Sitting at the Foot of Gamaliel

Using the Fathers in Catechesis

Studying the Church Fathers is dismissed by some as the preserve of the Academy, with little relevance, or suitability, for making 21st century disciples. Jonathan Bish, however, argues that, for those ‘hungry for God’, their insights are as fresh and lively as ever.

In my seven years in ministry, I have prepared nearly 30 adults for confirmation. That may not sound like many – after all, some parishes present as many candidates every year. But, in both churches I have served in, they represent a revival of yearly catechesis and confirmation services in the face of the Church’s significant decline in the north of England. And every candidate I have prepared for confirmation has read St Augustine.

Along with other catechetical tools, such as ‘mapping your life’ (1) and engaging with artistic depictions of Jesus, confirmation courses I organise include engagement with the Christian tradition, and particularly the Church Fathers. In a typical session, the confirmands explore “What the Bible says”, “What the Church of England says”, and “What a Famous Christian said” about a particular topic. The ‘Famous Christians’ have included, at various times, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Pseudo-Dionysius and Augustine. Modern interlopers have occasionally appeared, including C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Underhill, Pope Francis and Leonardo Boff.

Why do this? It is not to give the impression that Christianity is a religion for the well-read, the erudite or the antiquarian. Instead, we read the fathers and mothers of our faith so that we know the figures looking down on us from stained glass windows had similar experiences of God in Christ that we have begun to glimpse in prayer, the sacraments and our life story. Moreover, for us as Anglicans, the ‘Fathers and Councils’ occupy a unique place of authority. (2)

Both areas I’ve worked in have lower than average educational attainment. Our confirmands are ordinary northern lads and lasses, some of whom have had a struggle in school or college. There is a pervasive culture of talking down to those enquiring into the Christian faith, on the assumption that only simple presentations of the gospel convert. By reading the Fathers, we take back what is ours. We give those joining our congregation access to the treasures of the faith, an opportunity to make the Christian tradition their own, and a chance to join their own voices to the choir of saints.

And you know what? It actually works. Every year when we explore the existence of God, I ask our confirmands to read Genesis 1.1-5, Article I of the 39 Articles, a short section of Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names where God is described as the beautiful and the good, (3) and this passage from the Confessions:

With you as my guide I entered into my innermost citadel, and was given power to 
do so because you had become my helper. I entered and with my soul’s eye such as 
it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind 
– not the light of every day… but a different thing, utterly different from all our kinds 
of light… It was superior because it made me.
(4)

“It’s personal to him”; “It’s true to life”; “It’s authentic”. Those are all words our candidates have used to describe Augustine’s words. It is far and above the most popular passage of those we read – though as a good medievalist, I still make a plea for Pseudo-Dionysius. Why is it Augustine is popular? Because he speaks to the end of our searching: being met by God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

I call the approach I use ‘sitting at the foot of Gamaliel (5)’. Much as Paul was educated by Gamaliel to be zealous for God and the ancestral law, and this shaped his conversion to follow Christ, so drinking deeply from the Christian tradition can give those who come to our churches the chance to integrate their existing life experience, and further develop the tradition as they pass on the faith in turn.

Are there pitfalls? Sure. I made the mistake of trying to explain allegorical interpretation of scripture once, and it fell flat. We have the familiar problem of holding on to those we confirm – although the usual Sunday attendance has grown in both churches I’ve served in. The catalogue of famous Christians I work from could be characterised as ‘male, pale and stale’ – but it behoves us to remember the lively debate over Augustine as a Romanised-Berber (6) and that the mothers of the early church are often known through the men who wrote about them. (7)

Where this approach works, it is a reminder of that great truth which Evelyn Underhill forcefully encouraged priests and Christian teachers of every generation to remember, that the Christian faith is not humanitarian, but theocentric: “God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God.” (8) Perhaps that’s a mission statement for the Church today?

The Rev’d Jonathan Bish
Associate Priest, North Wakefield Benefice

Notes

1) A technique used in the ‘Smart’ course from ‘Leading your church into growth’
2) Canon A5
3) “Everything looks to the Beautiful and the Good as the cause of being, and there is nothing in the world without a share in the Beautiful and the Good.” Divine Names 4.7
4)  Confessions 7.10.16
5) Acts 22.36)
6) For a useful introduction to the debate and a survey of the literature on Augustine’s background which is available in an open-access form, see David E. Wilhite, “Augustine the African: Post-colonial, Postcolonial, and Post-Postcolonial Readings,” Journal of Post-Colonial Theory and Theology 5, no. 1 (July 2014): 1-34. Available: http://www.postcolonialjournal.com/Resources/Wilhite%205%201.pdf
7) To take two prominent examples, Macrina is known through her brother Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina (and through her influence in his writings) and Monica is known through the Confessions. The Acts of Perpetua and Felicity is a notable exception, as it preserves an account of Perpetua’s martyrdom largely credited by the text to her own hand, as is Egeria’s Travels, a text all ordinands ought to encounter in their liturgical training!
8) A letter from Evelyn Underhill to Archbishop Lang of Canterbury. Available: https://intotheexpectation.blogspot.com/2013/07/god-is-interesting-thing-about-religion.html

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