“Then he began to speak, and taught them.” Matthew 5:2
W began this series noting that the institutional church had been in decline for decades, that the traditional church with which most people will have identified had disappeared in many places and was struggling in others. To have talked about when the Church of Ireland has gone could have been seen as being gloomy, or it could have been seen as being positive about the future of local churches. Our concern has been to discern a way for the Church of Ireland to continue after the Church of Ireland has gone.
We have looked at worship as something as the activity of the whole Christian community; we have looked at ministry as something which is the work of the whole Christian community; we looked at the church as being a community of disciples. We come this evening to teaching. If we have a church which gathers for worship, which ministers to people, which is a community of those following Jesus, how does church build up its members and teach the faith to others. We come to the word “catechism.”
If we think back to our first days at primary school, we recall there was a lot of learning; there were things that had to be taught to us in order that we might learn more. Letters and numbers were things to be learned; the teacher would take us through the alphabet, would count up through the numbers. The basics of literacy and numeracy were taught to us. In our primary school, once we had learned the numbers, we began on the multiplication, the whole class would say aloud together the times-tables. Learning the basic things by heart enabled us to take on the more complicated things, like spelling words and doing sums.
From its earliest days, the church understood the importance of believers learning the basic things of Christian teaching by heart so that they could then think about more serious things. The New Testament word for this teaching and learning was “katecheo”, from which comes our word “catechism”, so we read in Acts Chapter 1 Verse 4 of Luke writing so that Theophilus may “know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed”. The word used for “instructed” is the word “katechethas.” Later, in Chapter 18 of the Acts of the Apostles, we read of Apollos, “He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” The word used for “instructed this time is “katechoumenos”; “katechethas” and “katechoumenos,” both come from “katecheo”.
Teaching and instruction, catechism, then, did not appear to give schoolgoers a difficult time, (I remember our old Rector coming to our village primary school in England and trying to teach us and telling us that we needed to know this in order to be confirmed and thinking, “I don’t need to know it because I am not being confirmed”). Catechism was something that was part of the life of the church. If we look at the literal meaning of the Greek word “katecheo,” it means “I will make resound”, in the active sense, in the sense of it being something that we do, and it means, “I listen” in the passive sense, in the sense of it being something that is done to us.
If we think of the word “catechism” in the sense of it meaning “I will make resound”, I will make people say back to me, we see can see how it developed in the way it did. In New Testament times, learning the Scriptures would have been a matter of a teacher reciting lines and his pupils saying the lines back to him, and so learning them by heart.
In the centuries that followed, catechism became vital to the life of the church because people would have had no access to the Scriptures for themselves; Bible passages and teachings had to be something that were learned. Even in our own times, when Bibles are plentiful and when books are readily available, there is still great value in learning verses of Scripture. Dr George Kovoor, formerly principal of Trinity College, Bristol used to talk of how in the days of his theological training in India, they were encouraged to learn, every week, ten Bible by heart. This meant having learned a hundred verse by heart at the end of each term, nine hundred verses by the end of the three year training; a knowledge that was to prove invaluable in ministering to people.
As church doctrines developed over the centuries, churches came to believe that it was not just Scripture that should be learned by heart, but church teaching itself, and so we reached the point where people would have printed catechisms from which they were to learn, and to be able to say back, what was being taught to them.
To be able to learn something by heart is very useful, but to be able to understand it is even more important. Saint Paul is dealing with the issue of people speaking in “tongues” in church, an experience that began on the Day of Pentecost, when he says in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 14 Verse 19, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct (katecheso) others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
The church catechism is written in traditional and difficult language and, while people might have learned it by heart, it did not meet the need for people to be able to understand what it was that was being taught. In times past, the church seemed content for people to be able to simply recite the lines from the prayer book, but the world changed, and even if people were content to learn lines in the way an actor might learn a script for a play, such a way of learning would not equip them to be able to hold on to their faith in challenging times—understanding must come with learning.
Catechism for the future must mean a life long process of learning and understanding, It begins with church members knowing their faith well themselves, it begins with Bible reading and prayer and worship, it begins with learning the faith and understanding the faith for ourselves. The early church had no professional members, no organisation, but people listened and prayed and met together and we are blessed with their legacy. Our task is to read and to listen and to pray and to talk and to share.
Our church can have a wonderful future after the Church of Ireland has gone – it depends on us.