This is the first blog in a planned series from Revd Dr David Whiting who is currently on sabbatical
Being Disciples – Essentials of the Christian Life, by Rowan Williams – SPCK, London, 2016 (£8.99)
Rowan Williams, the last Archbishop of Canterbury, is not only an ecclesiastical statesman he is one of this country’s leading theologians. For most of his career Rowan Williams combined his theological teaching and study with a concern for pastoral care.
Being Disciples is a short book, but that does not diminish the value of the book. The book is just six chapters long and each chapter concludes with a series of questions for reflection and discussion. The chapters of the book are based upon addresses that Rowan Williams gave between 2007 and 2012.
For Rowan Williams discipleship is a ‘state of being’. ‘Discipleship is about how we live; not just the decisions we make, not just the things we believe, but a state of being’ (p.1). Each chapter begins with a quotation from the New Testament which sets the theme for the discussion that follows. The first chapter is entitled ‘Being Disciples’ and the chapters following are: ‘Faith, hope and love’, ‘Forgiveness’, ‘Holiness’, ‘Faith in society’ and ‘Life in the Spirit’.
In other books Rowan Williams has written about Spanish mysticism and the wisdom of the desert fathers and these are among the resources that he draws upon as he reflects upon the nature of discipleship. He refers to the writings of early and modern theologians as well contemporary poets and writers.
Among the topics that emerge in the book are questions of identity and the relationship between secular society and diverse religions. He writes how in each encounter with another human being we face mystery, there is a part of the life of another that exists only in relation to God and to God alone: ‘a human person is worth extravagant and lasting commitment. A human being deserves complete attention and care, whether rich or poor, whether they live for a day or for nine decades’ (p.65).
The final chapter is about life in the spirit, and he begins by unpacking what the word ‘spirituality’ means. It is really quite a modern word and our ancestors would not know what the word means. For Christians ‘spirituality’ is shorthand for ‘life in the spirit’ (p.76). Essentially this is not about ‘spiritual’ activities but about how we live out our lives. Rowan Williams draws upon Paul writing to the Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). ‘Spiritual ecstasy is no substitute for ordinary kindness and practical generosity’ (p.76).
One of the advantages of a short book is that it doesn’t take long to read it. One of the disadvantages is that we read the book and put it away. I suggest you don’t do that with this book; it is worth reading over and over again for there is much to learn from a wise teacher like Rowan Williams who longs to be with Jesus wherever he leads. The book can also worthy of being studied by groups, making use of the questions at end of each chapter.
3rd January 2017