by Ian Duffield
from Signs of the Times  No. 58 - Jul 2015

The re-branding of the Church of England through the so-called 'Reform and Renewal' programme (see my article in Signs of the Times, April 2015) is highlighted by the campaign to adopt the language of 'disciple', 'discipleship', and 'a community of missionary disciples'.

Despite linguistic ties, this is an odd hybrid family of terms as can be seen from their provenance:

  • 'disciple' only appears in the Gospels and Acts, but not in Paul or the rest of the New Testament)
  • 'discipleship' doesn't appear in the Bible, but is common in contemporary American evangelicalism, Anabaptism, and Methodism
  • 'a community of missionary disciples' has a Catholic provenance (Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: 119-121).

The oddness of their importation into the CofE is exposed by realizing that they replace three commonly accepted terms:

  • When Anglicans talk about a follower of Christ (i.e. a disciple), they call them a 'Christian'.
  • When Anglicans talk about the following of Christ (i.e. discipleship), they talk of living a 'Christian life'.
  • When Anglicans talk about the company of those following Christ (i.e. a community of disciples), they talk of the 'Church'.

Why import un-'fresh' terminology when we already have perfectly adequate language?

This is not to imply that disciple-talk is unhelpful; it is to challenge the supposition that imposing this raft of terms is necessary. Some may fondly imagine that it's merely a 'suggestion'; but in Developing Discipleship (GS 1977) this importation feeds the programme to reinvent the Church of England, even as it recognizes - without irony - that 'there is no well-developed and authoritative source for the theology of discipleship' (Worthen) that Anglicans can draw upon (DD, para 37). (Indeed, 'discipleship' is notably absent in A. Richardson's A Dictionary of Christian Theology (1969/1983), D. F. Ford's index to The Modern Theologians (1997), and major Anglican theologians: L. Hodgson, E. L. Mascall, R. P. C. Hanson, J. Macquarrie, etc.) Nevertheless, the Ministry Council (without synodical debate) has already corralled 'experts' 'to resource a new theological conversation on discipleship and ministry' for Episcopal discussion in September 2015 (DD, p. 9). Is this another fait accompli within the re-branding process?

Profound theological issues are raised by emphasising disciple-talk. Fundamentally, a disciple is a learner attached to a teacher. In the gospels, disciples are attached to Jesus: following and learning from him. Simply: a disciple is a follower of Christ. Christ calls, a person follows: that is all (see Karl Barth). It is not for us to add anything, let alone some kind of programme. What is required is simple obedience (see Dietrich Bonhoeffer). I hear the call of Jesus Christ and respond. I follow Jesus Christ and learn from him: I am conformed to his likeness.

This gospel-shaped theological dynamic of disciple and Lord distorts, however, when this relationship becomes a

  • Principle: generalising into a principle what is a particular dynamic between Christ and a person
  • System: organizing corporately and systematically around what is a personal call and dynamic
  • Ideology: making discipleship into a goal to which we conform rather than Christ himself, making discipleship into an enthusiast's charter.

This is happening in Developing Discipleship with its 'Ten Marks of a Diocese committed to Developing Disciples' (pp. 10-11): betraying the tell-tale signs of the bureaucrat's hand, not that of a disciple or theologian or pastor — the stuff of which ecclesiastical officials' dreams and parish priests' nightmares are made.

Theological and ecclesiological inadequacy is also revealed in its advocacy of the Church as 'a community of missionary disciples' (DD, paras 20, 40). Note how strange it sounds if we replace the biblical word translated 'disciple' with some of its alternatives: a community of missionary 'followers' or 'learners' or 'apprentices'. The mistake of adding 'missionary' to 'disciple' is made easily because 'disciple' is, in fact, a contraction of the phrase 'disciple of Christ'. A disciple is a follower of Christ, no adjective is required; adding 'missionary' only  detracts from its meaning. Joining 'a community of missionaries' is different: is this what is meant?
The appellation of 'missionary' to every Christian is problematic, however, given Paul's advocacy of differing gifts within the Body of Christ (I Cor 12: 4-11). No doubt Christians are to live in the world and bear 'witness' in one way or another, but that doesn't mean everyone is a 'missionary' (I Cor 12: 27-30). And, crucially, only the chosen few become real witnesses, i.e. martyrs.

Pope Francis talks about the Catholic Church as 'a community of missionary disciples' because he wants a Church that 'comes out of herself' and goes 'to those on the outskirts of existence' (his pre-election address to cardinals). But it is problematic when Anglicans embrace papal language, uncritically, within the CofE's very different culture. Naturally, we talk of 'joining the Church', of 'following Christ'. This is simpler and more straightforward. Given the Church of England's history and theology and embodiment in parishes, the promotion of discipleship language risks disenfranchising many who call themselves Anglicans, naturally. Discipleship-talk is not their language. More readily, they speak of belonging to the Church - supporters of the Church of England and followers of Christ's way, as embedded in English life.

Uncomfortably, 'disciple-talk' tends towards zealousness, exclusiveness, hard boundaries, activism (as in US-style evangelicalism and Mennonite circles); whereas, the Church of England stresses inclusiveness, soft boundaries, moderation, worship. In particular, the rhetoric of 'missionary disciples' points away from the classic Anglican emphasis on worship and pastoral care as the centre of Church life. At its best, mission and outreach have always flowed from that, but what happens when they become the ecclesiastical centre of gravity?

The problem is this: if the Church of England describes itself as 'a community of missionary disciples' it will embrace language at odds with its own DNA. And the Church of England could end up
a) re-defining itself in a more ideological and sectarian form inimical to classic Anglicanism;
b) alienating its natural supporters: demarcating them as not real Christians or not zealous enough. Although this may not be intended, it does raise the spectre of the Church of England moving towards a position at odds with its history and calling.

This is not a minor shift of language, but rather a fundamental re-conception that is, as Angela Tilby puts it, alien to 'Anglicanism as a living tradition' ('Dissing the D-word', Church Times 30 January 2015).

The language we use to describe the Church of England says a lot about us and our self-understanding. Are we happy to accept a form of Church-talk that distances us from our heritage and from people who think they belong with us in the Church? Although discipleship language has its place, it does not augur well for the Church of England if it becomes our dominant discourse, as the report intends.

Meanwhile, it's in the hands of the bishops: are they committed, in the name of Reform and Renewal, to reinvent the CofE after the likeness of non-Anglican groups, or will they be guardians of the Anglican patrimony so that the Church of England remains a church for all of the people of this land?