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Discipleship, decline, and management talk

by
06 February 2015

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From the Rt Revd Timothy Dudley-Smith
Sir, - Twice in your last issue (Comment and Letters, 30 January) the word "discipleship" is called into question. It is possible to understand your contributors' misgivings, and yet to disagree.

What the word stands for seems to me so central to the Christian life that we should still cherish the word itself. Its primary meaning, surely, is of personal learning and following, and only then of one who seeks to make disciples. Perhaps one reason the word is out of favour is its link with the word "discipline", not one of the hallmarks of today's popular culture.

My friend John Stott valued the word and all that it stood for, believing that we would do well to use the word "spirituality" less, and "discipleship" more. The former is difficult to define, meaning different things to different people, and often inward-looking towards ourselves. In "discipleship", by contrast, he saw three essential ingredients: worship, faith, and obedience, all "called forth by the Word of God".

Another way of expressing this might be to see, in practical discipleship, obedience to the lordship of Christ, attentiveness to the teaching of Christ, and devotion to the person of Christ. Were these not the marks of those first "disciples"? Should they not be found in Christians in every age, including our own?

TIMOTHY DUDLEY-SMITH
9 Ashlands, Ford
Salisbury, Wiltshire SP4 6DY


From Mr Simon Foster
Sir, - Professor Linda Woodhead (Comment, 23 January) regards being a disciple as "theologically peripheral"; Canon Angela Tilby (Comment, 30 January) sees it as "odd". It is hard to believe that a noun that appears, in its Greek form, around 270 times in the New Testament can be either.

Being a disciple is a worthy aspiration. It suggests taking our call seriously; growing in it; holding fast and sacrificially to our Lord. Thirty years ago, in a massive ecumenical exercise for Lent in 1985, churchgoers were asked what they thought the tasks of the local church were. Eighty-nine per cent said that "teaching the faith" was essential or extremely important; 87 per cent said the same of "helping Christians relate faith to daily life"; 80 per cent, "helping people to pray". That thirst for growth among the laity lives on today.

In writing of their different anxieties around the word, your contributors demonstrate the big challenge for the Church in the coming decade: how to help the laity grow in, and into, the Church. The C of E's Developing Discipleship paper has been criticised for its lack of ideas. One useful next step would be to reappraise the traditional relationship between the clergy and the laity, and set out a fresh vision.

"Discipleship" language enables that. The challenge is already illuminated by amazing examples in churches of every tradition.

The laity has long been the junior partner in the Church. Letting your "little" brother or sister grow up is never easy. But grow up they will. The relationship is changing: with nurture, it should deepen as each matures.

SIMON FOSTER
59 Addison Road
Birmingham B14 7EN


From the Revd John Wylam
Sir, - The perception and lament of the laity is that the clergy do not visit their parishioners. The tenor of much in the Church Times of late has been that management is all-important. There is no doubt that the world of the computer has brought benefits to the world of administration and deployment. Does the emphasis on management promote decline?

The scriptural image of the shepherd is one of being out and about, listening and abiding. There is merit in the clergy knowing their people, and the people knowing their clergy. But the most important task of a shepherd is to feed his sheep. In pastoral and Christian terms, this means administering the sacraments and feeding the word of God. In priestly terms, this may be seen as presenting God to the people, and the people to God.

Is the perception and lament of the people correct, which accounts in part for the decline of the Church?

JOHN WYLAM,
Nether House, Garleigh Road
Rothbury
Northumberland NE65 7RG


From Mr George Short
Sir, - News that a "simplification task group" is recommending removal of the requirement for there to be consultation with incumbents and PCCs about glebe transactions inevitably brings to my mind the particular and painful memory of the way one diocesan authority brought about the decline and closure of a thriving parish hall, built by public subscription at the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

Like the Victorian priest who gladly allowed a parish hall to be erected on his glebe, may the Church of today gladly use its inherited land and buildings for the common good - and may diocesan officials be unafraid of open, authentic, and friendly consultative conversation with incumbents, PCCs, and ordinary folk of "all faiths and none".

GEORGE SHORT
30 Wilmer Crescent
Kingston upon Thames
Surrey KT2 5LU

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