to prove that God exists. This is very unfortunate. And it seems especially true of catechetical material aimed at young people. It is almost as if we are making an intentional effort to make people into bad theologians from as early an age as possible!

I hope I am not bursting your bubble when I tell you that the infinite, non-contingent, source and sustainer of all existence cannot be proven or disproven by finite beings whose very existence is utter contingency and who can only use resources from a finite contingent world as tools for investigation. Richard Dawkins may not have the philosophical or even logical acumen to figure this out, but I hope we do!

If you have ever picked up a catechetical resource and saw that the first lesson was entitled, 'Proof of God's Existence' and you absolutely panicked, I hope that the idea that catechesis should not begin here puts you at ease. But it is also essential not to make catechesis about this sort of thing because we want in our catechesis to train good theologians, that is, train people up in that lived, practiced reality – the performance of Christian doctrine. And beginning with false or even anti-theological categories that place God within the boundaries of material creation as if he could be examined under a microscope, is probably not a good start at shaping good theological minds.

This doesn't mean we ignore questions related to this. It means that we should not fall into the trap that much of Christian catechesis has in our age of treating theology like a method of scientific enquiry rather than a lived, practiced, reality, as if the study of God were much the same as a botanist studying conifer trees. God is not known in this way, and we are not beginning catechesis well if we begin by thinking toward God in the wrong way right from the start. 



However, beginning with evangelism and encounter, beginning in the school of prayer, beginning with Scripture, beginning in the sacramental life of the Church, and beginning with the catechist's own life, we can begin to envision a catechetical life in the Church that does not merely posit information and find answers to our curiosities, as important as our curiosity is, but one that moves people. One that moves people further toward the fullness of life in Christ – that moves people toward new creation. And one that perhaps moves us toward a catechesis that has the proper end in mind: that of union with the triune God through encountering Jesus Christ.


The Task of Preaching

Learning to Pray