Power and the pulpit

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 09.13.13Back in June, I wrote about two apparently unconnected topics. The first was around the question of whether preaching should be monologue or dialogue, and how we might make the monologue we were forced into more dialogical. Within that, one of the questions I touched on but did not expand on further was the relation of preaching to power. Part of the argument for dialogue in preaching is the evidence of history, and Jesus’ own first-century context:

The social reality is that the life of the first-century synagogue, and by extension the life of the early Christian communities, were much more interactive and communal in their teaching, and much less directive and authoritarian than either Christian history has practiced or that we would like.

And one of the reasons we do want to hold on to monologue relates to power and control:

You cannot cast a vision by having a discussion. When Paul had the vision in Acts 16 of the man of Macedonia calling him and his team across to Europe, he didn’t invite discussion—he told them what God had told him! This isn’t perhaps the usual context of preaching, and there is an exercise of authority that we might not want to model the whole time.

Except that often we do! This relates to the other subject I discussed back then: Jeffrey John’s sermon on the ‘gay’ centurion’s servant. A friend on Facebook, Matthew Caminer, commented:

I am not sure that it is especially unusual to use the privilege of the pulpit and the authority of a bible passage to bolster and propogate a particular point of view. But that comes with risks and responsibilities: it is a bit like someone pointing out a bit of an oil painting…. “Do you realise that that bit of cloudscape looks like a dog?!” All you see thereafter is the dog! And thus it is with this passage. Am I forever condemned to be diverted down this particular interpretation every time this bible passage comes up? I think we have to be honest enough to admit that sometimes we may believe it is an abuse of the privilege and authority when we disagree with the point being made…. but totally acceptable if we do not!

Jeffrey John could only get away with his (what I judged to be very poor) exegesis because he was speaking to a receptive group but, much more crucially, because he was speaking pure monologue. If he had been in a more first-century-type context where there had been reading of the scriptures, then explanation, then discussion, he would have found it much harder to push such a view.

This underlies the reality about forms of communication: monologue offers control and power; dialogue diffuses it. In the recent failed coup in Turkey, the plotters took control of the (monologue) broadcast media, but failed to control the (dialogical) social media, and part of the way Recep Erdogan regained control was by sending messages on social media.

It is particularly interesting to reflect on this from New Wine in Shepton Mallet. It runs on a combination of ‘big venue’ sessions with platform speakers (a good number of whom are women!) and smaller seminars where there are always opportunities for response and questions. It is the smaller venues which are the places for dealing with difficult and controversial questions; the bigger venues need to be for input which is less controversial and has wider appeal.

When we are speaking, teaching or preaching in the church, there is no doubt we are exercising power. If we have had some theological training, we are exercising expert power. If we are ordained or licensed, then we are exercising institutional power. If we have learnt something about how to speak persuasively and deploy rhetorical tools, then we are exercising technical power. And if Brooks Philips is right, and preaching is ‘truth, personified’, then we are exercising personal power.

There is no need to be afraid of this exercise of power—after all, Luke makes quite clear (in the gospel and in Acts) that the Spirit gives power and that we should exercise it well. But we also need to be aware of the power dynamics, and if we take seriously Paul’s conviction (in 1 Cor 12 and elsewhere) that the Spirit is there to empower all God’s people, and not just a few special ‘anointed’ people, then we need to find ways to diffuse power, and ensure that our preaching is enabling of God’s people, not disabling of them.

I think there is an interesting contrast in this regard between Paul’s letter to the Romans, and his correspondence with the Corinthians. To the Romans he needs to give a clear message of explanation of the gospel that he carries and for which he asks support, and he also needs to communicate effectively that God is forming both Jew and Gentile into one people in Christ. His letter is clearly structured and shaped, and in that sense is quite ‘monologue’. But 1 Corinthians feel quite different. Although it has its continuous narrative sections, it is much more broken up—and it is broken up by the questions that the Corinthians themselves are asking. One of the reasons why it is hard to interpret is that it is not immediately clear what Paul is saying and what is quoting the Corinthians saying. He quotes them in chapter 6 and 7, and if Lucy Peppiatt Crawley is to be believed, extensively in chapter 11. When dealing with controversial issues, Paul engages in a dialogical approach, as far as it is possible in written correspondence.

If our preaching is to be enabling and empowering, we might need to think carefully about how we use the pulpit (whether real or metaphorical), and what other structures of conversation we need to put in place alongside it.

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26 thoughts on “Power and the pulpit”

  1. Wow nice one Ian, much to ponder here. Oh and whilst I am commentating loving your study in Guidelines on Revelation, such a breathe of fresh air. I’d love to know what you had to cut out it get this to fit in, sort of director’s cut as it were.

  2. You may be right about the varieties of power the preacher exercises. But some of them are only powerful if they move, change, liberate, or otherwise alter the hearers. Most preachers these days, IMNSHO, are not powerful. They may lack exegetical skill, or rhetorical gifts. But there is something about being accorded power by the audience that I think needs reflecting on. Unless people want to listen to what they have to say, then their power is very limited, in a way analagous to the perplexing limitation of Jesus’ own power in Mark 6:5.

    I think congregational incredulity, or at least scepticism, is, on the whole, a very healthy thing. I have seen enough destructive power handed over over through credulity to demagogues who have claimed to speak in God’s name to think that it is better fro preacher’s to have power and authority accorded them slowly, by people who weigh their words and observe their lives. Even then I applaud your emphasis on the dialogical – where the hearers retain their power to test understanding, to disagree and to tease out meanings. Hearers of sermons should also never forget that they also exercise the ultimate power – just get up and walk away. You don’t have to listen if you think the preacher is talking rubbish!

    • Jeremy, thanks for the comment. I think I would respond in a couple of ways.

      First, even if preachers aren’t any good at rhetoric or exegesis, the reality is that we exercise power by dint of our position—both institutionally and physically—whether or not we think that is a good idea. The problem with disliking the exercise of power, in a kind of post-modern way, is that this does not lead to distribution of power; it leads to the accumulation of power to those who have fewer qualms than we do.

      Secondly, I don’t think I agree with you about the value of congregational scepticism. We live in a sceptical age, and the rejection of expert knowledge does not lead to freedom—it leads to ignorance. The EU referendum was a good example of this.

      Congregations (in my experience) desperately need empowering and equipping, and many of them are aware of this, even in a nascent way. Rather than dismantling structures of power, including the power of preaching, I would rather see that power transformed and use to empower the people of God. The power of preaching has a key role to play in this.

      • I have always made a point both when preaching/teaching and when lecturing of saying 2 things at the start. First: ‘If we are in the business of discovering truth, there is absolutely no way I should be 6 feet above contradiction, so please interject at any time.’ Second: ‘You probably think what I just said was purely rhetorical – but it absolutely was not. So please do it.’ I fairly regularly had people taking me up on this. As preacher I retained overall control of the start, shape, and ending of what was said. This could actually have turned out badly – but funnily enough it never did – maybe the remaining congregation acted as a check on excesses. When people have not said this at the start, any interjection then seems hostile in the extreme.

        Michael Goulder interrupted the sermon of John Duncan at All Saints Kings Heath re the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (5 Stones and a Sling p55). There was an OICCU interruption in 1987: the speaker Achille Blaize came out with a position on cessation of charismata which was not that which he had given the President an assurance he would take.

        All this high drama (which is inevitably how it is seen on such an occasion) is titillating but entirely unhelpful and (more importantly) unnecessary. All we need is for people to speak honestly the truth as they see it – free from dogma and political correctness and all other kinds of ideology. They can do this provided that there is space for dialogue, comeback, and interjection.

        • “We must not be starry-eyed about bishops in the Early Church – in the fourth and fifth centuries congregations might shout down an erring bishop…This was put with telling depth and clarity by John Henry Newman (in his Roman Catholic days) in his On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine … Newman got into trouble in the Roman Catholic Church (for telling it the way it was!)…”

          Colin Buchanan, Taking the Long View, Church House Publishing 2006, pp 19, 285.

    • I’m in agreement with everything here Jeremy, especially your comments on the value of congregational skepticism.

      I personally think that congregations are on the whole a bit too passive and that ‘passivity’ can very easily lead to a church giving up it’s duty to act discerningly towards the words of the one(s) who have been handed authority to speak. As people are fond of (rightly) asserting here, sermons are a two-way process, not specifically in the case of a ‘dialogue’, but in the sense that both speaker and listener have a responsibility to the words being said.

      So I therefore also agree with Ian that we need to value experts and recognize the value of ‘learned’ knowledge, but I didn’t think you were arguing against that and can’t see why it needs to be framed as a disagreement; perhaps Ian’s read something here that I’ve missed.

      Thank you for the insightful article Ian, and others for the insightful comments.

      • I quake at the idea of congregational scepticism. We have enough of that already!

        But I do want my congregation to be active rather than passive. I just think there are better ways to encourage this than to make them sceptical…

  3. To me it very much depends how the monologue is structured, because in my experience it is possible to preach without abusing power. If there is a relationship of trust between the pastor and his congregation, where the pastor does not stand above but alongside his congregation, shares his own experience and values the experience of those he serves, and above all communicates a deep, deep love for both the word of God and for the people in front of Him, then issues of power and control really fall away. The question of response then also tends to fall away, because such preaching will naturally engage those who listen and there will be a culture of asking and exploring questions. A congregation can discern the difference between an axe being ground and the sword of the Spirit!

    • Thanks Tim. I think I would agree in part. But the reality is that the pastor and the congregation are not on a level playing field, and I am not sure there is a need to pretend they are—is there?

      I wonder how many in Liverpool Cathedral thought that an axe was being ground by Jeffrey John…?

      • Hi Ian,

        I agree entirely with Tim and, with respect, I’m trying to understand your qualified response here.

        What exactly do you mean when, in response to Tim’s comment: ‘the pastor does not stand above but alongside his congregation’, you wrote; ‘the reality is that the pastor and the congregation are not on a level playing field, and I am not sure there is a need to pretend they are – is there?’

        How, in contrast with Tim’s approach, are clergy and laity not on a level playing field? Is that really how clergy should themselves, as ‘standing above their congregations’?

        Yet, Paul, as apostle to the Gentiles wrote: ‘For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Cor. 4:5)

        As Christ explained: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

    • I want to support what Tim says entirely and know that he stands very much alongside the congregation that he serves.

      I suspect there is a big difference between having an axe to grind and having an angle. ‘Everybody has an angle’ as Bing Crosby once said (in White Christmas!) A congregation will know where their pastor is ‘coming from’ and some will having that same approach, and others will value it but not necessarily share it, whilst others will probably react against it. I actually think all are fine, so long as the congregation can think matters through and have the tools to give an account of the hope that is within them.

      The problem with the C of E is that we have basically relied on a ten minute sermon once a week to give people these tools, and surprise surprise, it doesn’t work. My preference is for small groups that give the tools and also allow for some dialogue by giving space for those who wish to discuss the sermon after it has been preached. These two things allow for the culture that Tim reports – one of asking and exploring questions.

      • Agreement breaking out! I think small groups are essential…but would be interested to know how common they are outside the evangelical tradition (in which they are almost mandatory).

        I am not quite sure about ‘having an angle’, though. I would always hope that my ‘angle’ is where a responsible, critically aware, reading of the Scriptural text is leading—and hope to follow that fearlessly.

        • The presence of small groups is considered the most significant of the eight quality characteristics in Natural Church Development and I am sure that must be right.

          I think our having ‘an angle’ is more to do with our personality type. That’s why I think understanding our Myers Briggs type or Enneagram type is a significant thing in understanding how we approach our church leadership – and our preaching. Our personality types – the ways we are ‘hard wired’ tell us a lot about how we exercise our power as leaders and preachers.

      • David, clergy are not on a level playing field with their congregations in the following ways, as Ian explains in the post:
        – Technically they have more relevant training than (almost) all of them in theology and public speaking
        – Institutionally they have formal authority over their church
        – Personally they are the recognised leader

        This is a reality of authority which Paul and scripture recognise too. Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership is intended to guard against abuses in this, not destroy it. Authority, properly acquired and properly used, is a gift of God for the ordering of his church. It probably isn’t helpful to speak of clergy standing over their congregations, but it is some ways a fair description of the proper presence of authority in the church.

        • Hi Will,

          We’re agreed on the importance of authority to church order. My point was focused on Ian contradistinguishing ‘pastor and the congregation are not on a level playing field’ from Tim’s recommendation that the ‘pastor does not stand above but alongside his congregation’.

          Such a contradistinction feeds the false notion that these approaches are mutually exclusive; that standing alongside is not compatible with the ministry of authority because it’s not a level playing field.

          Of course, I know many priests who think that to ‘stand alongside, is to sacrifice authority. However, the fact is that Christ exemplified both the exercise of real and rightful authority and the ability to stand alongside His congregation.

          As scripture explains: ‘Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.”(Heb. 2:11-12)

          And again here: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)

          That level of shared insight doesn’t result from snippet of Bible wisdom gleaned from 40-minute Sunday sermons. Yet, how many vicars, instead of just lamenting the widespread lack of biblical literacy, could say at the end of even ten years: ‘I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.’?

          It’s also interesting that your bases of authority focus on meritocratic superiority, organizational position and communal recognition. Christ’s tempers such authority with familial and informal examples, e.g. siblings and friends. That’s what’s meant by ‘standing alongside’.

          And without tempering the exercise of authority with familial ‘standing alongside’, it is far too easy for the self-same bases of authority (which you mentioned) to become the springboard of elitism. This results in the familiar ‘trickle-down’ church policy: ‘what’s best to the vicar and his/her inner circle must be best for the congregation!’

          This is exactly the mind-set that Jesus challenged when he described the elite Gentile oligarchies in Luke 22:25, whose technical, institutional and personal authority prioritized their class survival and advancement, with their sporadic conspicuous acts of public philanthropy (such as building temple monuments) earning them the civic honour of the Euergetes title, i.e. Benefactors.

          We see the same today in the Reform and Renewal Task Groups believing that the ‘parish model’ and stipendiary ministry growth are indispensable and beneficent to the growth of the entire church. Yet, decline continues.

          In contrast, Christ said of servanthood: ‘“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?’ (Luke 17:7-9)

          A true servant fulfills the needs of those whom he/she serves and at the expense of his personal comfort, needs, safety, hopes and advancement. And the example of Paul shows that the latter involves far more than giving up a potentially lucrative secular career for the priesthood.

          For many modern clergy, the expense which the apostles paid is far too high a price, which means that it’s far easier for them to theologise and theorise about servant leadership than to effect it.

  4. As a Baptist, could someone explain to me why C of E sermons are generally only about 10 minutes long? Is this a common expectation in Anglican churches? Ours are at least twice that length and are much more interactive.

    Not that I am arguing for overlong sermons you understand, but it does seem to me that one is limited in what you can say in 10 minutes.

    • Chris, that’s only true in ‘middle of the road’ Anglican churches. In evangelical churches we often preach for 20 to 30 minutes; in conservative evangelical churches it can often be 40 minutes.

      Part of the practical reason will be to do with the number of services. I guess most Baptist churches will have one morning, and possibly one evening service. Quite a few Anglican churches have two or three morning services—and you’ve got to fit everything in!

  5. Thanks for this Ian, I found it a very thought-provoking breakdown of the balance of power in preaching and dialogue.

    As you suggest, the exercise of power is not in itself evil (despite post-modern suspicions), and even in a dialogue someone has to be exercising power to direct the discussion if it is to avoid becoming an aimless meandering around any and every subject. But guiding a dialogue requires a different skill set to delivering a monologue, leaning more heavily on personal power and less on institutional, I would suggest. This being the case, do we train our clergy to initiate and manage dialogue, or only to deliver homilies? (This is not a rhetorical question; I know little about how we train our ministers)

    Interestingly, this is the exact reason I have been *avoiding* dialogical forms within the services I run, when I have a quite strict time frame to fit the service in and also limited time to prepare. Freeform dialogue (as opposed to participatory prayers, etc) requires much more work and preparation to incorporate in a structured worship service, I find.

    That said, I was inspired by the discussion around your last post on this subject to experiment with dialogue, and replaced a service last month with an open forum Q&A (with questions submitted in advance). The results were striking: attendance doubled, and the discussion lasted 3.5 times as long as the usual service. It was very rewarding, but also demanded a lot of me in terms of preparation and managing the discussion on the day. It’s not something I will have the capacity to do regularly alongside my day job.

  6. I want to question the connection between monologue and authority, if I may (!)

    1. Jesus’ hearers were amazed that he taught with authority. I don’t think that has anything to do with him speaking in a monologue (or not).

    2. A monologue can be very authoritative, but it can also be enabling, empowering, inclusive, etc. (It can also be deadly boring and completely lacking in any authority at all!) You can bring in conversations you had with members of the congregation in the last week. You can prepare your sermon using social media and mention people’s comments in the sermon. You can quote from other sources. You can ask people to reflect on what it might mean for them. You can ask people to speak to you afterwards, and to discuss it among themselves. You can mention the Bereans. You can talk about a question someone asked, how grateful you were, and how that made you think again about what you said last week, thus demonstrating that you are not beyond criticism. Etc…

    3. A dialogue or discussion can be even more authoritative than a monologue. Control freaks can easily rebut and knock down any questions that appear to challenge the intended message. In fact, some “narratives” are reinforced by criticism – just look at Donald Trump. You can ask predictable, closed questions that anticipate a certain answer. You can quickly shut down discussion of anything controversial. Etc…

    It’s really a matter of attitude rather than form. No one should think, “I’m inviting people to ask questions, therefore I’m empowering and enabling people.” It depends on how you use the form, much more than the form you use.

    That’s not to say there’s no connection between form and authority – people seated in rows beneath a pulpit vs people seated in a circle communicates something about authority before a word has even been uttered. But I think the connection is much looser than is often assumed.

  7. Dear Ian
    I agree about the diffusion of power. Preaching is about engaging whether by monologue or dialogue.
    In my training as a lay minister(reader) I read a book Now for my 43rd point In this the author clearly describes how Jesus set up a dialogue with his listeners not simply preached at them. It has stuck with me as I begin my ministry. Hence I am known in church to walk down the aisle (using my radio mike) and talk as much with the people at the back as at the front. The people at the front have to turn around but this action in itself is a form of engagement. Questions are asked of all ages – often resulting in many humourous but also perceptive points You certainly learn to prepare well and engage of the cuff. This is where God’s power and Spirit are vital. We preach in God’s name and power not our own.I have learnt this the hard way and realise how much I need God to speak though me
    May be it is fear of losing power or may be of the unknown, what we do no know and seen to be not knowing that stops using dialogue Admission of not knowing understanding is to show humanity


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