We have been really enjoying reading Rowan William’s Being Disciples (SPCK 2016) this Lent. Williams has a beautiful, deep way of describing the Christian life. In these posts, I hope to share some of the things which our Lent groups have found most helpful about the book. So here, in the first post are some reflections on the first chapter, entitled ‘Being disciples’.
The thing that stood out most for the Lent groups was Rowan William’s description of the Christian life as something continuous and settled, rather than intermittent, which he pithily expresses “what makes you a disciple is not turning up from time to time” (p.2). This idea really caught our attention. For Christianity to be something which is life transforming, it has to be more than something you do from time to time. You both have to open yourself to the possibility that it might change you, and hang around long enough for it to change you.
But of course, this is far from most of our experience of religion. There is a good amount of the Christian life which seems monotonous, or boring. I doubt there are very many people, save the occasional person who is enthusiastic about absolutely everything, from all bran to hot air ballooning, who have found every church service they have gone to scintillating and ‘transformative’. Williams uses the wonderful metaphor of birdwatching here. We sit for hours, perhaps days, watching, waiting, only seeing Pigeons. Then, very occasionally, we catch a glimpse of something extraordinary, a glimpse of the Kingfishers wing (p.8). To catch the glimpse though, requires a patience, stillness and openness to something happening. We all found it particularly challenging to consider that we are called to be open to catching this glimpse of the divine, not in an empty church, but primarily in the life and faith of other Christians. ‘Can we live in a church characterised by expectancy towards one another of that kind?’ Williams asks. Good question, which led to a great deal of discussion about the people from whom we would really struggle to receive God’s light.
This was a tremendously challenging chapter, which encouraged us all to take our faith seriously, to remain close to Jesus and seek to follow him, all in the hope that we might learn ‘how to be a place in the world where the act of God can come alive’ (p.18) where our encounter with God helps others to encounter God too. We often wonder whether the church struggles to attract new members because so much of what we do seems foreign. We often express this in terms of people not knowing when to sit or kneel. If this is the case the solution is to relentlessly de-mystify the church and its worship. But if Williams is correct, what holds people back from church is not the fear that it is inaccessible, but the fear that it might actually change their lives. It is the fear that they might actually catch a glimpse of the Kingfisher’s wing, and that their lives might not be the same again. We felt that the challenge for us all was to be people in whom God could be seen, so that the transforming power of God’s love was seen as something not to be taken lightly, but not to be hidden from either.