From the Revd Dr Stephen Watkinson
Sir, — I was surprised and disappointed to see my diocesan Bishop encouraging clergy not to preach at carol services (Comment, 18/25 December). There are good reasons to preach.
First, the biblical accounts contain regular explanation, whether in the messages from the angels or the references to the Old Testament. This suggests God intends the Christmas stories to be explained.
Second, because we live in a culture that increasingly does not know or understand the Bible, we cannot simply read the story and hope people will understand.
Third, the purpose of having preachers and teachers in the Church is both to proclaim the good news to people and to explain it to them, which is why, for example, proclamation and teaching are an integral part of the Ordinal.
Finally, where I minister, what people need most at Christmas is not a candle or a choir (although they might enjoy those things). People need the good news of great joy so that they can experience that joy for themselves. What a shame if we were to miss the opportunity to explain that to them on the occasion when they have come to church.
I am not sure of the reason for suggesting we do not preach: the article does not elaborate. Perhaps we lack confidence in the good news itself, which suggests some rather serious problems with our faith. Perhaps we lack confidence in the clergy to preach the good news in a meaningful way, which leaves us with some serious questions about our clergy. Perhaps we doubt our visitors’ ability to listen to good news; and yet they have come to church looking for something.
It seems unlikely to me that, in these days of decline, the missional way forward is to disobey the command to “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4.2), especially at Christmas.
9 Deeplish Road
Rochdale OL11 1NY
From Canon Andrew Dow
Sir, — The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, rather spoils his otherwise helpful article by claiming, without giving any reason, that a sermon at a carol service “really is not a good idea”.
My view, after forty years in parish ministry, is that not to give a carol-service congregation some uplifting explanation and application of the Christmas event is tantamount to criminal negligence. Of course, the argument will be trotted out that “the carols and readings speak for themselves, without need of elaboration,” but this belief is naïve, and hugely underestimates the lack of Christian understanding and biblical illiteracy of so many in our country today.
So, for the 32 years I was an incumbent (in four parishes), I always preached a short sermon at every carol service — not a polemic or a meaty exposition, of course, and certainly not a rebuke to the person who attends only at Christmas; rather (I hope) a pithy, contemporary, winsome take on some aspect of the nativity narratives. I always concluded with a gentle challenge to “take a next step”, such as asking me for a simple booklet at the door, or joining our post-New Year Alpha course or equivalent.
Over the years, this strategy consistently led more people to find a real faith and begin committed church membership than did any other arm of parish outreach, funeral ministry, perhaps, excepted.
Of course, like many clergy, I initially struggled every year to find “anything fresh to say this Christmas”. The solution was not to drop the sermon, but to scour the newspapers right up to the last minute for a seasonal news items (often anecdotal) that provided an easily acceptable populist platform on which to unveil something of the wonder of the incarnation. Irregular behaviour by Santas, and nativity-play faux pas regularly furnished a rich seam to mine.
“Faith comes from hearing,” the Bible says (Romans 10.17). But how will people really hear — unless someone speaks?
17 Brownlow Drive
Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 9QS