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