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Review: Wisdom and Insight on the Nature of Discipleship

Rowan Williams
Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life

Easter is a good time to remind ourselves about the essentials of being disciples of Christ. In this short book of six addresses Rowan Williams, in his customary style, summarises the ‘state of being’ involved in being ‘transparent’ to Christ. Being disciples means asking whether what we do, say and think is open to Christ and how as a Church we go on being a learning community growing in depth with one another and God.

The first address focuses on the idea of discipleship. Starting with a passage from John’s Gospel, where two disciples ask Jesus where he is staying. He said to them ‘Come and see.’ They went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. There is a lot about ‘staying’ or ‘abiding’ – it is a relationship that continues. There is a ‘non-intermittent’ quality in being a disciple. Rowan advocates a ‘simple willingness to be consistently in Christ’s company’. That means seeking the company of other servants of Christ, seeking Christ in scripture and the company of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in prayer. Building habits of attentiveness and expectancy towards God.

St John of the Cross is the guide for the second chapter on the three theological virtues, faith hope and love. St John believed that the human mind understands, it remembers, and it wants. In the Christian life faith is what happens to our understanding; hope is what happens to our remembering; and love is what happens to our wanting. Rowan unpacks them in turn before concluding that we rediscover these virtues as we discover that relationship with God that makes us whole.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is the core feature of the address on forgiveness. The bread that is shared amongst Christians, Rowan argues, is not only material resource but the recognition of dignity. In praying for ‘our daily bread’ we are asking God to sustain us and that we are not self-sufficient. To pray this with integrity we need to think about the ways in which we defend our own security or prosperity. Perhaps, says Rowan, this explains why the Lord’s Prayer at once goes on to pray for forgiveness – ‘or rather for the gift of being forgiven as we have learned to forgive.’ Forgiveness allows us to nourish one another’s humanity.

Next up is holiness. This starts by touching on the contrast we find in the Old and New Testaments about being holy. Holy means set apart or even danger of death if you get to close in the OT. In the NT we find passages reflecting the crucifixion as a holy thing – a holy event well outside of a conventional holy place and away from holy people. ‘It’s an execution machine on a rubbish dump outside the city wall.’ Holiness for Jesus is being in the middle of the mess and suffering of humanity – not being separated in a sanctuary. There are some wonderful nuggets in this chapter about holy people. They enlarge your world, bring a sense of joy, not afraid to be at the tough points in life, they allow you to see not them but God. Rowan’s advice in our journey towards holiness is for us to look towards Jesus and explore the world around us.

Looking outwards to the world is the focus of the fifth chapter. Rowan explores the tensions around secular society that seeks to keep religion in the private sphere. He argues for using two principles of Christian faith and discipleship as the basis for a moral society; we are each of equal value to God and we are all dependent on each other. He does not believe that we are called to impose our vision on society, rather to serve our communities and engage in issues of fair trade, environment, the reform of prisons and even be a ‘critical friend’ to the state and its laws.

The final chapter considers ‘Life in the Spirit’. What keeps us going as disciples are the four building blocks of self-awareness and stillness, growth and joy. We face many challenges in life, in the church and in ourselves to being disciples and staying spiritually healthy. Being a disciple is more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’ and it is through our life in the spirit that makes that at least a possibility.

This is a delightful book to spend time reflecting on each chapter in turn. There is so much wisdom to digest and insights to ponder.

– Review by Canon Dr Mike D Williams



Archbishop Rowan Williams will be speaking at Exeter Cathedral’s Holy Ground on Sunday 11 April at 6pm on Zoom.


Slow Book Group: Being Disciples: Essentials of Christian Living, by Rowan Williams

A slow book group is being planned for those who wish to study this little gem of Christian teaching together. Meetings will take place on the third Thursday of each month between 7pm and 8.30pm during May, June and July.  We shall devote our time to reviewing what we have read, sharing insights, seeking answers to questions and above all, reflecting on what our learning means for each of us in our daily effort to live out our faith. Whether you are relatively new to Christian living or seeking refreshment, Being Disciples is in many ways an ideal book to study together. If you would like to sign up for a place or have any questions please email Rev’d Phil Wales, Distinctive Deacon

 Being Disciples: Essentials of Christian Living can be ordered from the Cathedral Shop.