Wrestling with the Word: Preaching tricky texts
Kate Bruce and Jamie Harrison, editors
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
JUST occasionally you come across a collation of sermons that are fascinating, enticing, and beguiling. This volume is exactly that; here is God’s plenty. Compiled by Kate Bruce (ordained, an expert in homiletics, and who also performs stand-up comedy as “Woman of the Cloth”) and Jamie Harrison (a Reader at St Nicholas’s, Durham, who chairs the General Synod’s House of Laity), the book offers a wonderful buffet menu of contributors, to savour and enjoy. This is a veritable feast.
The dedication of the book gives a clue to why it might be worth investing in. David Day is the named individual to whom the book is dedicated — a distinguished educator and communicator. And the book also marks 150 years of Reader ministry — so we know, before turning a page, that this will be a celebration of preaching. And so it is.
The sermons are not lengthy expositions, by any means. They are mostly pithy and prescient homilies, flecked with humour, grace, wry observation, and wisdom. The stand-out sermons include offerings from John Bell (of the Iona Community); Jolyon Mitchell (Professor of Communication, Arts, and Religion at Edinburgh University); John Pritchard (a former Bishop of Oxford); and James Dunn (Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham), and the last sermon preached by Ruth Etchells — as well as the various contributions of Bruce and Harrison, who have skilfully collated the collection.
This small volume is also welcome for its willingness to grapple with non-traditional fare. The section on “sermons on tricky texts” looks at violent, abrasive, and strange scriptural sayings, and works with material that most preachers might prefer to give a wide berth to. Bruce’s own reflections on preaching are interspersed in the homilies, and are welcome as places where preachers can pause and contemplate, before they begin to craft their own words.
These days, reflective books on preaching are rare. This is both odd and remarkable, given that almost all those in ministry — whether lay or ordained — now have to find ways of faithfully communicating and interpreting the word of God in contexts and cultures that are increasingly used to succinct and polished presentations across all media. Readers of this book will, therefore, savour the more reflective contributions of David Wilkinson (Radio 4, a Thought for the Day contributor), as well as that from David Day, which closes the book.
What Bruce and Harrison show is that sermons still have their place in the media-saturated orbits of our contemporary culture. But what preachers must do, to find a place for their voice and to hold their own, is to learn to see the tricky and tough texts not as impedimenta, but as an opportunity. Our world seldom longs for glib simplicities. It aches, instead, for artful interpretative skills, practical wisdom, and clear insights — in the face of seemingly overwhelming complexities.
Perhaps for that reason alone,
this book is worth wrestling with, because, in taking tough and tricky texts as the starting-point for a volume on homilies, we discover that God’s presence and word come to us in mystery, not just in clarity; and seldom directly, but often in obliquity.
The Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Professor of Theological Education at King’s College,