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The Church and Discipleship – a Problem of Expectations? – Andrew Bennison


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The soft bigotry of low expectations’. It’s a phrase oft-quoted in education circles: the idea that poorer pupils are disadvantaged by the well-meaning, but ultimately pernicious, attitudes of their teachers, who assume that certain students are unable to achieve highly – assumptions which then become self-fulfilling. Thankfully, considerable attention and resources have been committed in recent years to tackling this ‘soft bigotry’ in education, and there is evidence that these efforts are beginning to pay off: raising our expectations does result in real positive change.

What relevance does this have to the Church? Well, to put it bluntly: could it be that a similar problem of low expectations inhibits the mission of the Church of England? In our parishes and congregations, do we actually expect people to be transformed ‘from one degree of glory to another’? If this isn’t visibly happening, are we concerned about it? More fundamentally, do we actually believe in the transformative power of the gospel we seek to proclaim?

Reading accounts of the early Church and patristic writings, one cannot help but be struck by the dedication and perseverance displayed by the early Christians: through their wholehearted commitment to prayer, worship and community life, their lives attested to the demanding, countercultural nature of Christian discipleship. The Church grew as people encountered the mystery of God in Christ and orientated their lives around it, pursuing what St Paul described as ‘the renewing of your minds’. In contrast, much Anglican parish life today seems to ‘be conformed to this world’: lacklustre worship, a dearth of prayer and spirituality, and overstretched clergy contribute to a culture of low expectations, in which widespread theological illiteracy amongst the laity is tolerated. Recently I read through the ‘Grow Stage’ of the Church of England’s flagship Pilgrim resources, which seeks to help Christians ‘continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship’. As the material encouraged me to reflect on and establish a ‘pattern of worship and daily prayer’, it struck me that I almost never discuss my spiritual growth and discipleship at church: a culture of etiquette and small talk ensures that we – the laity – are rarely challenged to discuss the depth and development of our faith. A forceful speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury last week surprised me in its willingness to confront this culture of mediocrity: his uncompromising assertion that ‘the quality of our Christian lives matters very seriously to God’ took aim at the ‘cultural Christianity’ which implicitly views the laity as consumers to be satisfied, rather than ‘living stones’ to be built into ‘a spiritual house, a holy priesthood’. Low expectations are not clearly confined to one wing or tradition of the Church.

To state this critique plainly is not, of course, to invite blame and recrimination – particularly as I am aware of my own complicity in this culture of low expectations. I should also be wary of exaggeration: there are many examples of church communities who are committed to deepening the holiness and discipleship of the whole people of God. The Revd Dr Ian Mobsby has written at length about how ‘new monastic’ communities, for instance, are enabling ‘the empowering of the people of God, the laity, to be the Church, moving away from passivity and “church going” to participation and “church being”’.[1] Moreover, we are rightly suspicious of an overbearing clericalism which seeks to impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of discipleship, based on crude understandings of theology and spirituality; many Anglicans would push back firmly against such a model, emphasising instead the need for humility and freedom in discipleship, open to the promptings of the Spirit. Nonetheless, it is appropriate and necessary for clergy and lay leaders to provide resources, guidance and teaching to support ordinary Christians in their spiritual journeys. Often, this will involve explicit guidance in the practice of contemplative prayer – described by Rowan Williams as ‘the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit’.[2] Seeking to live as a Christian in today’s sceptical postmodern climate can be a difficult and bewildering task; providing spiritual guidance and direction is thus vital to the priestly role of guiding God’s people ‘through [the world’s] confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever’.[3] To affirm that Christian faith is ultimately a mystery does not mean abdicating responsibility for helping the faithful to plumb the depths of this mystery in prayer and wonder, and in doing so to grow into the likeness of Christ.

The Church of England is currently facing an existential crisis. Disagreements abound over whether the Church should be prioritising spiritual or numerical growth. The answer, of course, is that these priorities can’t be separated: the Church becomes attractive not through its hyperactive apologetics, or through the frantic multiplying of worship styles and ‘fresh expressions’ to meet consumer demand. Rather, the Church becomes attractive when it models a new way of living: when a gathered community of disciples worship God in faith, hope, and love, bearing witness to the image of God in Christ through their very being and living. ‘You are the light of the world’, said Jesus. Perhaps it’s time to raise our expectations.


[1] Ian Mobsby, God Unknown: The Trinity in contemporary spirituality and mission (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012), p. 65.
[2] Rowan Williams, ‘Archbishop’s Address to the Synod of Rome’, 10 October 2012, available here.
[3] Extract from the Church of England Ordinal for priests, available here.

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