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The pulpit and polemic

15 November 2011

Raymond Chapman on preaching that was anything but boring


The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon
Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan, editors

OUP £95 (978-0-19-923753-1)
Church Times Bookshop £85.50

THE sermon is no longer the main feature of public worship in most Christian denominations. It was once very different, and this book surveys the great age of the sermon, from the early 16th to the early 18th centuries.

The Reformation made preach-ing into polemic and controversy as well as teaching, often aggressive and insulting to opponents. Biblical typology inherited from the medieval Church could be used to find scriptural examples of both friends and adversaries.

In England, the newly established Church was sometimes wary of what seemed to be a Puritan em-phasis on the sermon to the detri­ment of sacramental worship; but leading Anglicans such as Jewel, Hooker, and Andrewes were cer­tainly not lacking as preachers.

The Civil War and Common-wealth outdid even previous years in doctrinal controversy; the years from the Restoration to the Han-overian settlement brought extreme political use of the pulpit. The hearers were often as active as the preachers, walking and talking dur­ing the sermon, sometimes shout-ing objections and abuse, even physically attacking the preacher. It seems a long way from our demure ten-minute slot.

But not all was confrontational. Many preachers made exegesis and practical application the focus of their sermons. The Tudor Books of Homilies were issued not only to ensure sound doctrine but to inform hearers who had few other channels of instruction. Preaching was not all of one kind: there were sermons for parishes, Assizes, the Court, and public open-air oc­ca-sions, notably at Paul’s Cross in London. Many preachers were studious about their rhetoric and delivery.

This book has interesting chap-ters on sermons in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, where there were par­ticular divisions in the population, and where printed material is often scant and can be supple­mented by surviving accounts. Women, for too long regarded as passive members of the congrega­tion, are found to be frequently active in support of preaching, making their opinions known, and themselves preaching, as Protestant groups multiplied.

In commenting on a book of more than 500 pages, it is impos­sible to deal with all the contribu­tors, and invidious to mention a few. There are 25 chapters, all good and com­plete in their own way; but it is worth reading through the book to gain a full picture, sup­ported by some appended extracts from preachers and their critics.

If “handbook” suggests a source of brief instruction, it is inappro­priate for this volume, which is weighty in every sense.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.

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