Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times  No. 58 - Jul 2015

Some of you will be reading this amidst the interfaith fellowship of our Annual Conference. In that context, it might seem rather odd to be reflecting on the debate in the Church of England about (specifically Christian) 'discipleship'. But it may be all the more important to do so.

'Discipleship' has become very much a buzz word over the last few months. Our Archbishop has spoken about it in the context of evangelism. General Synod has debated it amongst several reports about the future management of the church (the Reform and Renewal programme). There has been criticism in these pages, on the Modern Church blog and elsewhere about that programme. Some of this has focused on the emphasis on discipleship.

Yet at first sight the concept seems unexceptionable and even positive. Surely Christian faith is all about being disciples of the Lord? And surely any attempt to win new disciples, and to deepen the discipleship of those already committed, is a good thing? Most of my friends in the Church, not at all Evangelical in their theology or spirituality, would agree wholeheartedly with both statements. So what is the fuss all about?

Ian Duffield, in his article below, has expressed some concerns about the use of the term 'discipleship' and the idea of 'missionary disciples', both in their New Testament etymology and in current usage. As an expert in the Urban Theology Unit, he can hardly be accused of neglecting the Church's mission in a changing culture. Some might question his argument that not all are called to 'mission' because not all have specific gifts such as evangelism (his discussion of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12) – but those whom he criticizes are hardly less confused in such respects. I would most particularly welcome more contributions on the theme of discipleship, and I know that our General Secretary would also. In the meantime, I offer here some supplementary thoughts of a perhaps more broadly philosophical nature.

The concept of discipleship, as presented, seems to embody several assumptions:

  • We know exactly what Jesus taught, and what sort of life he exemplified, so discipleship - taking him as a role model and living accordingly – is, in principle, possible
  • The model which he presented is the only model; anyone who does not explicitly conform to it is at best half-alive and at worst 'dead in their sins', therefore we have a responsibility to urge others to adopt it.
  • The model demands total commitment; 'occasional conformity' is worse than useless.

As regards the first assumption, Angela Tilby has suggested that the idea of discipleship really only applied to those who followed Jesus when he was alive. That seems to imply that you cannot adopt as a role-model someone who is not present to you here and now in the flesh – not least because you cannot really know them. Now, there are those (starting with St Paul) who claim to 'know' Jesus more fully than simply 'knowing according to the flesh'. That leads us into the old debate about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith; and the Christ of faith is clearly something rather different from a conventional guru.

How much we really know about Jesus the man – and how much it matters anyway – remains debateable. Our last issue carried an obituary of Marcus Borg, who, with John Dominic Crossan and others, did much to reopen the search for the historical Jesus, and uncovered a figure a good deal more 'political' than many conventional images of him – perhaps the figure represented in Richard Bending's article below. That figure would surely approve of the Bishops' courageous incursion into political debate earlier this year. Yet, for all the efforts of the Jesus Seminar, there is still truth in Schweitzer's words: 'He comes to us as one unknown'.

It is hard to argue that one cannot be a disciple of (say) Karl Marx simply because he is no longer with us. However, such discipleship is more restricted, in the sense that few would argue for taking Marx as a role model in every respect; it is purely his political and economic ideas and ideals which are at issue for those who claim to be his disciples, whereas the Church traditionally would claim far more than that for Jesus.

And that points to a real problem. The Jesus whom we claim to follow must be – like Shakespeare only more so – 'not for an age, but for all time'. Yet the Jesus of the Gospels is a man of his time, and we do him no justice if we neglect the context of his life and teachings, which Borg and others have illuminated. The concept of discipleship makes sense when the disciple lives in the same world as the teacher. Beyond that, it becomes problematic. Hence the vast literature and the innumerable personal struggles about what following Jesus means in practice, in areas ranging from sexuality to the management of people in employment and the issues of welfare dependency.

The dilemma about what following Jesus actually means is well illustrated in the most concrete proposal that has come from the Discipleship Working Group: the compilation of a new Catechism. It sounds like a good idea. Maybe it is. But how will it accommodate the enormous differences between Anglicans – catholic, liberal, evangelical, charismatic and various combinations thereof - about what 'discipleship' means in practice? These differences did not exist, in anything like their present form, when the original Catechism was drawn up. Other differences, however, certainly did, and were shoehorned within the Catechism into a sort of mainstream lowest-common-denominator (but decidedly authoritarian) Anglicanism. Is that what we want or need? Is it even possible any more? Does even the short creed suggested below by Brenda Watson assume an implausible level of agreement on what following Jesus involves?

So our first proposition is not straightforward. What about the second?

'When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die', said Bonhoeffer. That really sounds like good news for everyone, doesn't it? If we read the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, carefully, we find a  more nuanced picture of what the Good News is, to whom it is addressed, and how they might respond. Certainly we see a great evangelistic drive in the early Church, particularly in the narrative of Acts, seemingly universally directed and calling for a universal response. But there are other insights. One possible interpretation of the Letter to the Romans, for example, is that there is Good News for all, in which all will eventually participate, but that at a given time only some are called to the costly business of bearing that Good News. This is the idea of the Remnant, the representative minority – an idea deeply embedded also in the Old Testament, especially the Isaianic tradition. It is an idea which finds expression in works as different as that roaring Anglo-Catholic manifesto of half a century ago, Martin Thornton's Pastoral Theology: a Reorientation, and our own John Saxbee's much more recent No Faith In Religion. 'Many are called, but few are chosen' to carry on the work of Jesus in a conscious way, for the sake of the far greater number who are neither called nor chosen. If we adopt this paradigm (recognising that it is only one of many interlocking paradigms in Scripture and tradition), our task is certainly not to be silent about the Good News as we understand it – far from it – but to live by it ourselves, and not to stand in the way of those others who are called and chosen to join us.

Which leads, as both Thornton and Saxbee do, to the third proposition. One problem with the current emphasis on discipleship is that it seems to leave no place at all for those 'on the fringe', who at best half-believe and half-belong, who may only appear in church (if at all) for Christmas and occasional offices. 'Multitudinism' and 'occasional conformity' have become the dirtiest of words in the Church's new lexicon. Yet as our President, Linda Woodhead, has pointed out, this fails to do justice to the complexities of Christian believing and belonging as revealed by sociological research. Perhaps that explains the suggestions by Duffield, Tilby and others that overemphasis on discipleship is 'not Anglican'. True Anglicanism does not 'quench the smoking flax' (Isaiah 42:3); it recognizes that people change and grow; it also knows that that change can be squashed if all that the 'multitudes' hear is a rejection of their inadequate discipleship unmatched by any affirmation of whatever positive spirituality they may exemplify.

As for non-believers – and those of other faiths – they seem to have no place at all in the great scheme of things. That, I would argue, is not even true to Scripture (Isaiah 45 and Romans 9-11 alone offer much subtlety here), let alone to what we discover today in our encounters with others. Whether we take the line that Jesus ought not to be promoted in practice as the only model (pluralism) or that all models have their ultimate fulfilment in Jesus (inclusivism), we cannot simply dismiss others in this way. We need (precisely on the basis of our own faith and discipleship) to be giving far greater recognition to, and willingness to dialogue with, those of other beliefs, even those who oppose religious belief, as Keith Trivasse does below – and to acknowledge, as Brenda Watson does, that the Truth often should be seen in terms of both/and rather than either/or.

A factor which cannot be disregarded, and which motivates the enthusiasts for Christian 'discipleship' however much they may deny it, is that there seem to be too few disciples to carry on (and finance) the work in the form that we have known it. We simply cannot see how this will work out in future years. We cannot deny that the Church needs to change, though we may be sceptical about some of the directions proposed. But I am reminded of two things. First, in Archbishop Carey's time it was forecast that the C of E would die out by 2016 – and it clearly will not; indeed, here in 2015, even the most secular parts of the Press around Eastertide gave much recognition to its continuing if sometimes ambiguous strength. Second, a saying from my youth: Jesus taught thousands, healed hundreds.....and trained just twelve.

So, those of us who do feel called and chosen must indeed nurture our discipleship. And we must be equally ready to nurture it in others when called upon to do so. But we must ask our leaders to understand just why an over-emphasis on this concept could get in the way of that very mission which it is intended to promote.

We must also honour and learn from those disciples who have gone before us. A number of members of Modern Church have died in recent months. I mention two in particular: Canon Barbara Wollaston, a regular at Conference whose obituary appeared in The Guardian on 24 March; and Audrey Bryant, another Conference regular until recent years whose writing, particularly poetry, often graced these pages. These and others will be remembered in prayer in our Conference worship.

We – and our Church – do well if we avoid being obsessed with the here and now, and recollect that far greater company of which we are just a small part.