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Festival of Preaching: A word for this time

20 September 2019

Last week’s Church Times Festival of Preaching was challenging and inspiring. Paul Handley reports

David Hartley/Church Times

Mark Oakley addresses the Festival of Preaching audience in St Aldates, opposite Christ Church, where the main sessions were held. See gallery for more images of the event

Mark Oakley addresses the Festival of Preaching audience in St Aldates, opposite Christ Church, where the main sessions were held. See gallery for mor...

“WE ARE living in a preacher’s time.” A conference in an Oxford college invites suspicions of privilege and esoterica. Mark Oakley, Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, one of the keynote speakers at the second Church Times Festival of Preaching, dispelled the myth.

Any preacher who currently struggled to find something to speak about was spiritually asleep, he suggested. At a time when the concept of objective truth was under threat, when dishonesty was not being called to account, when honest complexity was being represented as dishonest simplicity, “our words should seek to deepen the longing for God and show up the famine in our land.”

He was echoing Brian McLaren, the theologian, activist, and speaker from the United States, who, on the first morning of the festival, inveighed against sermons that were “politely irrelevant and ambiguous and vague”. Congregations were “choking on clots of ambiguity”, he warned. All the while, he said, quoting Greta Thunberg, “the house is on fire”.

The core of McLaren’s talk was a chilling warning against bad religion. If a Church’s image of Christ is wrong — and he listed 15 ways in which it could be wrong — then to encourage people to be transformed into that image was actually making them worse.

David Hartley/Church TimesDavid Hartley/Church Times

Five hundred years of Christianity — which he dated from the “Doctrine of Discovery” (1452), in which Pope Nicholas V instituted what McLaren called a Christian jihad against the rest of the world — had left the world on the edge of destruction. “The planet will not survive another 500 years of Christianity.”

Among the types of Christianity that destroy the world, he listed the “evacuation-plan gospel”; worship that creates a sense of spiritual elitism; a faith that relies on authoritarian leaders who motivate through fear, guilt and shame; toxic masculinity; worship that “demotes Jesus to a personal saviour”; and worship that encourages people to feel good rather than be good.

At present, he suggested, the world was being destroyed by the present political and economic system. Christianity was acting as its chaplain.

McLaren also preached at the final eucharist. He challenged the view that “Jesus did some really great things so we don’t have to.” Instead of Jesus the hero, he depicted Jesus the mentor to we, the apprentices. “Jesus doesn’t suck power out of people to inflate his own power. Power flows out of him.”

In the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, separated on the cross, were reconstituted in the bodies of the congregation. “Like Mary, we become pregnant with Jesus.”

But he warned: “If we present our bodies as a living sacrifice in this way . . . we will find ourselves in the same trouble that Jesus did.”


THE Dean of Christ Church, Martyn Percy, had preached at the other end of the festival: the opening evensong on Sunday evening. He enjoined preachers to stick with the foundational truths of the faith. He warned against the use of the term “basics”, more often than not a sign that the speaker was prioritising some truths over others.

The foundational truths, or essentials, of Christianity, were “things we’re stuck with, whatever our flavour of Christianity”. He referred to Christ’s summing up of the law: love of God and love of neighbour was an essential, and not up for negotiation.

David Hartley/Church TimesMartin Percy

He expanded this on Tuesday morning in his exposition of the parable of the Prodigal Son — or, as he preferred to call it, the Prodigal Family. The Church’s main problem, he said, was “coping with the overwhelming abundance of God”. He challenged the traditional reading of the parable, which equated the father with God; none the less, on this reading, the father “smashes” the shame attached to the son with “redemptive, excessive, public celebration”.

God was going to love whomever God liked, he said. “Woe betide the Church if it tries to impose terms and conditions.”

More concentration on the parables came from Paula Gooder, recently appointed Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral. She examined how Christ used parables (virtually impossible to define, she concluded) as a guide to how they should be approached by today’s preacher.

In Christ’s hands, parables were visual, not conceptual; allusive, not concrete; based on real life, but with the option of fantasy; and they left loose ends hanging.

Gooder warned against too close an analysis. Over-familiarity could kill a parable. (She gave an example of the opposite in her sermon on Monday, when she inhabited the story of Christ’s visit to Peter’s home, telling the story as Peter’s wife and absorbing the parable of the three measures of meal.) Gooder encouraged her audience to experiment with everyday analogies. “One purpose of the parable is to dumbfound you a little bit.”

The audience for Ally Barrett, Chaplain of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, were certainly dumbfounded when she asked them to root around in their bags and pockets for visual aids. Just like Christ, a present-day preacher should be able to riff on anything to hand, especially when preaching to people of all ages, which is Barrett’s speciality.

She encouraged her audience to trust in improvisation, and to learn from children. The gospel that emerged in an all-age service “might not be the one you came with”.


MARGARET WHIPP, lead chaplain at Oxford University Hospitals Trust, and David Hoyle, soon to be Dean of Westminster, looked at the preacher’s motivation and inspiration. Whipp used the analogy of pearl-fishing: the preacher’s vocation was not to play around in the shallows, but to dive deep and fish around in the murk for wisdom, not trinkets. A key technique for both professions was the ability to hold one’s breath. When fishing for a sermon, it was often a mistake to return to the surface too soon. She spoke of the “horrible sweaty nights before preaching, when some of our most creative stuff comes”.

Hoyle spoke of the relationship between preacher and congregation. He compared it to the relationship between a poet and his or her reader, described by the American poet Billy Collins as “temporary companionship”. “As a preacher,” Hoyle said, “I have to get over the idea that you might be really interested in me.” There were dangers in being too personal, and also in trying to project oneself into an experience that one had not had. Finding one’s own voice, and responding to a place and an occasion, were crucial.

David Hartley/Church TimesDavid Hartley/Church Times

Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, Georgia, gave the festival a reading and a sermon. The reading was extracted from her A Preacher’s Alphabet, a work in progress, confounded by the fact that “everybody’s name in scripture begins with ‘J’.” Her most inventive way round the problem was F for Jonah (think of fish): “Salvation by projectile vomiting”.

Modern allusions abounded. Among other examples were Q for Quirinius, who, with Augustus and Herod, created a “perfect storm of misery — a terrible time for a messiah to be born, which is to say, it was a perfect time”; and C for Caleb, sent by Moses to spy on the promised land, whose good report was drowned by the false testimony and fake news of the other spies, encouraging the Israelites to stick with the bondage they knew rather than the freedom they might enjoy.

In her sermon on Tuesday morning, Carter Florence invoked Zaccheus. Of all the advice that she had been offered on starting her ministry, she wished that someone had told her about climbing trees.

She used the image as a metaphor for the need to gain a new perspective. Jesus was always on the move, passing through town, passing through scripture. “We’re trying to catch a glimpse of Christ, but we’re too short, all of us,” stunted by racism, sexism, nationalism, and so on.

A preacher needed to find a new angle, even if it meant making oneself look foolish.

Rachel Mann, a Manchester rector and author, preaching on Monday evening, invited her listeners to inhabit God’s skin, “ready to be pierced by hypocrites and fools”. In her talk on Monday afternoon, she had spoken with candour about preaching from a damaged body, and challenged listeners to consider their own bodies and other people’s. The gospel was about embodiment, which included people with disabilities, those who were marginalised, and so on.

Nadim Nassar, a Syrian priest in the Church of England (the only one), reminded his audience that Christ was a Syrian, too, living under the jurisdiction of Quirinius. He was concerned that Christ had been Westernised (by, among others, speakers at the festival).

Clergy were “criminals”, he said, if they paid no attention to culture: their own culture, the culture of the text, and, particularly, the culture of God, which was Trinitarian, as revealed by Christ. “Most of our priests are too terrified to preach the Trinity.”

Pádraig Ó’Tuama, a poet, theologian, and speaker, used his experience of Northern Irish tensions to lecture about preaching at times of conflict. He expanded this to include personal as well as political conflicts, pointing out that changing events, such as a death in the family, can de-escalate a conflict, or set it in stone.

On the subject of Brexit, he spoke of the pain being felt in Northern Ireland as people there were treated as foreigners. In contrast, he also spoke of British generosity, and told of how welcome he and others from Ireland had been made to feel by the people of England.

David Hartley/Church TimesDavid Hartley/Church Times

Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford, set his listeners a serious task. They could preach about other things, he conceded, but their chief task was catechesis: “forming individuals and forming the Church into the likeness of Christ”. He suggested a structure based on the Christian seasons. When asked how to preach to members of a congregation at different stages in their formation, he admitted that preachers in earlier generations had had it easier: they were able to address different groups in the course of an hour-long sermon.

Kate Bruce, an RAF chaplain, examined the demands of civic services, where the front row of the congregation sported heavy gold chains. She set aside her humorist alter-ego and gave valuable advice about how to pitch a Remembrance Day service.

Mark Oakley was another who encouraged the audience to study Christ’s approach to preaching. He made stuff up, he was persistently figurative, he was acrobatic with his language, and he puzzled and delighted in equal measure.

As for communicating with a congregation, he quoted the former Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, who had spoken of “nearness”. “Do you care for them?” Oakley asked. “Do you listen to them? Do you love them?”

He ended by advocating “preaching and preaching till others have the relationship with God that you wish you had”.


Listen to Brian McLaren’s lecture at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.

Watch Mark Oakley’s and Paula Gooder’s talks on the Church Times Facebook page.

Recordings of seminars, sermons and lectures from the festival are available from www.chbookshop.co.uk.


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