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Dissing the D-word

30 January 2015

"DISCIPLESHIP" is the new C-of-E-speak. It is the key theme in the papers about the Church's future, prepared for the February Synod. The assumption is that clergy and laity now need to think of themselves primarily as sharing a vocation as missionary disciples, to halt declining church numbers.

I confess that I struggle with the "D" word. I use it when I have to, but always with a bad conscience. To me, it reflects the peculiarly sectarian vocabulary that has taken over the Church in recent years, and shows the influence of American-derived Evangelicalism on the Church's current leadership.

To those who use such language, it is second nature; they have no idea of how odd it sounds to those Anglicans for whom "discipleship" conjures up images of Galilean fishermen with tea towels on their heads rather than a calling with which they can identify. But, more worryingly, using the language of discipleship to describe the normal Christian life does not stand up particularly well to scriptural scrutiny.

Only one part of the New Testament supports the idea that the Church's purpose is to make missionary disciples: the early chapters of Acts, where clusters of new believers are indeed called disciples. Even here, the word "disciple" does not stick; later chapters refer to "followers of the Way" (first called Christians in Antioch). In the Synoptic Gospels and John, the word nearly always refers to The Twelve: those particular individuals to whom the Lord initially entrusted his message.

There's little about disciples in the rest of the New Testament; certainly not in Paul's letters, in spite of his missionary passion. Scripture might therefore suggest that discipleship is not the best description of normative Christian life. Life in the Spirit or life in Christ are obvious alternatives, bridging the Fourth Gospel and the Pauline letters, both of which are concerned with the Church's life in present time rather than with the earthly history of Jesus (where the language of discipleship really belongs).

Discipleship as a convenient term to ramp up the commitment of the laity sounds alien to Anglican instincts, and it is. But then there is little in the Synod papers which reflects faith in Anglicanism as a living tradition, with norms and perspectives that are organic, rather than organisational; rooted in history, yet flexible to context; liturgically grounded, but pastoral in effect. That is the problem; and I hope Synod members are gearing up for creative revolt.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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