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