IN THE final months of his life, Michael Perham asked his successor as Bishop of Gloucester to ensure publication of his sermons. Widely remembered as a liturgist and architect of Common Worship, whose feet were firmly on the ground pastorally, he cared that his legacy should include the pastoral voice of his preaching.
Occasionally, the voices get intertwined. When he asks us at Candlemas “to take a last look back to Christmas, pause to celebrate the particular insights of today and then turn in a new direction with Easter in our sights”, his words echo a note in The Promise of his Glory which he may well have helped to compose.
These are not showpiece sermons. One Unfolding Story is arranged seasonally, and most sermons begin by explaining where we are in the Church’s year. Each carefully organised address attends to scripture, and all of them are about God. “Your commission”, he tells prospective preachers, “is not to chat about Jesus or give a talk. It is to preach Christ, the Eternal Word of the Father, and that is an awesome ministry of words well chosen.”
And he does choose his words well, always conveying with warmth and enthusiasm the strength of his faith, though “suspicious of preachers who very often talk about themselves”. Rarely, either, does he refer to other Christian thinkers, though mention of W. H. Vanstone indicates one evident shaper of his theology.
In a sermon at the licensing of Readers, he urges that, “for all that your sermon may begin with a story, may include a bit of humour, certainly will relate to contemporary issues, make sure it engages with Scripture.” His own preaching does not make much use of stories or of humour, but it is surprising how little reference he makes — at least in this selection — to current social issues, though he is quite clear that “God also speaks to us outside the Church.”
Perham is at his best when interpreting what is going on in the Church’s worship at the current point in the calendar, and inviting us to love the Church that he loved, because it brings us to the God whom he loved, and he does this with what he calls “gentle conviction”. His favourite word is “lovely”.
These are not sermons for those in search of original insights, radical proposals, or rhetorical treats. They will be treasured by those who valued Perham’s ministry, and read with profit by anyone looking for wise examples of what it means to preach the Church’s seasons as a way of unfolding the Christian story.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.
One Unfolding Story: Biblical reflections through the Christian year
Paula Gooder and Joanna Moriarty, editors
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50