Book review: The Meanings of Discipleship

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry (eds.), The Meanings of Discipleship: Being Disciples Then and Now (London: SCM Press, 2021)

by James Butler, Church Mission Society

Discipleship seems to be popping up everywhere. The term that is. Whether it is in the denominational calls to renewal to reverse church decline, or the multitude of courses and programmes emerging from organisations supporting mission and learning in churches, discipleship has become the most common way to frame this. The Meanings of Discipleship is therefore timely, a prolonged theological reflection on discipleship through its meaning, history and practice. The book has much to offer in drawing the reader to a multitude of sources to enrich the understanding and practice of discipleship. It is an edited volume split into two parts. Each part is also split into two sections.

Part 1 is “A very short history of discipleship”, looking at the early foundations and the architects of discipleship. The first three chapters turn to the New Testament, the early church and medieval Christianity respectively. The next five look at particular key figures such as Benedict, Calvin and Ramabai. There is a helpful basis for much of the discussion here, and some important insights emerge through the chapters, around agency, holiness and church. The problem with the section is it does not, in my opinion, have enough focus on drawing out the learning for the contemporary church. Partly due to it being a multi-authored volume it does not have a sense of forward motion and the reader is left to do much of the work of making the bigger connections.

Part 2, entitled “Imperatives for Discipleship Today”, turns much more clearly to the contemporary context. Helpful chapters on missionary discipleship by Kirsteen Kim, on Eucharist Discipleship by Matthew Bullimore and Relational Discipleship by Stephen Cherry are for me the heart of the book and the most important contributions to the discussion on discipleship. Bullimore’s account of the everyday and domestic and its relationship to prayer and eucharist I found particularly compelling. The five chapters on priorities for contemporary disciples – while all strong and engaging essays with much to contemplate and draw from – felt like they needed a bit more direction and to be more focused on exploring the “meanings of discipleship”.

The fact that, as the title indicates, discipleship has many meanings, causes problems for the book. While this is an important observation about the language of discipleship and one which I would have liked to see given greater attention, it means that the offerings in the different chapters cover a huge range of topics – from medieval pilgrimage to racial justice, from historical “architects” of discipleship such as Benedict and Bonhoeffer to trans experience. While all these chapters offer fascinating insights in their own right, because of discipleship’s many meanings it was harder to see what they offered together to the contemporary understanding of discipleship. I felt there were assumptions about what discipleship was within the different chapters that were not always brought to the surface. And I would have liked to see more engagement between the chapters – something which is, admittedly, tricky in an edited volume.

I think Hayes and Cherry have a keen sense of the issues at stake in the contemporary use of the language of discipleship around agency, connectedness, ecclesiology, desire and holiness and would like to have seen the volume explore these in more detail. Hopefully there is more to come from them around these themes.

Generally, I think this volume makes a helpful contribution to the discussion around discipleship and offers a multitude of perspectives that will serve scholars and practitioners as they reflect on the meanings of discipleship. I recommend the essays from Herman Paul, Anthony Reddie and Rachel Mann in particular as deeply thought provoking and challenging. Overall, this is a rich book with much to recommend despite the limitations suggested above.

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