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Pearls of pulpit wisdom

12 December 2014

The book preserves  this transient art,  says James Walters

Unexpected Discovery: Beauchief Abbey and other sermons
J. W. Rogerson
Beauchief Abbey Press £8.99 (plus p&p from www.lulu.com)

"I Have to Come up with a Sermon. . ."
Mark Hartley
Columba £12.50
Church Times Bookshop £11.25 (Use code CT670 )

I DOUBT that, in the future, collections of sermons will be published. It is increasingly rare that these books attract enough readers to make them financially viable in a less profitable publishing market. More positively, sermons are now widely disseminated online in both text and audio form, almost as soon as they have been preached.

But free availability does not ensure quality, and there is surely some value in the publication of collections of well-written sermons, if only to inspire other preachers to raise their game and learn from theologians who have honed the ability to communicate the Christian faith effectively. Suggestions abound about how homiletics can be reimagined in a society that has collective attention-deficit disorder. But no amount of PowerPoint presentations or illustrative YouTube clips will enable the preacher to communicate better than a well-written, well-delivered, substantive, and interesting sermon.

So these two collections have much to offer, and they share the richness of accumulated wisdom about both preaching and human experience from years in the pulpit. None the less, they are quite different in character. John Rogerson is an Anglican biblical scholar whose sermons reflect his rigorous engagement with the scriptural texts and frequently seek to apply them to some big theological or cultural questions (Is religion a private matter? How do we respond to celebrity culture? What does the Bible say about marriage?). They are coloured by the desire to reconcile the historical critical approach to biblical interpretation with living faith, exemplified in his exploration of whether Jesus really turned water into wine.

Mark Hartley was a Roman Catholic Cistercian monk whose sermons span 56 years in the same monastery. Naturally, they have a more Catholic flavour, full of quotations from saints and the richness of the liturgical year. Hartley is less concerned with the big social questions, but addresses the profound issues of daily life and faith with which the guest master at an Abbey will become all too familiar. They are gentle but challenging homilies that almost make you feel as if you are on retreat, and, as such, would make excellent daily reflections.

Both collections serve as tributes to holy men, one deceased and one retired. They deserve a wide readership, but I am sure that much of the market for these books will be among those who have benefited from knowing them in person over their years of ministry. This seems to be a core purpose behind these kinds of book, which makes one wonder how holy men and women will be remembered and their wisdom preserved in the digital age.

Hartley is quite pessimistic: "God doesn't speak through the internet," which saturates us with "mostly irrelevant information". This may well be generational prejudice. But if collections such as this are no longer published in the future, it is by no means clear that the example of good, faithful, scholarly preaching will be as effectively preserved.

The Revd Dr James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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