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Why all the fuss about Discipleship?

Why all the fuss about Discipleship?

The Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer

08 April 2019 10:03AM

The Director for Theological Education at the Anglican Communion Office, the Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer, unpacks Intentional Discipleship.

The Season of Intentional Discipleship is a movement taking hold in many dioceses of the Anglican Communion. A recent report on the movement, Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making (ACC 2016), describes a remarkable range of ways it is being expressed in different parts of the world and in different theological traditions within and beyond Anglicanism. The report also describes how there “is a growing consensus within the worldwide Church that discipleship is one of the key issues of our times” (page 81).

In many ways this is puzzling. Has discipleship not always been part of the life of the church, following on from baptism and confirmation and membership of the church? Is not a disciple simply someone who lives by the 10 commandments, says their prayers and turns up to worship week by week? Why is there a movement of something which already exists?

Why are the official meetings of the Anglican Communion, such as the Anglican Consultative Council of 2016 and 2019, and the Lambeth Conference of 2020, giving over a large part of their agendas to something that is, basically, unexceptional?

A glance at some history suggests some answers. Anglicanism came to birth as a distinct tradition within western Christianity at the Reformation. In this pre-Enlightenment era there was no separation between sacred and secular, the religious and the civil domains, a separation common today. Religion was part and parcel of everyday life and affected every aspect of human living, of mind, body and spirit in equal measure.

This is why religious affiliation mattered so much and why rulers would go to war to ensure that their people remained within their own church. The issues that separated the churches were expressed in terms of doctrine and so each Reformation church developed written statements or “confessions” which their members had to subscribe to.

For the Church of England those being confirmed into full membership of the church had to be able to recite the answers to set questions in the Catechism, and those being ordained had to subscribe to the Thirty Nine Articles. The sign of full adult discipleship, then, became cognitive understanding and assent to a set written statements.

Problems with this approach set in during and after the Enlightenment, an era which saw a gradual separation of sacred from secular, of the religious realm from the rest of life. In many places faith was separated from the public sphere and privatised. It became something that a person would choose for themselves but never seek to impose on others.

This resulted in discipleship itself becoming more and more restricted to an internal and privatised dimension of life, often within religious settings. The church’s continued use of assent to doctrines as the mark of discipleship did not help in getting new members to see that following Christ was about the whole of life, not just knowing and reciting a set of beliefs.

This in turn led to a loss of confidence in the Christian faith in secular minded societies, with decline in church attendances an inevitable result.

The inadequacy of the traditional approach to discipleship in a modern setting is shown when we remember that human beings are not only cognitive animals who operate through their minds. They also have hearts, the affective realm, and bodies, the physical realm, and souls, the spiritual realm.

Jesus’ great commandments reminds us that to follow him means to love God “with all your heart”, “with all your soul”, “with all your strength’” as well as “with all your mind”. It is also all about loving your neighbour as yourself. Growth into adult discipleship therefore needs to be growth in all these dimensions, not just one.

The Season of Intentional Discipleship is all about churches no longer leaving all this to chance but intentionally setting out to rediscover this holistic way of following Christ, and being caught up in its life-giving energy: that being a disciple is about more than being a student who learns certain doctrines with their mind, or a worker who learns to perform certain tasks with their body, or even a friend who learns to express affection with their heart.

“Christian discipleship”, rather, “is best understood as a form of apprenticeship undertaken in an intentional community: it is practical and corporate, and involves the whole of life. It is . . . not about what we know, but about who we are becoming” (page 81).

The season is a movement because it is infectious, passing from person to person in a natural kind of way: “It is not a course, it is not a certificate, it is not something that we will just learn for a year or two . . . but it is a life line, it is a life time of learning” (Archbishop Moon Hing, “Intentional Discipleship in a World of Difference”, ACC leaflet, page six).

It is, simply, “people growing in their sense of being loved by, and loving God as encountered in the person of Jesus Christ, and responding by offering themselves to God and God’s world through coming to know Jesus more deeply, and ordering their lives around this relationship, in community with all of Jesus’ disciples” (Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making, page 3).