WERE Christians to practise their discipleship fully, allowing faith to direct their whole lives, it could transform the Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued on Sunday.
He was preaching in St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, at the opening eucharist of the 17th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC).
“Discipleship is not an aspect of Christian living, a sidebar, a hobby, but it is the very core of life [for] every Christian, and should therefore shape our whole life,” he said.
The theme of this week’s meeting is “Going Deeper in Intentional Discipleship”: an initiative begun at the last ACC in 2016. At a press conference the previous day, he spoke of the way in which the initiative was “percolating” through the Anglican Communion rather than being imposed from above.
In the sermon, he spoke of Provinces that had embarked on initiatives “to equip the whole people of God to be intentional in their daily discipleship”. The Church of England was “catching up at last”, he said, with the programme Setting God’s People Free.
His prayer, he said, was that all the Provinces embrace intentional discipleship “in ways appropriate to their context”. He called, too, for more visibility. The Church should seek “to be visibly the body of Christ . . . visibly serving, visibly disagreeing well, visible witnesses to the hope that drives us today”.
Towards the end of the eucharist, at which the Archbishop of Hong Kong, the Most Revd Paul Kwong, presided, Archbishop Welby banged a gong three times to signal the opening of ACC-17 (click on video below). It was the only exotic moment in a service that could have taken place in a large English town church, were it not for the ceiling fans, such is the strength of Victorian Gothic and English hymnody.
The history of St John’s Cathedral is not English, however: it was vandalised during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War. Nor are its neighbours: few cathedrals in the world are so dwarfed by the buildings around them.
The hospitality, it must be said, was not English, either. After the service, ACC members were feasted near by. The path from the coach to the second-floor restaurant was lined by smart, smiling young people holding signs with the ACC logo, careful that no guest should lose his or her way. It was hard to conceive of a similar English welcome.
The feast itself was a showcase of Chinese cuisine, but, after a lion dance, the acknowledged highlight was a short performance by a 60-strong choir from the Choi Kou School, Macau, run by the Sheng Kung Hui (SKH: the Anglican Church of Hong Kong).
Before arriving in Hong Kong, Archbishop Welby had travelled to Beijing and Shanghai to meet newly appointed officials in charge of religion in mainland China. In a little over a day, he met the new leadership of the national committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China/China Christian Council, and representatives of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, as well as state officials in the leadership of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
Archbishop Kwong reported that relationships were warm between the SKH, whose independence was established when Hong Kong was returned to China 21 years ago, and the Church in mainland China.
In recent months, however, political tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland have come into the open. On Sunday evening, the largest street protest in five years marched against “Send to China rules”: proposed changes in the extradition law.
Listen to editor Paul Handley preview ACC-17 on the Church Times Podcast.
Watch the opening eucharist of ACC-17:
The Archbishop’s sermon in full
FIRST of all, may I thank His Grace the Archbishop for the invitation to preach in his cathedral, and Mr Dean the invitation to preach in his cathedral. It’s an Anglican tension as to whose cathedral it is, but I’ll leave you to fight that one out later.
Christian truth is not, by our self-discovery, found in our lives and in our Church and in our world; it’s not found by our human wisdom, but through the gracious revelation of God. The reading from the book of Revelation begins with words like “look”, so that we may see, not that we may work it out. And the greatest act of revelation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, celebrated today throughout the Orthodox world, as is usually the case, on a different Sunday to the dates of the Western Church.
Because of the resurrection — a physical and historical event; for no other explanation makes historical sense — disciples of Jesus then and now find their whole world-view changed. A light falls on us that reveals the world to be different from everything we imagined. The resurrection illuminates the reality that this is God’s world and God’s Church. Resurrection always has been, from the earliest days, including Thomas the apostle, unbelievable, and a stumbling-block for many people. It is not an idea that humans would have created. A made-up story would not have put God on a cross, nor Jesus rising from the dead. It is properly nonsense.
And so, it challenges all our presuppositions and prejudices about the world around us. They show themselves, our prejudices and presuppositions, as so often we humans start by creating our own concept of God — normally, with the preface “the God I believe in . . .”, and then we go on with our description. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Early Church theologians, said [that] these “concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols; wonder makes us fall to our knees. If you form a concept of God, you make an idol of God. We understand by revelation.”
We are disciples of Jesus Christ, the risen Son of God. As such, we are part of God’s Church, not the Church we want God to create. That Church would fit us much better. It would be much more comfortable, much less challenging, much easier. And the denominations of which we are a part, as Anglicans, and which many of us love, always give us the temptation of themselves becoming idols.
The disciples, as we read in the Acts, did indeed fall on their knees. And we hear time and time again of them worshipping. We also, of course, hear of the reality that, in worship, they faced persecution. In the case of the disciples, they were given strict instructions by the high priest, in the reading we had from the Acts of the Apostles, not to teach in the name of Jesus. Notice that the rulers use the phrase “in this name” and, later on, they say, “this man’s blood”. The name of Jesus is powerful. We read and sing songs of the powerful name of Jesus.
But listen to the courage of Peter and the disciples in verse 29. Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than human beings.” And Jesus says in Luke 6.22: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” Many here, like Peter, have had your faith tested under difficult circumstances — some of you under circumstances nearly impossible. Thank you for standing firm in your faith. Not only are you standing firm in your faith, you are also sharing your faith like Peter, who took advantage of the situation of being challenged to share the good news about Jesus Christ.
In verses 30 to 31 of Acts, he says that “the God of our ancestors who raised Jesus from the dead whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as prince and saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.” Possibly not what a defence attorney might have said, but. nevertheless, a clear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ.
It is a wonderful summary of the good news of salvation offered to every human being. It is because of the good news that Peter and his companions are witnesses of these things. You who are persecuted must share your stories with us, so that the universal Church may pray, and so that the world will know what you go through.
The US State Department has, for many years, been an advocate of the protection of Christians. Recently, the British Foreign Secretary has formed a commission under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Truro, Bishop Philip Mounstephen, who used to lead the Church Mission Society, to review and map levels of persecution and other forms of discrimination against Christians in key countries around the world.
Today, we know, again, more and more about the persecution of Christians. In the last two weeks, we have seen its fresh reality. Terrorists attacked those they thought to be Christians — Christians, and those who worked with and for Christians. They attacked the innocent, the helpless, those merely passing by in Colombo and other towns. They did so on Easter Day, the day of resurrection. That paradox of death all around, of the hands of violence seemingly triumphing, is as old as the promise of Jesus when he says to his disciples “Peace be with you,” and when the glorified Lord says, in Revelation, “Peace be with you.”
A patriarch of the Early Church, St Chrysostom, comments that these words “give to them, to counterbalance the war, the consolation”. We are called to support all those torn apart by persecution, by civil disorder, and by war. Starting with the prayer for peace, and then ourselves seeking to be the answer to that prayer for peace because we receive peace with God, and we receive much more than we can consume ourselves; so it should overflow to the world around us. God does not just pour a little peace into us; he turns a fire hose of peace upon us.
At Lambeth Palace, the reconciliation team is developing a course for parishes on the subject of reconciliation, and how to be reconcilers. And it’s being piloted at the moment, but it will be rolled out this September. In answer to that prayer.
Jesus gave his disciples peace, a peace that was beyond their understanding. As we gather for this ACC meeting, may our prayer always be that we will be filled with wonder and peace, and not descend to the level of creating concepts from behind the defensive barriers we so easily create of prejudice, and all those concepts which take on the form of idols. For in doing so, we lose peace, we abandon our sisters and brothers, we have nothing to which to witness.
Peter said that they were witnesses of the resurrection. And, as a witness, he could not be silenced. The women at the tomb in the previous chapter of John’s Gospel would not be silenced despite the men, the disciples, failing to believe them, mocking them, telling them that they were just women imagining things. Of course, our world has changed completely, hasn’t it? Sorry, that was a joke. Mary Magdalene was a witness of simple good news: “I have seen the Lord.”
Jesus gives his disciples peace; he reveals the new world of the resurrection. He has warned them of suffering, and then he says go. The Acts of the Apostles describes how they went, and the characteristic of going is to go and make disciples. Peace, suffering, disciples. They come together.
In many parts of the Communion, it is normal to make disciples. It is a bad day when there are no new disciples. In others, it is rare, exceptional, even forgotten. For example, in England we found that, in a survey last year, only about a third of churchgoing parents thought it important to pass on Christian faith, discipleship, to their children. Two-thirds thought it was a good thing to pass on moral teaching. One third thought it was a good thing to pass on the truth of Jesus Christ, the hope of resurrection, the knowledge of eternal life, the gift of peace, and so forth. And yet our families are our closest mission field.
I had an example of that only yesterday, from a family who live in what used to be my parish. Their parents became Christians after I left — the events may be connected. They may have believed in prayer at last. And then the children followed them on after they became Christians. I heard yesterday they now have three grandchildren, the parents, who are being brought up to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. Home witness to the peace of Christ matters.
And so, being intentional, deliberate, purposeful about discipleship as it is expressed in the Anglican Five Marks of Mission, and the making of new disciples, has always stood at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and therefore an Anglican. Discipleship is not an aspect of Christian living, a side line, a hobby . . . but it is the very core of life for every Christian and should, therefore, shape our whole life.
In my travel across the Communion, I have witnessed first-hand how Provinces in the Anglican Communion have embarked on initiatives to equip the whole people of God to be intentional in their daily discipleship. In their families, at work, in business, in politics, during leisure and in all other aspects of life, and how that leads to new disciples. In the diocese of Cyprus & the Gulf, they call this “Doing good and doing God”. In Kenya, they speak of a “Wholesome ministry for a wholesome nation”. In the Church of England, recently, catching up, at least — give us time: we’ll get there — it is “Set God’s people free”.
The former Primate of West Africa and the Archbishop of the Internal Province of Ghana, Archbishop Daniel Sarfo, has noted that this intentional discipleship is “God-sent in the Anglican Communion”. The Bishop of Jamaica & the Cayman Islands reported “there are few things that have been undertaken in our diocese which have generated so much interest among the members.” This was after the diocese of Jamaica & the Cayman Islands had hosted a consultation on the subject with Canon John Kafwanka, who is here today as one of the facilitators.
Some provinces had adopted a season of intentional, of purposeful, discipleship. While others are yet to awaken to the need for the centrality of purposeful, or intentional Christian discipleship and disciple-making. I pray that all the Provinces of the Anglican Communion embrace intentional discipleship in ways appropriate to their own contexts.
The fact that Jesus reveals himself to us, that we see who God is through the Jesus, the fact of revelation, changes our view of the world and our understanding of life. It transforms us so that we see the body of Christ, being part of that body that suffers in all its wonderful and beautiful diversity, cause us to be suffering bearers of peace amidst conflict that leads to witness. Witness calls us to discipleship at home, at work, in every place and moment so that the body of Christ grows. And, seeing growth, we become more confident, more open to God’s Spirit, more gripped by revelation, and the cycle repeats itself. Such is the gift of God that calls us to unhindered rejoicing.
Such is the gift that calls us if we disagree, yet, to love. To seek service, not power. To be visibly the body of Christ to our threatening, suffering, and war-torn world. Visibly serving, visibly disagreeing well, visible witnesses to the hope that drives us to know that, through his Spirit, God is preparing healing for the creation, and hope for peace. And we, the Christians of this world, we are his agents to witness in that work. Amen.
Hear more about ACC-17 on the Church Times Podcast