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Preaching that Shows: Revealing relevance by Margaret Cooling

14 October 2022

Graham James reads about sermon styles

MARGARET COOLING has more than 30 years’ experience as a preacher. I have never heard her preach, but, after reading her book (Michaelmas Ordinations, 7 October), which has a supporting website, I wish I had done so. Her sermons, of which there are several examples in full and many excerpts, are fresh and vivid. They draw the reader in, as I am sure they would many listeners, too.

Preachers have frequently been exhorted to “show, don’t tell” without being told how to achieve that aim. This book is explicit in examining how this may be done. Cooling is methodical without ceasing to understand that preaching is an art rather than a science. The vast range of art, literature, films, and world events which are used as illustrative material adds to the pleasure of reading her book. It is also notable for its biblical literacy.

Cooling distinguishes between two types of narrative preaching. The first usually begins with a conflict or a problem that is explored, and may get more complicated, before coming to a climax in which things are resolved. There are plenty of biblical examples of such stories, such as David and Goliath or the feeding of the five thousand. Many narrative sermons are constructed in this way.

But Cooling prefers revelation to resolution. Her style of narrative preaching uses biblical scenes, images, and stories, and retells them, with references to the contemporary world woven into them, in a way that offers suggestions, hints, and challenges, so that listeners are left pondering, praying, and working out the meaning for themselves. The sermon has not completed its work when the preacher stops.

It struck me that this is what many preachers fail to achieve, since they lack the confidence to leave the story open. The Gospel-writers are much better at doing so: John even tells his readers that there are many other things that Jesus did but which are not included in his book. The Gospel itself is an unfinished story.

Cooling writes her sermons as prose poems, and she has a fine command of the English language. Not every preacher can be quite such a wordsmith. But what Cooling recommends does not require that; so this book would be a worthwhile investment for many preachers.

A question not fully addressed is the capacity of contemporary congregations to listen fruitfully to sermons. We assume that the narrative form appeals (and, in my experience, it does), although those whose reading may be limited to Haynes manuals on car mechanics may not find themselves easily drawn in. That may be why we have few such people in our congregations.

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

Preaching that Shows: Revealing relevance
Margaret Cooling
SCM Press £25
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