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Book review: How to Preach: Times, seasons, texts and contexts by Samuel Wells

17 November 2023

Andrew Nunn reviews a preacher’s account of his own approach

“NICE sermon, Vicar.” It’s not always what you want to hear at the door after a service as the congregation is leaving church. But, when you’re a preacher, lay or ordained, it’s often the reaction you get, or perhaps even more often simply no reaction at all. Another response to your well thought- and prayed-through sermon, your honed piece of rhetoric, might be “loved the story about . . .”, whatever it was that was your launchpad into your subject. “My grandma/our cat/our holiday . . . was just the same.”

Did they hear the sermon that I preached? Did they engage with the theology? Is there no challenge back? Preaching is one of the most important things that ministers of the word do, but how seriously do we take it?

Samuel Wells, Rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in Trafalgar Square, reflects on how he preaches, how he prepares, what he has learnt after over three decades of preaching in a variety of circumstances and situations. As he reflects in the introduction, it is a hard thing to talk about “my preaching” without looking arrogant or appearing to imagine you have all the answers. The title of this book suggests that this is “the” way to preach, but Wells obviously knows that this is one way of preaching: a thoughtful, intelligent, and informed way of preaching which reflects the way in which the writer understands ministry from the pulpit.

Each of the 23 sections in this book looks at a different “time, season, text or context” for preaching. In each, the author reflects on the challenges and opportunities that the subject — politics, Christmas, the parables, a baptism, and more besides — offer the preacher. He then gives two or three examples of sermons that he has preached in these circumstances or at this time of the liturgical year, and then explains his thinking behind the sermon, its structure, its purpose, and offers a few dos and don’ts.

There are some deeply moving sermons in this volume, and I particularly appreciated his approach to some of the more difficult and often avoided texts that come up in the lectionary, material from the Old Testament, how to preach on Ascension Day, and what to say about the miracles of Jesus. A sermon in the chapter on Old Testament narratives and focusing on the conditional use of the word “if” and the reality of God, for whom there is “No ‘if’: always”, was enough for me to make reading this book worth while.

You can approach the book in various ways, reading the author’s reflections on how to preach, reading just the sermons themselves, or reading both sermons and practical reflections. Each way has its merits, because there is plenty to like in this book, as well as some things that you may find annoying. For instance, I’m sure that Wells would find my own style just not rigorous enough — but then that is my style, and this is a book about his style.

In the cloister at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, between the House and the Church, there is a framed front page from the Daily Mail weekly magazine published on Sunday 16 April 1899 with the headline “A Great Churchman at the Abbey”. The great churchman was Charles Gore, and the sermon that he was preaching at Westminster and that made the headlines was about recovering the life of the apostolic Church.

One can hardly imagine a sermon on that subject making the headlines in any newspaper today. But Gore was a teacher, a theologian, and a co-founder of a new community that was rediscovering something of the story of the past and bringing it into the present. He was taking preaching seriously.

Whether Wells’s style is your style, or just his, whether his extensive use of story, whether his language, his Christology is yours, or not, what this book encourages us to do, and especially those of us who have been preaching for a very long time, as I have, is to think again about what we are doing and why we do it, and with the seriousness of Gore and other great preachers.

For me, at the heart of preaching is the Emmaus encounter, on the road, as the Lord breaks open the scriptures in a new way, and the hearts of those who listen “burn” within them. With wisdom, skill, and years of experience, Wells allows us to see how he works and thinks: a privilege. And then we can think about how we work and think and preach and make Christ known, as the Word is broken where we are.

The Very Revd Andrew Nunn is a former Dean of Southwark.

How to Preach: Times, seasons, texts and contexts
Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.39

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