ASK any jazz musician and they will tell you: it’s not possible to improvise with any substance unless first you have grounded yourself in the disciplines and history of music: harmony, form, rhythm, counterpoint, and so on. There is a world of difference between the meaningless meanderings of the organist trying to kill time while the Vicar finds his place in the prayer book, and the thrill of a beautifully formed meditation on a given theme, apparently coming from nowhere.
As with music, so with preaching. It is one thing to fill the requisite amount of time with words and sentiments off the top of one’s head and call it a sermon; quite another to do so with shape and substance. Douglas Dales is now a parish priest in the diocese of Oxford, having been a school chaplain for many years. This current volume of 60 of his sermons is his second, and joins a considerable bibliography: he was written extensively on Alcuin, St Dunstan, St Bonaventure, and Archbishop Michael Ramsey, among other subjects.
I suspect that disciplined immersion in these and other subjects has contributed to the quality of the sermons under review here. The author himself admits to consulting the words and works of others: what is there in the Christian tradition which has illuminated a particular text in the past?
Most, if not all, of these were originally preached without notes, and written down at the prompting of the author’s family in a more polished form later. The book is divided into seven sections, which try to group together sermons thematically, following roughly the shape of the eucharist. I was not convinced that this entirely worked, but for the best of reasons: the sheer textual and thematic variety on offer here resists easy classification. No matter: whatever the subject, the message is grounded in the scriptures, the sacraments, and the tradition of the Church. This used to be called Anglican.
At a time when so much preaching in the Church of England (and beyond) gives one cause for concern, it is heartening to be reminded here that, at least in rural Oxfordshire, intelligence and wisdom lives on.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey.
The Well of Life: More sermons for the seasons of faith
Sacristy Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49