My blogging has been a bit slack over the summer as I’ve been on sabbatical. As well as a goodly amount of rest and refreshment, I’ve kept thinking about discipleship, and beginning work on what I hope might become a long-term reading/research project on the development of ideas of Christian discipleship through history.
The language of ‘Discipleship’ (as a way of talking about the essential business of Christian being and doing, to which all Christians are called regardless of their individual gifts or ministries) has grown in currency in recent decades in the UK, out of a sense that simply assenting to particular beliefs and participating in a church community doesn’t by any means give the full measure of what we’re called into. The concept of ‘discipleship’ has probably also gained in significance out of the experience of a widening gap between wider social norms and values and those which Jesus teaches – if Britain is no longer the ‘Christian nation’ which it was still tenable to claim in the mid-twentieth century, intentional Christian living needed to be distinguished from more general notions of good citizenship or national identity. At the same time, within the mainstream churches, the past century has seen far-reaching reassessment of the role and status of the non-ordained. To caricature for brevity, the ordinary Christian is no longer primarily to be the supporter of their clergy and institution, but an active agent and co-worker in the Kingdom of God. Or, as Vatican II put it, the Church is nothing less than ‘the whole people of God’. ‘Discipleship’ also offers a biblically-rooted, ecumenically largely acceptable, terminology to express that call to distinctive Christian being and doing.
However, there are also challenges: for one thing, words and phrases go in and out of fashion in church as in any other organisational culture. Yesterday everything had to be about ‘mission’ or ‘ministry’, and now it’s about ‘discipleship’. How do we reach a depth of understanding of discipleship that enables transformation, rather than simply remaining a buzz-word for a season? Another issue is that the language of discipleship isn’t used equally by everyone, or in the same way: church institutions tend to imply ‘discipleship’ is a lay concern (as opposed to the concern of clergy and readers/local preachers with ‘ministry’) – so we have ‘discipleship’ officers and ‘ministerial development’ officers doing different things. Of course, if you ask the incumbents of those roles they’d be the first to say that it’s an artificial distinction: ordained ministers are ‘disciples’ too, whilst one can equally argue that every lay person has their own ‘ministry’ (sometimes a trained and authorised role within the church, sometimes not). But somehow, despite that, the language sticks. Not every Christian uses the word ‘disciple’ about themselves (and indeed as my new colleague Simon Foster is beginning to find in Saltley Trust’s ‘What Helps Disciples Grow?’ project (more on that soon!), some find the idea positively alienating). Moreover, once you begin digging back into the past, it’s quite apparent that ‘disciple’/’discipleship’ is not the favoured terminology in most historical periods. During the ‘long reformation’ of the 17th and 18th centuries, Jeremy Taylor and William Law write about ‘holy living’, whilst evangelicals from the Wesleys to Keswick speak of personal ‘holiness’ or of the journey of ‘sanctification’. In the mid-twentieth century, obituaries in local church magazines refer to the departed as ‘a good churchman/woman’ (Anglican) or ‘a good Methodist’, whilst in the church I grew up in, people tended to talk about ‘the Christian life’ or just ‘being a Christian’. And that’s not even scratching the surface of the classical, late antique and medieval periods, or of other cultures.
Quite apart from the terminology itself, there’s also change over time in the content of discipleship (or whatever you call it). What we think we are called to be an do as Christians is not always the same as what would be normative in 12th Century France, 16th Century Mexico, or 9th Century China. One very radical kind of reading of history would question whether there are any continuities between one period and another, and be doubtful whether our ‘discipleship’ has any family resemblance to that of other periods. I think that’s too pessimistic, and instead I’m inclined to follow Euan Cameron’s contention that there are some core ‘strings’ of continuity which are played in different ways and vibrate at different strengths in different periods. Whilst from any point in history we only see the totality in part, and never ‘unmixed’, we can by ‘triangulation’ begin to discern some of those key concerns (see: Euan Cameron, Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches’ Past (Blackwell 2005, esp. Introduction, chapter 2 and conclusion). Besides, as Rowan Williams wisely reminds us, ‘There are no hermetic seals between who I am as a Christian and the life of a believer in, say, twelfth century Iraq. I do no know, theologically speaking, where my debts begin and end’ (Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? (DLT, 2005, p. ).
If that’s true, exploring Christian history might actually tell us a great deal about discipleship as we encounter both that which echoes our own assumptions and concerns about a life of Christian being and doing, but also (importantly) which challenge us about aspects of discipleship which we have tended to forget or shove to the bottom of the pile. We’ll hear familiar words and concepts expressed in unfamiliar ways which might (if we listen with humility) cause us to reassess our own particular certainties. What we see as the strengths and weaknesses of the church at different times and in different cultures might also provide us an alternative vantage point to examine our own discipleship and ask probing questions about our own strengths and weaknesses.
Over the coming weeks and months I’ll try and use this blog space to share summaries of some of the reading I’ve been doing, and then perhaps to begin to reflect on what it all means. Although I’ve taught quite broad-based courses in the history of Christianity I only have one main period of expertise (the late 20th Century) so I’m not going to seek to provide a close critical reading of any text in context (except where I feel competent enough to do so). Instead, what you’ll get here will be more a face-value reading of particular texts, what they might tell us about the writers’ assumptions about Christian discipleship (or their nearest equivalent concept), and what kinds of questions they raise for us today. Oh, and I’m not the most consistent of bloggers, so do be patient!