‘No ‘nominal option’: calling Anglicans to discipleship

Image: Suriya Photo
Published November 1, 2023

It’s now essential for the survival of the church, bishop says

Ninth instalment of Hearing the Lambeth Calls, a 10-part series on the calls to the global Anglican Communion made at the 2022 Lambeth Conference. This month’s call: Discipleship.

This fall, the diocese of Western Newfoundland will begin a campaign of discipleship designed to invite Anglicans into a more complete participation in the life of the church.

According to the 2021 census, 21.5 per cent of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador described themselves as Anglican, but Bishop John Organ says the numbers for Christmas and Easter services show only about a tenth of those 108,000 Anglicans in attendance. Those numbers have prompted the diocese to embark on a project of renewal, addressed at Anglicans who think of their religion only as a group to which they belong. The hope is to encourage them to see it also as something they live out with their actions, says Organ.

And once that project was underway, he says, the diocese discovered its theme concerned not just Canadian Anglicans, but the Anglican Communion as a whole. Though Organ and the diocesan research team didn’t know it when they began their work in 2019, the Communion’s Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) had declared a “global season of intentional discipleship” in 2016 to address the preponderance of what it calls “nominalism.”

The Church of England’s bishop of Hull, Eleanor Sanderson, was a member of the coordinating group tasked with responding to the ACC’s call for a season of discipleship and gave a speech on the challenge of nominalism as opposed to discipleship at 2022’s Lambeth Conference. The difference, she says, is between a form of Christianity that members belong to passively—in name only—and one where they make active choices to live out the principles of the gospel.

The work begun by the ACC is also reflected in the Lambeth call on discipleship, one of 10 statements discussed by the Communion’s bishops at the 2022 Lambeth Conference and updated in 2023, she says. The call prompts Anglicans to think of their membership in the church as a process of constant learning in the formation of what the ACC has described as a Jesus-shaped life—one that is both moulded by and resembles the example set by Jesus Christ.

The call also lays out requests for local parishes and their dioceses to facilitate an increased focus on “gates” into discipleship in everyday life through programs like community small groups and increased emphasis during worship on the way the gospel can transform lives. In shaping what their discipleship looks like, the call asks Anglicans to let the five marks of mission—principles that define the Communion’s vision of doing God’s work—guide them. The marks include telling others about the gospels, teaching and guiding new believers, tending to neighbours through service and healing ministries, transforming unjust structures of society and treasuring the beauty and integrity of creation.

In the 2023 reissue of the calls reflecting feedback from bishops around the Communion, the call on discipleship was placed at the top of the list. Sanderson says that move reflects the importance of discipleship to all of the other calls. In one way or another, each of the other calls describes an expression of discipleship.

“There was a sense that, actually, discipleship lies at the heart of all the other sorts of transformations in the world that we’re wanting to see,” she says.

Sanderson also stresses this call’s connection to another call, on mission and evangelism. One of the key commands Jesus gave to his followers was to go and make disciples, she says, which puts any hope for the growth of the church and outreach to the rest of the world firmly under discipleship’s umbrella. Sanderson, who served nearly 15 years in New Zealand, first as priest and then as assistant bishop, says she saw a pattern in New Zealand similar to the one the Anglican Church of Canada has observed: Numbers in the pews on Sunday mornings have been steadily declining at a rate that will eventually make it impossible for the church in both countries to continue with its existing structure and modes of operation.

There were once enough members for some of them to consider themselves Christians without getting actively involved in the work of the church because other people were doing the work needed to keep the organization running.

“I think there’s often in parishes a 20-80,” she says. “Twenty per cent of people are doing 80 per cent of the work.”

But now, she says, “There’s no ‘nominal option’ for my generation … there’s not enough people to keep [the church] going by giving a little bit. So the church that will keep going will [do so] because it will be a huge part of our lives.”

That commitment may take the form of leadership in the church and helping build up future leaders, she says. The call on discipleship urges seminaries and educational institutions to prioritize teaching students the tools to pass on this type of faith formation in their ministry careers, for example. But Sanderson says it can also take root in any line of work. She gives the example of a young woman she worked with in England who set her sights on living out her role as a news reporter with an emphasis on being a positive voice for “the last, the lost and the least—for the poor and peacemaking.” That care for the marginalized and forgotten is what the kingdom of God looks like, says Sanderson. And making it the priority is what makes any career path an act of discipleship.

The diocese of Western Newfoundland is planning to start a conversation about what it means to prioritize discipleship by first reaching out to as many nominal Anglicans as possible. Organ says in many cases, those people are still on parish rolls or donating to their local churches. They’re part of the same communities and often still in touch with the Anglicans who do still attend. That makes them an easy group to reach out to, he says, but more than that, the fact that these people are still thinking of themselves as Anglican shows there’s still some desire for what the church has to offer.

“I would say right across the Communion, there could be an openness to the gospel if we can be creative about it. I think people are no less in need of that good news today, everywhere, than in times past when perhaps churches were filled to overflowing,” says Organ. “I would say that we’ve nurtured well nominalism and cultural belonging. We have not nurtured very well a deeper belonging and a deeper discipleship.” The church has not always fostered in Anglicans a sense of their own significance and empowerment, and that’s where its work lies now, he says.

The diocese has spent a year training its clergy and lay people for this effort, for which it has set aside $250,000 in funding. As this article was being prepared in mid-September, the diocesan staff were sending out a mail campaign including letters from local parish priests and bishops along with literature on discipleship and, most importantly, an invitation to a meal at their local church on Oct. 15. The diocese is ready to feed up to 20,000 people that day, he says, in as many parishes as it takes to serve everyone who responds to the invitation. The meal itself will be organized into seven courses, each themed after a fruit of the spirit, a format Organ says was inspired by the lovefeast tradition of the Moravian church.

“It’s a teaching meal, you might say, to introduce what life in the spirit, what developed discipleship, can look like and feel like” and how it can transform both individuals and faith communities, he says. “And then that can extend out to serve the wider community and the common good. So that’s where it’s going.”

Organ hopes the meal can help set people thinking about what it would mean to live out a deeper discipleship in their own lives. He says despite falling national membership numbers, there’s still meaningful work to be done in the Anglican Church of Canada.

“The truth of the matter is in the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Church of Canada, I think none of us are ready to roll over and die,” he says. “The gospel, the love of God and the person of Jesus: That is precious and valuable and of infinite worth. And no matter how big we are or how small we are, that’s a treasure that we can lift up before people.”


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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