MANY YEARS ago, when I was a curate, I asked a colleague of mine what I should do to learn how to preach. He told me to go away and read other people’s sermons.
And so I did: I got ideas about structure, content, rhetorical tricks, and so on. It was a start. But only a start. I needed to find my own language, my own style. Other’s words were a help, but could not be a substitute.
In the afterword to Holy Attention, Paula Gooder writes: “It is high time that we revisit the task of preaching itself and ask what skills make a sermon most effective.”
Amen to that. One of my New Testament tutors always used to lament the vortex of awfulness which can all too often come from the low expectations that clergy have of their congregations intellectually
This book is a very eloquent and timely appeal to take the sermon seriously again.
Each chapter is in two parts. The first takes a particular aspect that the preacher needs to take into account when preparing: prayer, attentiveness to a text’s original context, the way in which others have interpreted it in past, the particular circumstances in which a text is being used, and so on.
The second is an example of a sermon. Each is in a different style, and together they take the reader through the Church’s liturgical year. I was aware that there is perhaps here more than a leaning towards a cathedral setting, assuming a more fluid congregation than in a parish church. What about those preachers who must grind away every week to the same people? But no matter: the principles of prayerful preparation remain the same.
The day before I started reading this book, I had to preside at the funeral eucharist of a friend, who had died in tragic circumstances, leaving a young family behind. The church was packed, and I was very grateful not to be the one who had to preach the sermon.
The priest who did preach was astonishing. He knew what to say to give some kind of hope in a time of darkness, disorientation, hopelessness, sorrow, and rage. He did not offer vacuous words of comfort, or fatuous attempts to work out “what it all meant”, but rather hard-earned pinpricks of light and hope, words that needed to be said — some of them hard words — that one day might resonate in the hearts of his hearers.
He took account of his audience, his context, and the liturgical framework of which he was a part. He knew that easy words are all too often simply lies. He knew that the risen Christ still bears his wounds, that resurrection language should never be “easy”.
Would that more preachers were like this. This book will not give us all the answers, but will be a big help in pointing us in the right direction.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.
Holy Attention: Preaching in today’s world
Frances Ward and Richard Sudworth, editors
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £13.60