I AM a great fan of books of sermons: John Austin Baker, Eric James, Jonathan Magonet, and Rowan Williams fired my preaching for decades. I once read Williams’s magisterial “I do not know the man” to what promised to be the wildest of annual vestry meetings, and it turned them into purring pussy-cats.
Preaching Radical and Orthodox contains 48 sermons by leading lights in the Radical Orthodoxy movement, divided (like the Pentateuch and St Matthew’s Gospel) into five sections covering Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time. According to the introduction, each Radically Orthodox sermon has the heady aim of prophetically recalling the Church to its origins: preaching is regarded as a sacramental act that makes something happen, dismantling the idol of secularisation by interrogating our present-day culture to discern the buried desire for the unknown.
With help from a 16th-century altarpiece of St Mary Magdalene preaching to the startled populace of Marseilles, the saint is fancifully hailed as the patron of preachers, “the womb shape made by her drapery suggesting how she births the Word through herself”. Preaching, apparently, is like a jar of costly, fragrant balm, poured out to anoint hearers to be Christ-like.
Fortunately, the sermons themselves, including 12 preached in Oxford, eight in Cambridge, and ten in cathedrals (mostly Southwell Minster), are less flowery and more rooted. Some, like the late John Hughes’s “The Beauty in the Ugliness”, are exquisite. Others, such as John Muddiman’s truncated Good Friday meditations on Jesus’s seven final actions rather than seven final words, present a fresh and arresting take on the familiar. Should your appetite be whetted for more, there is a helpful Further Reading section at the end.
Many of the sermons are by ordinands or junior clergy, a welcome if brave editorial decision; and their scripts are tight and heartfelt. A few sermons disappoint, in that I couldn’t really hear what their authors were saying because what they were kept ringing in my ears.
My favourites were by three playful bishops. John Inge convincingly celebrates joy as the Esperanto of the soul. Along the way, he explores trouble with language, including a French pen friend who translated Dieu vous préserve as “May God pickle you.” In an arresting confirmation sermon about how gaffes and truisms can actually emphasise that we are about serious business, Stephen Platten quotes Rio Ferdinand’s blunder on Radio 5 Live: “Gary Neville was captain, but now Ryan Giggs has taken on the mantelpiece.”
My prize, however, goes to Stephen Conway, who debunks the book’s pretentious introduction by hailing Mary Magdalene simply as the patron saint of those suffering from mental illness. He talks movingly about his ministry to an acute psychiatric ward, where one fundamentalist Christian rails against God for deserting her. Another patient, normally on another planet, had a rare moment of lucidity as she pointed to the crucifix on the chapel wall, “Look at him. He knows. He’s one of us. He’s the friend of Mary Magdalene. And take your medicine!”
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.
Preaching Radical and Orthodox
Alison Milbank, John Hughes, and Arabella Milbank, editors
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18