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The priest as a creative writer

by
04 October 2013

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 common?

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 liturgy.

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 story?

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 that vein.

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 Word.

The Revd Nick Jowett is a retired priest in the diocese of Sheffield.

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