Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Scriptures & Preaching in hard times

The other day I was doing due diligence checking up what was going on in the confused and confusing world of Anglicanism when I came across a powerful article on TitusOneNine ( that dealt with the issue of preaching. It was written by a Roman Catholic priest from Rhode Island, David Lewis Stokes, Jr. ( The trigger for the piece, published in the Providence Journal, was a story of a local minister had recently been caught "recycled sermons without acknowledging his sources."

The outcome was a thoughtful analysis of preaching and its decline in our culture for, as Fr. Stokes says, "To climb up into a pulpit week after week has become much like the tight-rope artist who must amaze a demanding audience with ever more daring routines."

Stokes' piece was timely and well-modulated, producing several helpful insights that everyone who undertakes the weekly spiritual striptease of preaching would do well to meditate upon. While he skirts around what it might be that reduces preachers to wrapping themselves in someone else's rags, it is implicitly a warning to each of us that we should engage the world of the Bible that it might engage and shape the lives we live in the world of today.

When I read the piece on TitusOneNine I found myself looking forward to the responses to David Stokes and eagerly went several times a day to the article to see what people were saying. After only two slim comments I posted something myself to see if that might stimulate some discussion. Only two more thoughts came trailing in.

Meanwhile, folks were getting hot under the collar by the dozen as they responded the the ecclesiastical political stories being posted, coupled with the banal and bizarre that has become the stock-in trade of much of the Episcopal Church. My inner response was one of exasperation.

One of the most exciting and wonderful things that ordained leaders are called to do is to be privileged to open the Word of God for the People of God on each passing Sunday (and sometimes in the week as well). While there are some who would dispute the priority I give to it, I believe that preaching is a Christian leader's most important task and we belittle it or minimize it at our own and the church's peril.

This, indeed, is what we have done for generation after generation, in Anglicanism and way beyond the borders of our little church. Instead, we get far more agitated about who will attend the Lambeth Conference, whether the Archbishop of Canterbury is a good guy, and so forth.

Yes, we have some intensely difficult ecclesiastical conundra before us and I don't mind admitting that each twist and turn of the Anglican-Episcopal merry-go-round leaves me ever more confused. It is almost impossible to see what is happening in the wider church and it is probable that only with hindsight as the years pass that we will be able to see precisely what has been going on.

The place where the life of the church continues day by day, week by week, month by month, is not the diocese, and is definitely not the national church, but is the congregation. God's way to bring in the Kingdom is by the local community of Christ's people being faithful in their witness both in season and out of season. However, they cannot be faithful if they have not been fed by the incarnate Word from the written Word, and through the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is where preaching comes it, for it is what happens around the work the pastor does in the pulpit that forms and shapes a congregation, helps it set its agenda, asserts its priorities, and attempts to feed the sheep who have gathered around the table. Word and Sacrament go hand-in-hand, but without the Word the Sacrament loses much of its meaning, for the Word is God speaking.

While it would be ludicrous to suggest that we have a moritorium on church politics, although this priest would heartily welcome such a thing, it would not be so foolish to suggest that each of us who is called to the awesome task of rightly expounding the Word of God to manage our time differently. Perhaps we should spend an hour or two less each week surfing the net for the latest howler from the Presiding Bishop and such, and to give that time to marinating ourselves in the Scriptures so that we can pass on something substantial to those we are called to pastor.


Anonymous said...

About 2 years ago our rector approached several members of the congregation to become members of a group called Preaching Partners who would critque all sermons and meet with the indiviual preacher to offer helpful suggestions. I served on this panel for over a year when I felt I had offered as much help as I could and suggested several potential replacements. The general reaction of the parish was that preaching had improved. We used TV and sound recordings of each preacher and the entire group and the priest offered advice and suggestions. We have 2 full time priests, two associates, and an ordained minister of another background that preach at 3 services each Sunday. All the members of the Partners, both male and female and ranging from 20's to 80's are active in the church. We range from both ends of the Anglican spectrum, myself am an associate of the Benedictine Order.
Not every priest would be brave enough to try this nor could some accept such observations from the lay order; however, ours ranging from a young man to a retired priest accepted what was offered as constructive and helpful and our preaching is now noted for its excellence.

Anonymous said...

A postscript.
All sermons are based directly on the reading for the Sunday or other special day. I believe I failed to make that clear in the previous post.

Hiram said...
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