ACC Lusaka: “Intentional discipleship” document reveals understandings of what it means to be Anglican.

Apr 5, 2016 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The forthcoming meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council will hear a call for a renewed Communion-wide initiative on promoting “intentional discipleship and disciple-making”. A report on the Anglican Communion website says that in some parts of the world, the church is in decline, while in others there has been success in evangelism and church planting but “very little intentional emphasis on equipping, mentoring, forming, teaching, or maturing those who believe in Jesus…to be lifelong disciples whose faith is to have impact in every sphere of their daily experience.”

It is significant, and typical of the divisions in Anglicanism, that a proposal which should be warming the hearts of evangelical Anglicans will be presented at a meeting where a significant proportion of such Anglicans will not be attending.

The Episcopal Church (USA) leadership, reprimanded by a large majority of Primates at the meeting in Canterbury in January for promoting an understanding of discipleship at odds with the New Testament, church history and most of the contemporary worldwide church, were asked to withdraw from participation as full members of global Anglican meetings for the next three years as a ‘consequence’ of their departure from commonly held Christian understandings of sexuality and marriage. Within weeks we were told that their representatives will not only be attending the ACC meeting in Lusaka, but they will be participating and voting as if nothing had happened.

As a result the churches of Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, and now Jerusalem and the Middle East, have declined to attend the meeting – these are churches which have in many ways provided some of the best Anglican models of evangelism and discipleship (although their leaders would be the first to admit there are many gaps and faults). Of course representatives of many north American Anglican churches committed to biblical models of discipleship will not be attending the ACC meeting either, as they have left TEC to form ACNA, relate to the Anglican Communion through GAFCON, and their status in relations to Canterbury is uncertain.

So for those who will be attending in Lusaka, what picture of discipleship will they be getting? Among the list of resources provided on the ACNS website is a book available as a downloadable document of around 140 pages, entitled Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making: An Anglican Guide for Christian Life and Formation. It’s worth looking at this in some detail. It is described by Archbishop Justin Welby as “the best document I have read on the subject” (quoted in ACNA report here). In my view it provides a good picture of global Anglicanism. It has much to commend it, containing much excellent material, but also some that is weak or ambiguous.

The first few chapters read like an evangelical primer on the Christian life. “To be a disciple is to follow, and the nature of that discipleship is defined by the One we follow. To be a disciple-maker is to have been transformed as we follow him who calls us so that we share in the calling and lifelong transformation of others.”

There are footnoted references to venerable evangelical Anglican luminaries J I Packer and Michael Green. Discipleship is defined and described with constant reference to biblical terminology. There are sections on Old Testament background (teaching through the Scriptures to the community, the importance of worship) and New Testament (the words, character and direction of Jesus; the empowering presence of the Spirit; a focus on 1 Peter as a case study of a disciple who becomes a ‘disciple-maker’ with an emphasis on the need to live differently). Brief surveys of early church, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions show the common practices of studying Scripture, prayer, worship, personal holiness and communal social action as central to discipleship in all the main church traditions.

While the orthodox and Catholic traditions led in some cases to different standards of discipleship being expected of clergy and those in the monastic life compared with the laity, Anglicanism is rooted in the Reformation understanding of the priesthood of all believers. Catechism, or the systematic teaching of key elements of the Christian faith to new believers (and in many cases, to all young people through schools) led to widespread Christian literacy in England. There was of course some nominal Christianity where knowledge was not backed up with personal faith, but also the basis for genuine renewal movements, which became the foundation of the voluntary home and overseas mission societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. These in turn ensured that as the Gospel was taken by Anglican missionaries all over the world, the discipleship principles at the basis of the establishment of churches and schools resulted in the development of indigenous local leadership and structures – “the catechist is the unsung hero of African church history” (Ghanaian writer John Pobee).

In the 20th century the emphasis on catechesis declined, and throughout the Communion worship, whether sacramental or Pentecostal-influenced, has sometimes lost connection with disciplined teaching and learning of Scripture and key elements of the Christian life and faith. The Decade of Evangelism (1990’s) gave new impetus for witness and church growth, and recognized great work already being done, especially in the global south.

There is a shared recognition of the need for making disciples, not just adding to numbers in church. Nominal Christianity combines low commitment with reduced community impact. And then, in answer to some recent criticism of the word, discipleship is Anglican. Our tradition is not a spiritualized or intellectualized faith, but “living as citizens of the Kingdom in this world, disciples of the Crucified One”. This is why a renewed emphasis on discipleship is needed.

So the editors have included some excellent material to undergird the call to ‘intentional discipleship’ – nothing startlingly new, but biblical and sound in terms of mission theology and practice. However they have also included some less helpful sections. From chapter six the language changes. We read less about the responsibility of individual Christians and churches to grow in holiness and relationship with Christ, understanding of Scripture and prayer, and then working out into the community and nation, and more on the love of God working through the church institution in reconciliation, inclusion, the healing of creation. Some sections foreground the sacraments, emphasizing baptism and the Eucharistic community as the entry point into discipleship rather than repentance and faith.

Case studies from Africa and Asia show vibrant churches doing evangelism and social action, using resources such as “Rooted in Jesus” and “Alpha”, developing their own discipleship and leadership training programmes, as well as gaining benefits from evangelical programmes of other denominations and para church organizations. The case studies from Wales, Europe, Brazil and north America however are predictably disappointing. Europe emphasizes hospitality, ecumenism and inter-faith cooperation, and the TEC report (p103ff) says that now that we are in “post-Christendom”, Christian life consists of “reimagining” the faith and developing “new narratives”.

The inclusion of this section by TEC, advocating the replacement of historic doctrine and practice of the Christian life with something new (although this is not specified), jars with and even contradicts the majority of the document. It is a good illustration, if we needed further evidence, of the problem that will be the elephant in the room when the document is discussed in Lusaka. A nice report will be produced after the event, but if the Anglican Communion really wants to work in unity for renewal of discipleship, the constituent churches must at least agree on the basics of the Christian faith. This document shows that the majority of Anglicans, mostly in the global south (whether or not explicitly aligned with GAFCON) have an orthodox understanding of faith and are seeking to get on with evangelism, church planting, discipleship and discipling according to the Scriptures. Increasingly, Anglicans in the north and West have developed a very different understanding of faith and therefore of what it means to follow Christ. As we all know, different understandings of sex and marriage are just the surface ‘presenting issue’. Underneath we find the difference between discipleship and apostasy.


Related Posts


Share This