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The Meanings of Discipleship: Being disciples then and now by Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry, editors

04 March 2022

Don’t imagine there is only way of doing it, says Robin Gill

DIOCESAN courses on discipleship are much in vogue. Yet what exactly is discipleship? This thoughtful collection brings some much needed clarity and accessible scholarship to this question . . . and then confusion, albeit at a much deeper level. Arguably, that is indeed what serious theology does. The plural second word in this book’s title appears intentional.

Fifteen contributors offer a fascinating variety of perspectives on discipleship. The two editors introduce them and then, in their conclusion, valiantly attempt to summarise and compare them. No effort is made to encourage contributors to dialogue with each other — a great pity — but the final message from the editors is that the contributors variously demonstrate that “there has never been one clear-cut and definitive path of discipleship and that to invoke discipleship is not to terminate theological controversy. . . there are no identikit Christians.” This much, at least, emerges within all four sections.

In the first section, contributors examine the early foundations of Christian discipleship. The veteran Loveday Alexander writes a fine essay focusing on discipleship in Mark; and then Andrew Hayes uses his specialist knowledge to examine disputes among the early Fathers, while Sarah Brush uses hers to examine the popularity and ambiguities of medieval pilgrim discipleship.

In the next section, contributors outline the perspectives on discipleship of: Benedict, written by Sister Johanna Marie Melnyk; Calvin, by Randall Zachman; John Wesley, by Sondra Wheeler; and inevitably Bonhoeffer, by Jennifer Moberly. There are few surprises here. What may be new to readers is Betty Govinden’s interesting account of the Indian social reformer and activist Pandita Ramabai (1859-1922), who, like Gandhi, challenged both the caste system and colonialism, and yet, unlike Gandhi, controversially converted to Christianity.

The third section is more theoretical. Kirsteen Kim compares the way in which recent ecumenical and papal documents variously link discipleship and mission, and Matthew Bullimore commends eucharistic discipleship, while noting confusion caused by eucharistic “forced fasting” during Covid-19 lockdowns.

It is, however, Stephen Cherry’s contribution that is particularly suggestive, commending kindness rather than love as the crucial virtue for discipleship. Love for him (as for Oliver Davies’s A Theology of Compassion) is just too ambiguous a term. Cherry recognises frankly that kindness can be feigned and even inappropriate in challenging violent perpetrators. Yet kindness, properly understood, is based, not simply on attraction, attachment, or charity, but on faith and righteousness “formed in community”. Davies favoured “compassion” for similar reasons (as I do), but kindness is worth exploring further.

The final section is the most challenging and diverse. Here, Herman Paul contributes a fine essay on changing responses to secularisation in his native Netherlands. He suggests that many churchgoers there are today less interested in secularisation, understood as religious decline within the general population (perhaps churchgoers now simply take that for granted), than in the danger of becoming too secularised themselves and, thus, in need of discipleship training.

Following him, Richard Sudworth writes eirenically about shared interfaith experiences; Anthony Reddie writes pugnaciously about “white supremacy”; Sam Ewell writes wistfully about gardening and ecology; and Rachel Mann writes very personally about transgender identities. Each of these has something interesting to say, while leaving readers with no clues about how the contributors’ different perspectives might be held in tension together — let alone how they all fit into any composite overview of Christian discipleship(s).

Discipleship courses will need to work hard to take all of this on board — but responsible accounts of discipleship surely require nothing less. A stimulating collection.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and Editor of Theology.


The Meanings of Discipleship: Being disciples then and now
Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry, editors
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £28

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