Earlier this week, my friend Richard Moy posted a bit of a rant about his experience of visiting cathedrals. Why is it, he asked, that when there is a marvellous opportunity to explain something of the gospel to people who might not otherwise here it, was nothing done about it?
In all the services I have attended (bar a nearly deserted Durham) there have been scores of onlookers and often scores of would be participants. Yet only in the Catholic cathedral did anyone make even the slightest attempt at a homily – let alone a succinct, compelling presentation of the Christian faith.
This leads him to inviting the Church to do some soul-searching:
It leaves me asking a basic question. Do we have any interest in the conversion of England – or even the survival of faith within the CoE?
There were some understandable responses to this observation. Not all cathedrals take the same approach, and some will prioritise the teaching of the faith. This fascinating response came from Nicholas Henshall, Dean at Chelmsford Cathedral:
Our intention/claim is that in everything we do we are seeking to be a thriving, outward facing community seeking to serve the city, the diocese and the bishop’s ministry above all in evangelism and teaching, as a powerful resource to the churches and networks of the region.
As a counterpoint to this, Anna Norman-Walker, who is Canon Chancellor at Exeter, asked a more fundamental question about preaching:
I … find it amusing that an evangelical would describe any scripture reading as ‘so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer/chance visitor/faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming)’….. 2 Timothy 3:16 ? Luther would make you go and stand in the corner…
Anna is here asking why explicit preaching is necessary, and in the Facebook discussion there were similar observations from David Runcorn (first) and Simon Butler (second), amongst others.
The assumption of some here seems to be that the gospel is not being made known unless it is being verbally preached. If there is not a sermon nothing is being proclaimed in a Cathedral? Really? There is a case for saying that whole Cathedral building is a sermon in it’s way. Walking round it is to make pilgrimage. That is how the architecture works. My frustration is when the guide material and notices around the building are shy of making clearer connections – without becoming tracts. But this verbal focus feels like a very narrow theology of proclamation, worship and creation – and preaching actually.
I think the issue here is the assumption that unless the word is preached it is not proclaimed. I think that says more about the lack of trust in God or in the (healthy) element of Tradition than it does about what cathedrals do. Imagine joining a conversation at a party and someone explaining the whole conversation all over again just to bring you up to speed, rather than just taking the time to stop, listen and work out who is saying what, why they’re saying it, and what they’re saying. The gospel of free grace is not dependent on the work of a sermon, it’s dependent on free grace!
Although these comments were made in the specific context of cathedral worship and its visitors, the question here apply to most aspects of life in the local church. Why preach?
In case the importance of preaching looks too obvious, it is worth reflecting for a moment. There are plenty of religious traditions which don’t have much of a place for preaching. I don’t know much about Hinduism, but whenever I have visited a Sikh gurdwara, I haven’t seen any obvious emphasis on preaching or explanation. In Orthodox Judaism, the reading of Torah has centre stage. And within Quakerism, the centralising authority of the preached word has been rejected in favour of an openness to the insights of all—or none, in the silence. Even within the evangelical tradition, there is a question to be asked about the need for preaching. In John Stott’s classic I Believe in Preaching, Stott’s own rationale is slightly less convincing than it at first reads. He contends that God has spoken, that when God speaks things happen, and that God continues to speak today through what he has spoken in Scripture. A first response to this might indeed be to ask ‘Then why preach? Why not just read the Scriptures and leave it at that? Do we need to help God out, lest his words are not as potent as we had hoped?’
There is a real question here about whether preaching arises from our lack of trust in God, or our need to control, or a post-Enlightenment desire to reduce everything to the rational and the verbal—and there are several theological traditions which suffer from just such pre-occultation. But it is worth reflecting on the dynamic and development of preaching, or explicit proclamation or understanding, within the unfolding of Scripture itself.
The earlier parts of the the Hebrew Bible do not make any mention of preaching in the way we might now understand it—primarily because the texts of Scripture largely consist of a record of preaching or proclamation themselves. One of my favourite passages, Deut 32, records the prophetic preaching/oracle of Moses over the tribes. And of course the majority of prophetic texts record, in some form or another, the preaching of the prophet after which they are named. Even our ‘history’ books, known in the Hebrew Bible as the ‘former prophets’, offer a narrative sermon on the ups and downs of God’s people.
But preaching as commentary on the pre-existing scriptures does intrude at a particularly critical point. In Nehemiah 8, following the return of (some of) the people from exile in Babylon, Ezra the ‘teacher of the law’ has the people gather before him as he stands on a platform to read from the ‘law of Moses’. And around him he has a preaching team:
The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. (Nehemiah 8.7–8)
In other words, a gap of understanding had now opened up between the text and the people, and ‘preaching’ (or exposition, or explanation) was need to fill that gap if the people were going to truly understand what was being read—and, by implication, avoid making the mistakes of their ancestors and be taken off once more into exile.
This understanding of preaching—as bridging the gap between the word (of the text) and the world (of the hearers)—has profound implications at every level of preaching. It will determine who we approach preaching: what kind of gap do we think we are filling? If it is a gap of ignorance, we will fill it with information; if it is a gap of interest, we will fill it with motivation; if it is a gap of connection, we will fill it with spiritual insight—and so on. The different preaching traditions can be accounted for by noting the different understanding of the ‘gap’ in each tradition. And of course this is the foundation for understanding the role of hermeneutics (interpretation) in preaching—famously characterised by Anthony Thiselton as the need to bridge the ‘two horizons’ of the text and the reader.
This dynamic—of filling a gap—is clearly at work in NT accounts of preaching and proclamation. Jesus’ actions in the gospels are consistently accompanied by teaching and preaching. In Acts, miracles and demonstrations of the Spirit’s power lead to explanations of what they mean and what response they demand. In the archetypal example of Philip in Acts 8:26-40, the Ethiopian eunuch asks him ‘How can I understand, unless someone guides me?’ There will come a time for ‘silence in heaven’ (Revelation 8.1), but that time is when the end has come, the opportunity for repentance is past, and judgement is at hand. In the meantime, the task is to bear faithful witness, and offer the invitation of grace. As Paul asks pointedly:
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10.13–14)
For many of us, although God continues to speak through art and architecture, through silence and music, through the visual as well as the verbal, we would never have come to faith in the first place unless someone had taken the time to offer us a word of explanation. To suggest this is not necessary for others seems to me to be like entering the castle, and pulling up the drawbridge behind us.
Returning to Richard Moy’s original question: is there a gap of understanding between what is happening in our cathedrals and churches, and the people who find themselves wandering in? If so, then preaching is needed.
There are two interesting responses to Richard’s original post, both from Cathedral deans.
Pete Wilcox, of Liverpool Cathedral, offers a fabulous response here, outlining all that goes on in Liverpool to engage visitors and explain faith. He concludes:
This, I think, is the particular ministry of Cathedrals, and I’m confident all my colleagues know it, value it and want to make the most of it. How we are doing so will differ according to several variables: theological standpoint is only one; architecture and location are significant too. But take heart: there is much effective evangelism taking place. Maybe we could all be making more of precisely the interface you cite, when Choral Evensong meets Tourism Central; but don’t assume that’s the whole deal. And also, give us a break: the Church of England is on a journey, and Cathedrals are on board. You can be sure that the language of mission is more and more mainstream even in Cathedrals and that when the Deans meet to talk, we even talk, at least some of the time, about making Jesus known. We remember that that is what we were ordained to do, I promise.
The second is from a very different tradition, that of Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow.
So, I agree with some of the things Richard Moy is saying. Lots of churches could engage people better. However, I find myself disagreeing with Richard Moy too, particularly in his presumption that the only way in which the gospel can be conveyed is through a homily.
Holdworth goes on to point out that sermons themselves can be part of the problem:
Boredom is one of the devil’s chief tools in church. And the truth is, I’ve found myself experiencing boredom in all kinds of churches. Cathedrals certainly don’t have the monopoly on this. Ranting sermons. Repetitive sermons. Sermons which seem to be concerned only with one view of the atonement. We’ve all heard them. Preaching itself is not the answer.
What is fascinating is that both these responses, in their different ways, support the central point that Richard is making: that the good news of Jesus needs explaining in some form, and cannot just be left to the flying buttresses. pete Wilcox talks of all the ways that explanation is happening in Liverpool; Kelvin Holdsworth points out that preaching can do this badly. But, as has been said before, the answer to bad use is not no use, but good use.
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