Building a relational culture through
Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning
This brief paper emerged from a series of virtual discussions on the theme of ‘building a relational culture’ within the Church of England. The argument is advanced in three steps. The first step ‘rooted in the gospel narrative’ raises the primary question ‘to what are we called, and how shall we respond?’ An analysis of the first part of Mark’s Gospel, taking us to the transfiguration, proposes that we are called into Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning in order to become transformed by our growing awareness of God’s activity in God’s world. This transformation, however, is not for our benefit as disciples, but for equipping us to share in God’s mission for God’s world. The five thousand, like sheep without a shepherd, deserve food for their bodies and food for their souls. The second step ‘rooted in the Anglican tradition’, assesses the distinctive continuity between this Marcan vision and an Anglican polity that envisages a Christian presence in every community, a commitment both to discipleship learning and to public service, a collaborative relational presence focused on the bishop, shared with priests and deacons, expressed through a lectionary-driven eucharistic community in which the whole People of God (lay and ordained) share in the Messianic banquet, and where Catholic and Reformed perspectives offer mutual enrichment. The third step ‘rooted in facilitated learning’ explores the distinctive contribution of an innovative programme of facilitated discipleship learning (that affords degree-level university accreditation), rooted both in the Marcan vision and in the Anglican tradition. Piloted first in Wales, this programme currently flourishes in the Anglican Church in Newfoundland and in the Anglican Church in Cyprus and the Gulf.
Rooted in the Gospel narrative
Mark’s Gospel has a surprising structure, a structure that both Matthew and Luke clearly failed to grasp as they set out to improve Marks’ narrative and to reshape it according to their own agenda. In doing so, they obscured the centrality of Mark’s clear Gospel message. The prologue to Mark’s Gospel, (1: 1-14) formulates with clarity Mark’s theological agenda:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It is no accident that Mark’s opening word picks up the opening of Genesis, and proclaims a new beginning. The good news that Mark proclaims is focused on Jesus, and Jesus’ theological significance is captured by the two designations as Christ and as Son of God.
In this prologue the designation as Christ is validated by the activity of John. John comes clothed as Elijah, the king-maker. John comes empowered to anoint Jesus as Messiah, and the anointing that John effects is validated by the voice from heaven proclaiming the royal Psalm of anointing: ‘Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.’
In this prologue the designation as Son of God is validated by the encounter with Satan. Just as the first Adam stood there among the wild beasts and confronted the tempter, so now does Adam’s successor on the edge the new beginning. This time, however, Satan does not get the upper hand. Instead, angels are at hand to support the Son of God inaugurate the new People of God.
Immediately following the prologue, Mark brings Jesus onto the stage proclaiming (speaking out, effecting) the good news of God’s new beginning. The Reign of God is about to be experienced and recognised. In Mark’s account the opening evidence that the Reign of God has arrived was seen when four fishermen were called away from their nets, Andrew and Simon from casting their nets and James and John from mending their nets. It is clear from what these four fishermen were called away. But to what were they called?
Mark seems to suggest that these four fishermen were called into close personal relationships with Jesus, into what I choose to style Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning. In the Marcan narrative, Jesus seems to have been very intentional about the way in which these four (and the other nine) were nurtured into reading the world differently and, eventually, into recognising Jesus for who (according to the prologue) he really is. Jesus’ intentional strategy is shaped by building a relational culture. Within this relational culture Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning facilitates their re-interpretation of the inherited tradition and facilitates their reading of what they observe of God’s activity in the world around them.
In the Marcan narrative, Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning begins precisely as Jesus intends to continue with his relational culture of facilitated learning. The very first activity in which Jesus engages with his first four followers occurs on the Sabbath in Capernaum. The Reign of God is unveiled in front of the four followers in the place where the scriptures are held and where the scriptures are interpreted. It is in the synagogue that Jesus taught. Unlike Luke, Mark makes no attempt to capture the content of Jesus’ teaching. For Mark the point is not in the content but in the weight. They were astonished at Jesus’ teaching because he spoke with authority.
Within that synagogue, alongside the interpretation of the scriptures, these four fishermen were confronted with new experience. There they confronted the encounter between Jesus and a man with an unclean spirit. That experience raised a formative question in their minds:
What is this? A new teaching – with authority!
He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him?
Facilitated relational learning, begins not with the proclamation of answers, but with the identification of the right questions, rooted in personal and in collective experience.
Immediately after leaving the synagogue, Mark moves the narrative from sacred space to domestic space. Together Jesus and the four transfer their relational location to Simon’s house. Just as all was not well within the sacred space, all was not well within the domestic space. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. There in the relational domestic space Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them. Clearly the emerging Reign of God is not restricted to sacred space.
As Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning took root, a fifth member was added to the relational community in the form of Levi (2: 13-17). Later a further eight members were named (3: 13-19) among the appointed twelve. Intriguingly, in line with the ambiguous status of the Levites in various enumerations of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament, the recently enlisted Levi falls below the radar.
As the Marcan narrative progresses, this diverse group of twelve or thirteen individuals called into Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning witness a great deal; they see a lot and hear a lot as their eyes are opened, and as their curiosity is stimulated. Of significant importance is the way in which they are schooled to keep a keen eye on the world around them, looking for clues regarding the way in which God’s world works. They are being inducted into the approach of empirical theology when Jesus invites them to observe the sower. By observation they recognise and note the four different styles of soil and the different patterns of growth associated with different styles of soil. By calculation they recognise the different growth within the good soil, distinguishing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold.
Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning reaches its goal at Caesarea Philippi (8: 27-30) when Jesus first asks the global question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ and then follows up with the personal question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It seems that by this stage sufficient dialogue had taken place in Simon Peter’s mind, engaging personal experience with re-interpretation of the scriptures, for the penny to have dropped and for disclosure to have taken root. ‘You are the Messiah’ he said (just as set out in the Marcan prologue). The confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi was followed six days later by ascent of the high mountain where Jesus was transformed in the presence of Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets) and where the voice from heaven (that had proclaimed the royal Psalm of anointing directly to Jesus in the second person singular) now proclaims the same Psalm in the third person singular for all to hear.
Jesus’ School of Discipleship learning that had focused so much attention on the nurture and formation of the twelve or thirteen who had responded to his call had not invested in these individuals solely for their personal gratification and development. Alongside the involvement in building a relational culture among the few, there remained throughout the Marcan narrative a strong emphasis on the needs of the many. This emphasis is voiced most clearly during the aftermath of the missionary journey (6: 30-44).
The apostles returned weary after their ambivalent experience both of rejection and of acceptance, and in light of the news of the execution of John the Baptist, foreshadowing the fate of their own leader and teacher. They returned wearied by much coming and going and by having no leisure even to eat. Jesus invited them to set sail for a deserted place. It was in that hypothesised deserted place that they encounter a crowd of five thousand. It was there that Jesus’ heart went out to the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd. It was there that the hunger of the crowd overshadowed the hunger of the twelve or thirteen who were pressed into service to effect the Reign of God among the many as well as among the few.
For Mark, the feeding of the five thousand was such an important part of the experience of those shaped within Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning that, not only was the narrative reinformed by the parallel feeding of the four thousand (8: 1-10), but both narratives were drawn together and summarised (8: 14-21). Indeed, the summary was reinforced by the rhetorical question, ‘Do you not yet understand?’
To understand the Marcan imperative issued by the emerging Reign of God is to accept the call from the old way of life, to embrace the call for engagement with the relational culture of the facilitated school of discipleship, and to engage with God’s mission for God’s world.
Rooted in the Anglican tradition
Different expressions of Church, different ecclesiologies have expressed the balance between formation of disciples and service for the world in different ways. The architecture defining this balance is complex but remains rooted in clear patterns that underpin diversity (and fragmentation) within the Christian tradition. At heart the difference is concerned with world-affirming and world-denying interpretations of the tradition. The tendency for the sectarian approach (world denying) is to focus attention on shaping disciples in order to rescue them from the world. The danger is that the call to feed the five thousand may be overlooked or undervalued, and that the twelve may become increasing isolated from the world. The tendency for the church approach (world affirming) is to focus attention on serving the world. The danger is that the call to nurture the twelve may be overlooked or undervalued, and that the twelve may become increasingly ill equipped to carry through their mission of service.
Within this over-simplified demarcation between the sectarian approach and the church approach are two key and highly visible factors. The first factor is rooted in doctrinal priorities. The Christian narrative has been shaped by the dialogue among the three doctrines of creation, fall, and redemption. The world-affirming approach tends to prioritise the doctrine of creation, while the world-denying approach tends to prioritise the doctrine of fall and the Christocentric approach to redemption. The second factor is rooted in theological and liturgical approaches. Christian theological and liturgical practice has been shaped by the dialogue between cognitive and affective priorities. The world-affirming approach tends to prioritise the affective components of liturgy and personal engagement, while the world-denying approach tends to prioritise the cognitive approach and personal belief. The two approaches are distinguished by distinctive attitudes toward scripture and toward the authority of scripture.
Within this kaleidoscope of Christian traditions, the Anglican tradition in general, and the Church of England in particular, occupies a unique position. Emerging from the Reformation with a twin commitment to roots in the Catholic tradition and to roots in the Reformed tradition, the Church of England has remained open to a range of influences that has enabled it to hold in tension world-embracing and world-denying perspectives. With the rise of the Tractarian Movement and the Evangelical Movement during the early nineteenth century the Church of England re-connected in engaging ways with the rich diversity resourced by these twin roots in the Catholic and Reformed traditions.
The current challenge faced by the Church of England concerns how it can remain faithful to its distinctive heritage in a rapidly changing sociological context. Society has changed and this change is best reflected both in growing secularisation and in the increasingly visible presence of religious diversity. These pressures tend either to encourage the Christian presence to retreat into a sectarian position, raising the threshold between disciples and society, or to attempt to maintain the veneer of a Christian presence that is inadequately resourced and under-developed. Neither option affords longer-term sustainability.
Against this background, I propose to argue for a distinctive continuity between the Marcan vision of the call into the relational culture of Jesus’ School of Discipleship Learning and an Anglican polity that envisages a Christian presence in every community. The key to this argument is that a Christian presence in every community, within the present sociological context of secularisation and religious diversity, requires an appropriately balanced commitment both to discipleship learning and to public service. Only the former can now resource and release the potential for the latter. The mandate for such a vision is purely Marcan in its origin.
Such a commitment both to discipleship learning and to public service is consistent with the essence of Anglican identity as reflected in a collaborative relational presence focused on the bishop, shared with priests and deacons, and expressed through a lectionary-driven eucharistic community in which the whole People of God (lay and ordained) share in the Messianic banquet, and where Catholic and Reformed perspectives offer mutual enrichment.
Rooted in facilitated learning
In the late 1990s, a group of Anglican theologians working within the University of Wales began to envisage what the Marcan School of Discipleship Learning would look like transplanted into an Anglican presence within the context of today’s secular and religiously diverse society. We imagined that for such a programme to carry weight it would need to be validated to degree level (BA in Theology for Discipleship) and accredited by Churches as a viable platform for education and formation for authorised lay and ordained ministries (creating a seamless progression for those who experienced a call to ministry, following their response to a call to discipleship learning). The BA in Theology for Discipleship incorporated distinctive pedagogical principles, distinctive mode of delivery, distinctive curriculum, distinctive emphasis on formation, and distinctive pattern for assessment.
In terms of distinctive pedagogical principles, the programme was rooted in the unique experience of the individual participants and in their intended discipleship trajectory. The programme required candidates to be commended and supported by their local church and for this local church to be engaged with their developing expression of discipleship. The pedagogy expected candidates to take seriously their ordinary theology (in the sense proposed by Jeff Astley, 2002, 2003), to connect theological learning and personal formation, and to engage with research-based reflective practice.
In terms of distinctive delivery, the programme was delivered at a distance within the relational culture of Local Education Groups involving between six and ten participants who met weekly for two or three hours for a nine-week term. Participants were asked to prepare for each meeting of the Local Education Group by studying set material and by preparing responses to set exercises. Local Education Groups were convened by a Facilitator. The role of the Facilitator was not to serve as teacher for the Local Education Group, but to facilitate conversation and debate about the areas that had been considered in preparation for the meeting. Facilitation is a skilled task. Comparability between groups was maintained by regular meetings for Facilitators.
The distinctive curriculum was designed to support theological learning coupled with personal, spiritual, and professional formation, engaging conversation between (on the one hand) the experiences and ordinary theology of the participants, and (on the other hand) the Christian tradition as valued and discussed by the Church and by the academy. The curriculum took seriously the debates of contemporary theological scholarship alongside the concerns and experiences of ordinary Christian disciples engaged with the opportunities and challenges of being actively involved with life in the secular world and in the local congregation. The programme was supported by two key series of books: the Exploring Faith series published by Darton, Longman and Todd (see for example, Astley, 2000, 2004; Francis, 2005; Redfern, 2000), and the Learning Church series published by SCM Press (see Astley, 2014, 2016; Holdsworth, 2014, 2016; Jones, 2014; Village 2016). These two key series were designed to give priority to the experiences and theological quest of the participants, encouraging their experience and quest to engage with the tradition. These two key series do not begin with the tradition. To provide a balanced basis for theological engagement, the programme organised three streams of modules, with one module for each stream present during each of the six years taken by the programme. One stream concerned the Church’s engagement with scripture, a second stream concerned the church looking toward domestic matters (say vocation or worship) and a third stream concerned the church looking toward engagement with the wider world (say Christian ethics, or mission and service).
The distinctive emphasis on formation was designed to support an accompanied journey for disciples (as much as for ministry candidates). This accompanied journey is grounded in the Marcan image of Jesus accompanying his chosen twelve or thirteen on a facilitated journey, during which two key discoveries gradually take place. Drawing on their personal and collective experience, and dialoguing their experience with the theological tradition, their eyes are opened to see who it really is whom they have begun to follow. Then recognising Jesus for who he really is, their task is to grasp what they themselves have been called to become. Discipleship learning is as much concerned with personal, spiritual, and professional formation as with academic outcomes.
The distinctive pattern of assessment reflects the distinctive motivation of the participants. Each module is assessed by a portfolio of three equally weighted components. The first component is held in common with any other recognised academic award in theology. Participants are required to submit an essay that assesses the academic learning outcomes of the module. The second component reflects the pedagogical method of the programme. Each week participants are required to offer a short response to the learning task reflecting the week’s course material. At the end of the module participants are required to revisit two of these learning tasks and to develop a fuller essay on them. The third component reflects the overall aim of the programme that encourages dialogue between the academic learning outcomes and the personal, spiritual, and professional formation of the participants. Participants are invited to reflect on the connection between the module and their personal Christian pilgrimage.
Reflections on the way in which the BA in Theology for Discipleship operated within Wales were published in a special issue of Rural Theology (volume 13, number 1, 2015) edited by Jeff Astley. In this collection of essays, Jeff Astley (2015) discusses the notion of ‘discipleship learning’ and focuses educational and biblical reflections on ‘forming disciples’. Leslie Francis (2015) discusses setting priorities for the rural church that involve taking discipleship learning seriously and details the BA in Theology for Discipleship offered by Glyndŵr University in association with the St Mary’s and St Giles’ Centre. Randolph Ellis (2015) discusses practising Christian formation within a group under the title, ‘Moving from idle talk to transformative conversation’. The current Vice Chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, Peter Neil (2015) undertakes an evaluation of the impact of the programme on participants under the title, ‘Exploring a formal model of discipleship in higher education in care studies’.
After the Church in Wales decided to close the programme at Glyndŵr University, the programme was re-established at Queens College, Newfoundland where the programme has taken root and from where it currently flourishes in the Anglican Church in Cyprus and the Gulf. There is experience here in diverse and challenging cultures (the deeply rural Newfoundland and the religiously diverse Gulf) of building an effective School of Discipleship Learning, grounded in a relational culture, and committed to engagement with God’s world. Perhaps there is something here worth trying in England?
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Redfern, A. (2000). Being Anglican. London: Darton Longman and Todd.
Village, A. (2016). Encountering the Bible. London: SCM Press.