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A pastoral and rhetorical art

by
19 February 2016

Philip Welsh on pulpit theory and exemplary Anglican practice

Conversion: a pulpit of 1625, made into a three-decker in 1628, at Dennington in Suffolk, from David Phillips’s Churches and Cathedrals on architecture and furnishings (Moonrise Press, £14.99; 978-1-910169-01-8)

Conversion: a pulpit of 1625, made into a three-decker in 1628, at Dennington in Suffolk, from David Phillips’s Churches and Cathedrals on archi...

Igniting the Heart: Preaching and imagination
Kate Bruce
SCM Press £16.99
(978-0-334-05319-4)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

 

Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from north east England
Michael Sadgrove
Sacristy Press £11.99
(978-1-910519-10-3)
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

 

WE HAVE come a long way since George Whitefield could declare: “I have come to you in the name of the Lord God of hosts and (he clapped his hands and stamped his foot) I MUST and I WILL be heard.” These two books from Durham should promote a more beguiling approach to preaching.

Kate Bruce teaches homiletics at Cranmer Hall, and Igniting the Heart makes a persuasive case that imagination is a fundamental aspect of preaching and of theology — not an add-on for creative types, but “a muscle you develop”.

Her concern to clarify just what is going on when we preach is particularly welcome. A sermon is not a text but an event, “when preacher and hearer come together to create it”, and so there is a shared ownership and control of what takes place “in the space between the preacher, the hearer and the Scripture”, so that “sermons must not be too finished or too neatly completed.” Preaching expresses a pastoral relationship; it can be described as a form of spiritual direction, and has a grace-bearing sacramentality.

These are insights that could well be developed further. Stanley Hauerwas, for instance, writes of preaching as “a shared responsibility of holy speaking and holy listening”; and Bruce’s emphasis on the pastoral partnership might imply that preaching is by its nature preaching to the converted, an event authenticated by that covenant relationship known as a cure of souls.

Behind this book is a Ph.D. project, which has been well-revised for general consumption (though a few jolts between formal and relaxed styles suggest a two-source theory of origins), and she usefully introduces us to a good deal of recent writing on preaching, particularly from the US. In an interesting discussion, she takes issue with Karl Barth’s absolutist theology of preaching, which “seems to treat the preacher as a mere conduit”, although there is little other reference to classic theologians — P. T. Forsyth would make an interesting discussion partner.

Bruce is very helpful in considering the character of preaching and the force of imagination, and yet there remains the vital issue of what makes preaching real. Forsyth was clear that “the cure for pulpit dullness is not brilliancy. . . It is reality. . . And much is well done that is poorly said.” The priest, J. N. Figgis said, “needs to be able to give a reason for the hope that is in him”. And, although the author suggests ways to enhance our use of the imagination, there is more to be said about those springs that feed our creativity, which may lie well away from the life of the church.

The sermons that Bruce offers to illustrate her case are of a particularly graphic, urgent style with which this desiccated reviewer is a little uncomfortable. But that should not detract from the value to preachers of all backgrounds of this challenging and well-argued plea for preaching with imagination.

I didn’t start with high hopes for Christ in a Choppie Box, a collection of sermons by the former Dean of Durham which is locally published under a title that doesn’t travel well (it’s apparently a pit-pony’s feeding trough).

I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is an exemplary collection from Michael Sadgrove’s 12 years as Dean: beautifully written, theologically grounded, quietly learned, opening us to the mystery of God and of human life, entertaining, serious, and, above all, humane — proper Anglican preaching.

The selection, made and introduced by the theologian Carol Harrison, is arranged in six broad groups: ministry, hard occasions, hope, God in the everyday, the Church’s seasons, and the saints of the North East, with a few words of context supplied by the preacher.

But first Sadgrove includes an engaging and challenging lecture on preaching, originally given to clergy. A number of his themes are in common with his former Durham neighbour’s book: preaching as a liturgical act, the importance of the imagination, the sacramental and performative use of words, preaching as “a pastoral as well as a rhetorical art”, and as the place where our theology happens (Barth would agree). He properly emphasises the importance of the preacher’s unseen “hinterland”, and concludes that “all preaching, because it is theology, is ultimately doxological. It begins and ends in adoration” (what Forsyth called an “organised Hallelujah”).

Sermons are not the hottest publishing property these days. Sadgrove’s deserve to be widely read and enjoyed — and preachers will find his Ten Deadly Sins of Preaching horribly recognisable.

 

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

 

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