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Loving the preacher’s craft

22 September 2017

Sarah Meyrick and Paul Handley report on the Festival of Preaching held in Oxford last week

© David Hartley/Church Times

Sold out: the Festival of Preaching audience

Sold out: the Festival of Preaching audience

NEARLY 500 people came to Oxford last week for the inaugural Festival of Preaching, organised by Canterbury Press Norwich and the Church Times. The snapping up of tickets (sold out by June) confirmed a hunger for such an event. Whether that was the line-up, a sense of inadequacy, the lure of a university city, or a combination of all three, it is hard to say.

The festival was hosted by Christ Church, making use of both the college and the cathedral, as well as St Aldate’s, the church across the road. Delegates stayed in Christ Church or neighbouring colleges, or commuted in for the day. By day two, word had spread: the festival office received last-minute ticket requests. (Note to the disappointed: save the dates 8-10 September 2019.)


AT THE opening evensong, the Dean, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, drew from the lessons the lesson that there were no short cuts to the promised land. In contrast to diocesan slogans that talked of “transformation” or “growth”, much of the Old Testament concerned exile: God was in the desert as much as in the fertile places. It required a special patience, he said, “to wait in the darkness”, but this was sometimes what was needed. “Knowing God is a slow, lifelong process.”

On Monday morning, Canon Sam Wells, the Vicar of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, expounded Isaiah 43.1-7, and the verse: “You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.” All three words, “precious”, “honoured”, “loved”, were important. The audience became a congregation as he counselled them: “Seal them on the inside of your soul: precious, honoured, loved.”

There are times, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said, when only a swear word would do. Towards the end of his career, the cellist Pablo Casals had suffered an injury to his left hand. His response? “Thank goodness I never have to play that bloody cello again!”

Dedication to art involved a form of enslavement: it was the same with preaching. He confessed himself nervous preaching to preachers (a common theme) but expressed his thoughts on the craft.

The first question was “Do you know what you are on about?” The second was “Can you be heard?” It was about energy and body language as much as volume. Length was irrelevant: think of the stand-up comic who could hold an audience spellbound for two hours. “I have heard sermons of two or three minutes that I have longed to end: they were so dull and lifeless. I’ve also heard people preach for 40 minutes that leave you on the edge of your seat.”

There were only two reasons that people stopped listening to a preacher. “Either we’ve turned them off, by our content or delivery. Or we’ve turned them on.”

The Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor from the United States, spoke of having a weekly crisis of confidence. She took the audience though “a week in the life of a neurotic preacher”, moving from the conviction that she would never come up with something to say, through the distractions, the perfect anecdote that had to be sacrificed, and ending, finally, with the truths that resonated.

Ms Bolz-Weber also spoke of the “Screw it: I’ll go first” impulse: the habit of self-revelation in a sermon, to enable others to acknowledge their own narrative.

She also had something to say about swearing. She surprised some in the audience by being discouraging, because, she said, “Frankly, you’re not very good at it.”

Canon Wells directed a brisk seminar on the craft of preaching. Before preparing, it was important to think of the objectives, one of which was to trigger the responses, “I never realised. . .” or “I had no idea. . .”. Then it was vital to “listen for the things that give you a jolt”. He generally consulted between five and ten commentaries. “And don’t start writing until you have the whole argument and the last line.”

Beyond that, the argument must be structured; illustrations must advance the argument; the sermon should reflect the complexity of life through nuance; pace and tone of voice must be attended to; and there needed to be “a memorable takeaway”.

As for delivery, he likened a sermon to a love letter “drenched in God’s love”. Smile, make eye-contact, don’t be embarrassed, he said. It was the preacher’s responsibility to make each sermon “the best sermon you’ve ever preached”.

“The holy work of preaching is to be God’s vehicle in transforming the present moment by making Jesus known.” Preachers were “God-bearers”, the Revd Dr Jessica Martin said. “A sermon is not finished at the end of ten minutes. No sermon is ever truly finished, because it works in our lives.”

Part of preaching was about the literal “translation” of the Word. Her pointers were to think about discovery, selection, viewpoint, connection, and expansion of the Word. Preaching was fleeting, but the Word was eternal. “Good preaching is for the time and the moment,” she said. “It carries the Word for our own minute.”

The Revd Dr Sandra Millar spoke about the Church of England’s work on christenings, weddings, and funerals. These occasions brought the C of E into direct contact with 1.2 million people each year, and peripheral contact with 15 million more.

Dr Millar said that people’s attitude towards the Church was based on their bank of past experience. Each event was an opportunity to transform these memories for the better. But to do this, it was vital to listen. People wanted services that were traditional, adding a weight of historic meaning; personal; and significant, creating a memorable occasion that acknowledged the importance of the event.

Dr Millar offered useful responses for when presented with people’s awkward choices: “Tell me why that [song/reading/image] is important to you?” And “Have you listened to all the lyrics of this song?”

“We are called to engage in this time with these people,” the Revd Dr Doug Gay said. That meant hearing the call of context and the call of text. He talked about his own “drift up the candle” from a Brethren upbringing into a discovery of the riches of the liturgical year. He found it helpful to think about the liturgical year, the lectionary year, and the “life year”: that is, what was going on globally, nationally, and locally. The task of the preacher was to name the presence of God week by week.

But the lectionary was “not a cryptic crossword”. It was better to do one thing well. It was a matter of wrestling with the humanity of scripture, and keeping in step with the Spirit.

When Canon Mark Oakley, the Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, preached at evensong on Monday, he broke as many of rules of preaching as had been laid down during the day. He spoke about himself and his health, the process of creating the sermon, his nervousness — all with panache.

Preparing the sermon, he told himself: “Tell them that when the doctor said that you need some repair work on your heart, you think that God agreed.” As a consequence, he lay in the hospital recovery room and re-orientated his life and priorities, beginning there and then with a proposal to enter a civil partnership with his companion.

Dr Paula Gooder spoke about nasty surprises in the lectionary. “We’ve all been there,” she said. “You start your sermon preparation not quite as early as you intended. You turn to the Gospel, scratch your head, and think, ‘Maybe the Epistle’. You look at the Epistle and think, ‘Maybe the Old Testament. . . Maybe the Psalm. . . Possibly the collect? Or perhaps I can preach on a hymn.”

She had no magic wand, but she believed that such surprises offered a gift, because they reminded us: “The Bible is a dangerous and wild text. As soon as you are reading the Bible as though it’s easy, then you may just be missing something.”

She offered five tips. Don’t assume that everyone feels the same as you do about a passage. Don’t imagine that fancy exegetical footwork can solve the problem for you. Avoid the “doily Bible”: leaving out the difficult bits. Don’t imagine that 12 minutes on a Sunday morning carry the whole load. And remember that the preacher’s words can only open the door into the presence of the living God.

Tuesday morning’s worship included three sermons about three Marys: Mary the mother of God, Mary of Bethany, and Mary of Magdala.

Ms Bolz-Webber spoke of the “pure unlikelihood” of the “totally common” woman whom God chose to bear Christ, railing against the efforts of the generations of churchpeople since then to argue that it had been Mary’s “total differentness from actual women that won God’s favour”. She concluded: “We are so surrounded by miracles of God that we call them ordinary.”

Dr Gay spoke of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and took issue with the painterly depiction of the sisters as examples of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. The Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus, and who was brave enough to insist, to anoint, and let her hair down, was an activist.

The poet Pádraig Ó Tuama echoed the tendency to idealise and idolise when he spoke of Mary Magdalene. She was the blank canvas on which people projected the things about themselves that they hated or feared. As a gay Catholic in Ireland, he had experienced something similar, but Mary said to him: “Be the canvas for a while.”

The morning after his moving homily, Canon Oakley spoke about the need for preachers to cherish language. “We should be as attentive to the sacramentality of words as we are to the water in the font or the bread on the table,” he said. Words were full of holy potential and learning; part of the preacher’s vocation was to make people think and feel in a language that they’d never thought before.

“I believe preachers are the Church’s poets-in-residence,” he said. “Preachers are those who dare to break the eloquence of silence by asking the question: ‘What does the Holy Spirit want to say to these people at this time through these texts?’”

Too often, faith and words were “sleeping in different bedrooms”, when they needed to fall in love again for the glory of God. Preachers should immerse themselves in poetry. “Use fewer words, but better ones,” he said.

Dean Percy shared his own experience of sermons endured, including a wedding when he had been reduced to pinching his young son to make him cry, in order to escape a poor address. His wife had been furious, mainly because she hadn’t thought of the ruse first.

He spoke of the healing miracles in the Gospels. “In nearly every case, Jesus heals someone whose name we don’t know,” he said. The issue of who was healed raised questions about whether the Church was called to be inclusive or exclusive. “Jesus is for something much richer: incorporation. His life, his miracles are an expression of God. He is the body language of God, and belongs in the alleys, not just the Temple.”

He thought that the healings were often parables, in the sense that the point was buried. “The Church needs not to say too much, but receive quite a lot. The world is hungry, if we just shut up and listen.”

Pádraig O Tuama reflected on the stories that bother us with their multiple interpretations.

He spoke of an encounter with an elderly lady on a bus in Dublin, whose invitation to tea he had turned down because he had a meeting to attend. He talked of his grief when he had heard of the death of his best friend, and how he had found comfort by walking miles and reading a passage from The Lord of the Rings in a bookshop. He spoke of a three-year-old boy shouting out “Hello Jesus!” in the middle of a mass. He talked of his mother describing the time the Virgin Mary had come and sat on her bed.

“Stories are not merely illustrations before you get to the main point,” he said. “They are the point.”

The Revd Dr Kate Bruce, who teaches preaching at Cranmer Hall, Durham, drew from her doctoral work on the imagination, listing the varied ways in which the preparation of a sermon and its delivery can be brought alive through the use of colourful thought, language, and gesture.

Confessing herself a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, she suggested that her listeners do an audit of a sermon to see how much use was made of metaphor. In contrast, she advised against the use of too much abstraction: “Abstractions are like chewing gum: you get the sharp flavour at first, then nothing.”

Dr Bruce entertained the audience by performing snatches of past sermons. She ended with a plea: “Be more imaginative in your preaching. Be more jazz.”

The poet-priest the Revd Dr Malcolm Guite said that he knew that the word “poetry” rang alarm bells for many. Yet the Church did a disservice to the gospel by rejecting the abstract. He drew on Shakespeare’s description of the poet’s task: a matter of allowing imagination to “body forth”, and of giving “things unknown” a “local habitation and a name”. “This is a great description about poetry, and you can see how it applies to preaching,” he said.

He spoke about three of his own sonnets. “They are my attempt to open up a conversation with the gospel,” he said; preachers were welcome to use them.

The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt is a psychologist, and explored what it meant to “preach from the soul”. Like other speakers, she spoke of taking time for self-care and reflection. But she also mentioned the social element: that a preacher’s temperament, traits, and narrative were developed in relationship to God and other people.

Cake featured several times in her talk, as did pastry. As with a Cornish pasty, a pork pie, or a quiche, the pastry gave structure, besides infusing flavour into the filling. It could not be left out, but it could be unpalatable. As long as it was there, the congregation could nibble on the crispy bits. Her analogy was with scholarship. If Bible commentaries were consulted only during sermon preparation, the scholarship derived from them could appear half-baked.

Closing the festival at evensong in the cathedral, the Most Revd Timothy Radcliffe OP spoke of a “society filled with words of contempt. Alas, in our churches, too, many contemptuous words are spoken.” Speaking to the passage in Romans where St Paul addresses the meat-eaters, Fr Radcliffe emphasised respect for people’s consciences.

Preachers should remember: “We are addressing people to whom God has spoken, who have their own consciences.”

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