Preaching that isn’t tiresome

by
07 April 2017

Peter McGeary finds useful parallels in the musician’s discipline

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Waiting on the Word: Preaching sermons that connect people with God

Lorraine Cavanagh

DLT £12.99

(978-0-232-53262-3)

Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

THE first sermon that I can re­­member remembering was preached by the late Canon Eric James. He spoke for almost half an hour about St Augustine, and it was utterly gripping. In the 43 years since then, I can remember three sermons: one was by a former Dean of West­minster and was a model of linguis­tic economy; one was by a former tutor remembering a departed priest-colleague with moving eloquence; and one was by an old priest who was a terrible preacher but whose transparent holiness shone through his every word.

It is interesting to me that I can­not really recall the content of these sermons. What I can recall is the style, or the precise and elegant use of language, or the conviction be­­hind what was said, or the obvious signs that the speaker knew his audience.

What makes a good sermon? Some might say that the genre had had its day. Chapter two of this book begins with a priceless quota­tion from Webster’s dictionary, defining preaching as “to give moral or religious advice, in a tiresome manner”. Lorraine Cavanagh clearly disagrees with this, and her mar­vellous book is, among other things, a real attempt to reinvigorate the art of preaching.

I was half dreading being given this book to review, expecting a dry list of dos and don’ts. The author has her fair share of practical advice to impart, and she imparts it well, but this is not her main thrust. Much of the book is about how much the preacher must prepare before a word is spoken, and about how much of that preparation has to do with the preacher’s life and rela­tionships, both with God and with the people under his or her care. Two quotes from the text must suffice to illustrate this:

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“The best teachers, and the best preachers, are those who love the people they teach.”

“The sermon must always be prepared and delivered in a con­sidered way. . . But the preparing is done to the extent that the preacher’s entire life is lived before God, in a state of ‘beholding’ and of deep inner listening. . . We cannot speak truthfully about God to his people if we ourselves are only partially alive.”

This posture demands humility and attentiveness. It will be one familiar to musicians in particular: before a note is sounded — if it is not to be mere noise — there must be hours and hours of hard work to “inhabit” the musical score; music is made when the performer’s effort and the musical score resonate with the audience.

Naturally, in a book this size there are omissions: I would have welcomed more on how to cope with an entirely unfamiliar con­gregation or context, for example. But this should not detract from its value.

I wonder whether Cavanagh thinks that she has just written a book about preaching. She has, but she has written about so much more besides.

I believe I have found my reli­gious book of the year already.

 

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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