The priest as a creative writer
Posted: 04 Oct 2013 @ 00:04
For Nick Jowett, a writing course shed a
challenging light on his ministry
AFTER retirement from an incumbency last year, I decided to do
an MA in creative writing. I applied to a well-regarded course at
Nottingham Trent University, and was accepted. The course had been
recommended by a clergy colleague, and I have subsequently realised
that many ministers have completed it.
This made me wonder: what have the ministry of the clergy and
creative writing in common, and what perhaps ought they to have in
A significant number of priests have been "creative writers". We
can think of clerical poets such as John Donne, George Herbert,
Gerard Manley Hopkins, or R. S. Thomas, or diarists such as Parson
Woodforde or Francis Kilvert; it's a bit harder to think of
novelists, but then Jonathan Swift, Lawrence Sterne, or Charles
Kingsley come to mind.
All the clergy are intimately concerned with words: in the many
stories of the Bible and the overarching Judaeo-Christian
theological story; in the creation of their own words for preaching
and teaching; and in the choice and execution of words for the
Theirs is the responsibility, with others, to recreate and bring
to life the Christian narrative, week by week. They also play a key
part in the continuing story of a church's and a community's life,
helping to unfold and interpret that story. But are the clergy -
and Readers, and other types of minister - conscious enough of
their responsibility in the use of words and the creation of
On the course, we were urged to write as much and as often as
possible, but then also to revise and rewrite, refining our words
until they said just what we wanted to say, and nothing more. In
workshops, our efforts were subjected to close critique; and loose
language, redundant expressions, confusing constructions, or lazy
clichés received stringent assessment.
The result is that "less is more" - a shorter, sparer text not
only has a clear purpose and emotional truth, but does not dot
every "i" and cross every "t", letting the reader do some work, and
so invest in the subject.
Often the clergy deliver addresses that have been created in a
rush, and not subjected to tough, or indeed any, revision. In my
old sermon texts, I can find signs of a lack of revision: confusing
language; whole redundant sections that should have been cut;
convoluted sentences that probably lost my hearers half-way
through; and many religious clichés.
At least I always wrote a full script. Few extempore preachers
can achieve precision and freshness of language, and the best
chance of achieving a clear, creative, and challenging engagement
with a text or a theme is to write out every word of the sermon,
and then revise, revise - even if you then deliver it without being
bound to a piece of paper.
But there is a deeper issue at stake in the meeting of creative
writing and the clerical task. Much of Christian theology and
preaching has turned biblical narratives and symbols into abstract
theology and ethical requirements.
These doctrines may well be true and helpful, but they are not
the only, or even usually the most appropriate, outcome of
scripture's stories and parables.
A truer response to the story of Jonah or the Good Samaritan may
well be to tell another story, a story in which contemporary
hearers may find themselves, and in the process grasp their own
vocation more pungently.
Earlier in my ministry, I created many new parables, as Peter
Rollins (The Orthodox Heretic, Paraclete Press, 2009) has
done more recently, and I now regret that I did not continue in
I believe this is a real challenge for younger ministers: to put
away the doctrinal clichés, and create stories that move and excite
people towards fresh apprehensions of God's love. If they do so,
they will be true to the storytelling Jesus, the Jesus who is God's
The Revd Nick Jowett is a retired priest in the diocese of