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Preaching practice

18 March 2016

Anna Macham on preaching and the complexity of words


Mixed Blessings: Being the people of God
Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


LANGUAGE, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says in her brilliant book on preaching When God is Silent, is “in distress”. That is not just a problem for literary critics, grappling with the complexities of deconstruction and questioning the ability of words to convey meaning or truth; it is an issue that we face in everyday life, where words are a necessary tool of communication.

Words are complicated. They assault and seduce us, but often fail to live up to what they promise. The Swedish composer Anders Edenroth puts it this way in his song “Words”: words “will hold forever humanity spellbound . . . possession of the beggar and the king . . . we’re sentenced to a life with words”.

For Brown Taylor, one of the remedies that a preacher can use to combat this problem with language is to employ restraint. Words should be chosen with care rather than contribute more to a world already glutted with them. Mixed Blessings is a new edition of her earliest collection of sermons. This slim volume already demonstrates her aspiration as a preacher to “choose the fewest, best words” that will allow God and human hearts “to find one another and then to get out of the way”.

But there is space in her writing, besides economy. Readers who admire her gift for storytelling in her more mature work will find it here, too. “Saving Space” is about creating space for God, just as room was made for a road in the wilderness. While honouring God’s silence, the sermons in this collection, which are loosely divided into three sections (biblical characters, the person of Christ, imitating Christ on earth), give the reader freedom to inhabit the story and walk around in it. This is refreshing.

These sermons are not simple or beautiful, exactly. I got more out of them the second time I read them, especially “The Courage to See” and “Without a Net”. But perhaps having to search for insight as a reader is part of taking some joint responsibility for the unfolding of the truth. Although she is a gifted writer, this preacher refuses to assail her listeners with words, or persuade us with easy, neatly crafted conclusions.

For those of us who find preaching a daunting responsibility, there is much to learn from this modest collection that is informed by deep wisdom and experience of parochial, pastoral ministry, and quietly invites us to inhabit Christ.


The Revd Anna Macham is the Priest-in-Charge of St Philip’s, Camberwell, in south London.

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