Confined as I am to the pews these days I have to listen to a lot of sermons. What I can’t do is what I am called and trained to do, which is preach myself. My estimate of most preaching I hear is that it is of a very poor quality indeed.
When I was training for ministry I was lucky enough to be attached to a church with a vicar who had a great preaching ministry. Dennis Lennon had been a missionary in Thailand before being ordained, was then a vicar in Cambridge and Edinburgh and finally Advisor in Evangelism in Sheffield Diocese. His preaching was remarkable. He was highly intelligent, and cultured. His sermons, which, after his upbringing and tradition were lengthy Biblical expositions, were littered with references to literature and poetry, current affairs, questions of philosophy, science, and politics. But they were never dull. Indeed, they made you want to hear more.
Administration was not his forte. He was, and this is being kind, fairly clueless about liturgy. He was happy for me to go and do visiting in the parish – he never did. But he did care about preaching and prayer and people. And he cared about communicating the good news. He was one of my heroes, and a saint (mind you, so was his wife Sonia, who had to put up with his foibles).
I remember one day talking to him about what he understood was his goal as a preacher. His reply has stayed with me; “I preach”, he said “because I want to give people reasons to go on being a Christian for just another week. I know that they face many challenges and struggles that I don’t understand, but I want them to know that God is with them and will sustain them for this week. I want my preaching to inspire them just for that long. And when they come back I will have something more to tell them.”
I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon that made me think “that has given me something to hold on to this week”. But, like many other people, I am deeply exercised by the huge national crisis we are facing. I go from week to week tracking the progress of Brexit negotiations, still unable to understand the proposal that is forming and that will dictate the terms of our national future, and that of my children and grandchild. I have only heard one sermon that addressed this at all.
I see a dissolution of the values of truth and integrity in public life and public mass communication that is fearful. I don’t know what is fake news or real. I know I don’t trust the BBC as I used to, and I know that most newspapers are tools of manipulation by very wealthy owners. I have learnt that I must not believe most of what is online without checking carefully. I want integrity in public life, and I don’t trust politicians who don’t show it in their own lives. In times past Boris Johnson and Donald Trump would have ruled themselves out of the running for being trusted with national and international affairs by the conduct of their private lives. I don’t want to go back to being prurient and puritan – but why should I trust someone with the country or the world, when clearly they are accomplished liars to their nearest and dearest? All of this worries me. It is never addressed by any sermon I hear.
I see the tectonic plates of power shifting globally. I know that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. I know that neo-liberalism has hugely empowered businesses who have no moral sense of moral responsibility for any population anywhere, but only to their owners and shareholders. I know what poverty looks like, I have lived with it in Britain and in Africa. I know who is my neighbour, but I feel powerless to help much of the time. And I have hardly ever heard a sermon that does more than criticise the consumerism that we are all told we need to power growth, and thereby sustain our economy. An unfolding of why neo-liberalism is wrong, what we can do about it, and why it may be a less than Christian approach to economic and social life is never touched on.
In a hemisphere where Christianity is in retreat, we are not hearing sermons asking hard questions about why. The Church of England has decided on a management led push for growth, with little evidence that this will work, but the underlying questions are not really tackled. What is the appeal of Islam? What does our own history tell us about imperial attitudes in the English to other faiths and cultures? How do we approach the huge upsurge in “no religion” in our own culture? What is to be done about Establishment, with all that it implies about approving the history and culture of England’s centres of power? The arguments about “being there to influence” are increasingly unconvincing.
These, and many other things are the questions that occupy me from day to day and week to week. And I get no help at all from the sermons I hear. What goes on in these sermons? Almost all sermons I hear are Bible-based, and that is commendable. I think Christians need to learn and know their Bibles and be equipped to know how to go about interpreting them. Bible-based preaching need not and should not imply a naively Biblicist attitude to the Scriptures. The most common thing I hear in sermons is some kind of retelling of a Bible story that we have just listened to. That, in itself, is irritating, implying, as it does, that we are unable to understand a fairly direct and clear piece of prose, unless the retelling is going to point out something that is not immediately obvious.
Good preachers will have done their own preparatory Bible study on the text they have chosen as their main topic for their sermon. This will uncover other passages that are similar, other texts that are alluded to, difficult words or concepts that arise, the history of the passage’s interpretation, and sometimes different and even conflicting understandings of its meaning. But none of this is the sermon itself. It is the preparation. And far too many preachers I hear think that sharing their own study for a congregation is in fact the preaching event itself. It is not.
Karl Barth, the great mid 20C Swiss-German theologian is usually said to have said that preachers should preach “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other”. In fact, he said a number of things of this kind, but never simply this. In 1966 he said this in an interview; “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain [religious] themes; they live in the world. We still need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.” Half a century before he had said in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen, “One broods alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament and actually sees fearfully little of the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should now be able to give a clear and powerful witness”. Clearly this connection was one that stayed with him all through his ministry, which was both pastoral and academic. In an article in Time magazine in 1963 Barth, “recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’”
My problem with the preachers that I have to listen to today is that I have no sense that they are, in Barth’s terms, “reading the newspaper”. That must mean taking their information from a lot of sources these days. We have access to twenty-four hour news. We have an astonishing range of commentary available to us, most of which is going on live. We have to select, and we have to test. But we have to interpret.
Good preachers will do their Bible study, explore their text, all the while alive to what is going on in the world around us. And then they will bring the two together and see how the Biblical text impacts on the pressing questions of the day. Then they may have, by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, a life-giving word for those of us who listen. Something to help us stay Christian for another week. Something to help us hope, something to challenge and change us in the world in which we live. One outstanding example was Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Much was made of this, and implied that it was a wholly different tradition of preaching. To my ears it was just a good sermon, that connected a central Bible truth with people’s lives. And it was powerful as a result.
Those who teach homiletics may tell me that I am all wrong and hopelessly out of date. I may be. But I listen to more sermons than most. I suspect that the message of the Gospel is actually hindered by bad preaching – disconnected Bible study does nothing for anyone but make them feel that the Bible is irrelevant. And I know it is not. And it should not be preached as if it is.