Thursday, 5 October 2017

The (Welcome) Return of Catechism

When I was about 11 my parents sent me to a Convent School in Clydach for about a year. It was run by a Roman Catholic order of nuns who taught, kept discipline and generally ran the school. Although I was from a Protestant (Anglican) background, I was one of a number of similar children who were allowed to attend on the basis that we attend Mass with everyone else, and join in the classes on religious instruction.

With regards to the latter, this meant learning the Catechism off by heart. All I can remember from those lessons is the very first question that the Catechism addresses: "Who made you?" Answer: "God made me." The impression left was one of boredom and what the whole point of it was, alongside the vague memory of some kind of punishment if I got it wrong (although nothing heavy-handed).

Since then I have had a rather negative image of any religious education associated with the word 'catechism' and, what I saw then, as pointless rote learning, with its emphasis on remembering over and against understanding.

But it seems that my criticism is both premature, inaccurate and unfair for the following reasons:
First, to do with the word 'Catechism'. It is from the Greek and means, simply "to learn orally". Although it tends to be associated with one part of the church - chiefly the Roman Catholic Church - it is an idea that was prevalent in the first four-five centuries as the Church sought to educate and teach those who were unable to read. Questions and answers were learnt off by heart and then discussed so that the meaning of what was taught by the method would be well and truly understood.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, this degenerated in some parts of the Church into just learning answers in order to say you have "done the course". Understanding took second place to getting the answers correct.

Second, is to do with who used the catechism. If you look up the word in the dictionary some definitions associate it only with the Roman Catholic Church. This is inaccurate as we have noted that from the start the one united church practised it, in one way or another, until the Great Schism in the 11th century when the church split into two - Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. But both continued with the use of a catechism, only with their own particular doctrinal emphasis.

This continued until the Reformation in the 16th century when the Protestant Churches were formed following the teaching of Luther, Calvin and others. But what is interesting is that the idea of a catechism for teaching the faith continued with Luther, for example, producing his 'Small Catechism' which can be found here. This contains within it teaching about The Ten Commandments, The Apostles' Creed, The Lord's Prayer, baptism, confession, Holy Communion, Daily Prayer, a Table of Duties, and Christian Questions with their answers, which was a means of preparing a person to receive Holy Communion.

In 1560 the other great reformer John Calvin also produced a catechism called the Geneva Catechism which you can look at here.

And so you can see that the idea is not limited to just one part of the Church but has been used over the centuries by most of the major denominations who wanted to ensure that its adherents were properly taught about the Christian Faith.

Third, although the catechism became associated with the preparation of candidates for baptism and/or confirmation, it has more important and wider importance than that. In fact, you could say that it's association with baptism/confirmation is partly responsible for its abuse and eventual neglect because those wanting to be part of the church and/or being able to receive Holy Communion sometimes fell into the way of learning the answers to the questions just in order to achieve their aims. In other words, the catechism became a means to an end and not an end in itself - which was to believe and learn the Christian faith.

But, as someone once said, "the answer to abuse, is not misuse but right use". Just because it was abused it doesn't mean it was wrong (the same can be said of liturgy in Anglican and other churches). Before throwing it away, try using it properly and see why, in the first place, it was so widely used.

And so what we see today is the recovery and rehabilitation of the catechism. So, for example, the Church of England and other Anglican churches have produced their own catechism. And in more recent times the Gospel Coalition in America - fronted by Tim Keller - have produced 'The New City Catechism' which you can access here, and which can be downloaded as an app on your phone or tablet.

The Anglican Church in North America with the help of such people as Dr J.I.Packer (of Knowing God fame) has also recently produced their own called "To be a Christian" and which can be downloaded here.

The point I am making in all this is that perhaps it is the time we took another look at the idea of a catechism as something to help the people in our churches learn about what it is they believe and why? It can be both a means of being able to share and defend the faith.

In the next few posts I have included videos introducing some of the new (Protestant) catechisms mentioned earlier.

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