DR JOHNSON famously suggested that “sermons make a very considerable branch of English literature.” If, perhaps, contemporary thought does not give sermonising quite such dignity, there’s no doubt that there is a renewed hunger to rediscover the art of preaching: witness the success of the Church Times Festival of Preaching. Our era is also blessed with some terrific practitioners, among whom Barbara Brown Taylor is a doyenne.
Always a Guest is the fruit of her post-parish ministry preaching engagements. For the past two decades, she has, as her witty title suggests, always been a guest (preacher), often in grand places, sometimes in humble ones. It has been an experience that, in her own words, has led her preaching ministry to be “born again”.
Born again, indeed. This book is a crackerjack resource for those whose preaching has become dry and tired. One of Brown Taylor’s strengths is her ability to contextualise familiar and often over-familiar biblical tropes — lost sons, buried talents, and widows’ mites — in contemporary and often pressing cultural terms. Lest you be worried, this does not mean that Brown Taylor’s references are achingly à la mode. Rather, as with her take on the story of the Rich Young Ruler, in which she imagines the elegance of his presumed possessions, her sermons crackle with poetic turns of phrase alongside sharp reminders of the level of privilege many in the Economic North hold. This is preaching that beguiles with narrative grip and challenges with biblical expertise.
I suspect that some readers will find Brown Taylor’s abidingly liberal-minded, US-focused brand of Anglicanism unconvincing. Nevertheless, these sermons are surely object lessons for people from all traditions in how to treat sermon-making as a work of astute and delicious literary and theological imagination. I challenge anyone not to be beguiled by a preacher who greets our culture’s vulgar obsessions with money and self-interest with turns of phrase which, as with her summary of St John’s Gospel, invite us “to follow the bread and it will lead you to the source of all life”. Brown Taylor is truly a preacher whom we need in hungry times.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
Always a Guest: Speaking of faith far from home
Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.99