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The Present Preacher: Discerning God in the now by Liz Shercliff and Matt Allen

14 April 2022

Graham James reviews a preaching book that goes deeper than hints

IN CONTEMPORARY parlance, for an audience to be “preached at” is regarded as a sure way of its being alienated. So perhaps it is not surprising that we do not seem to be living in a golden age of preaching in UK Christianity. Even so, many thousands of sermons are preached every Sunday. If all those preachers read this stimulating book by Liz Shercliff and Matt Allen, the quality of preaching would surely improve and a new confidence would be gained in its value.

More than a generation ago, the “New Homiletic” encouraged narrative sermons that invited hearers to discover the meaning of the biblical stories by journeying with the preacher. This was thought appropriate in an age with less biblical knowledge and even then disinclined to give authority to preachers. Shercliff and Allen believe that this downplayed the person of the preacher, and they offer what they describe as the “Now Homiletic” instead.

A sermon is understood as an encounter between the preacher and the hearers, where the preacher is entirely attentive to God and the present, the “now”, with the biblical text part of that “now” and not frozen in its time of origin. This perspective shapes what is proclaimed, too. The Christian life is described as “wholehearted living”, in which there is neither any hanging on to the past (no grudges) nor anxiety for the future (no pressing rightful claims). Anyone seeking simply for a series of hints about preaching technique will be disappointed. This is a much more profound and wide-ranging book.

The authors have their own distinctive voices and vocabulary. Allen, analysing his own preaching, says that it is about God’s always being bigger than we think. He also comments, more than once, that his preaching is “all about Jesus”, whereas Liz Shercliff does not express herself quite so baldly. Instead, she speaks of living a preaching life, using images of “beachcombing” and “playing” as indicative of what she means.

Some of their own sermons are included, and the high quality of these indicates why their insights are worth heeding. There are others (of more varying quality) by different preachers. A Christmas address by Joel Love is stunningly original and brave, worth reading aloud. Both authors are engaged in theological education, feeding the imagination of the next generation of preachers, and we can be thankful for that.

A chapter on how the “present preacher” copes when spiritually empty or experiencing God’s absence would have strengthened this fine book still further. That aside, preachers from all traditions will find much of value here. Hearers of sermons will also be encouraged by both its seriousness and its playfulness, which is why I hope that it will not be read by preachers alone.

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich and now an hon. assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.


The Present Preacher: Discerning God in the now
Liz Shercliff and Matt Allen
Canterbury Press £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.39

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