This week I ‘attended’ the Festival of Preaching hosted by St Martin-in-the-Fields in London and presented by the Church Times-Canterbury Press. To some the phrase ‘Festival of Preaching’ may seem like an oxymoron, such is the bad rap that the medium of preaching tends to get. This event was a reminder of the potential for preaching to be a sophisticated, powerful and impactful art. The poet Malcolm Guite, theologians Martyn Percy and Alister McGrath, and renowned preachers Barbara Brown Taylor and Nadia Bolz-Weber were among the distinguished presenters, along with the odd poet, scholar and vicar thrown in for extra seasoning. (If you are not familiar with these preaching luminaries, just search for them online and you will be able to see them in action on YouTube etc.) The event was both in-person and online. Stuck in lockdown in Canberra, I was one of the online ‘attendees’.
I think it was the Reverend Dr Sam Wells, Rector of St Martin’s, who noted that often the sermon we preach is not the sermon that is heard by the congregation in the pews. Each person hears ‘their own version’ of it, the product of an admixture of how it speaks to them at that moment of their life, the capacity of the preacher to communicate effectively, and the workings of the Holy Spirit in that person as they listen. So it is not unusual for someone to tell a preacher ‘When you said X…’ and the preacher thinks ‘But I didn’t say X…’. With that in mind, I don’t propose to give a summary of what each speaker had to say. You can access the Festival online for that. But I thought to share something of what I heard the voices of that event say to me.
I certainly heard a lot. There was a lot of talk about the ‘craft’, about content and stylistic matters, about preparation processes for sermon writing and different approaches to textual analysis, form and writing, the importance of the local context, being resonant rather than relevant, and authenticity. I also heard a fair bit about form and substance questions, with qualified encouragement in areas such as use of narrative and poetry, experimental form and the dramatic. I clearly heard things said about the appropriateness or otherwise of vulnerability in the pulpit (with the old caution to speak from scars but not out of wounds), and the emotional dimension of preaching. (While I remain to be convinced that the theatricality and emotionalism of some American practitioners is really desirable in the liturgical context, I am certain that this mode would not be ‘authentic’ to me.) There was also discussion on an issue that many preachers (well I hope it’s not just me) struggle with, the thorny matter of working out what on earth (or heaven for that matter) one ought to make of the lectionary texts on a given Sunday.
All of this is, I guess, what one would expect to encounter at such an event and nothing was particularly radical or mind-blowing. However, it was, for the most part, reflective of and responsive to the mood of the times. If I were being asked at the church steps on departure, ‘What was all that about?’, I think my answer would be that, from what I heard, what was going on was a coming to terms with the role that preaching can and ought to play in how we lead our congregations through the pandemic experience. That seemed to be a theme, which, unsurprisingly, kept surfacing throughout the diverse sessions.
The value I found in this was the affirmation of a shared experience, which was made up of frustration, confusion and an abiding desire to somehow keep the God-talk alive, to keep the Good News in our thoughts, on our lips and in our hearts during this time of crisis.
While it would seem that the times are ripe for preachers to hold out words of hope and life in the midst of so much uncertainty, sorrow and anxiety, there was a realistic acceptance of just how difficult the pandemic has made the task of preaching, both in terms of form and substance, for the nature of the pandemic is such that we not only have to think seriously about what we say, but how we say it. And so, the challenge of delivering sermons and reflections through online media was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. Many of the presenters were, or had been, in contexts where the impact of the pandemic was severe.
While preaching is about bringing the Good News into the here and now of our lives, the pandemic presents both a major opportunity as well as obstacle for this ministry. We know that clergy around the world have been left feeling exhausted by the challenges of ministry in the pandemic, particularly those whose communities have been affected by high rates of sickness, mortality and extended lockdown.
On top of the general matter of the pandemic, the combination of being involuntarily thrust into online service delivery, grappling with IT and media usually from a starting point of no meaningful prior experience and with significant resourcing challenges, managing accelerated and constant change in communities, and the loss of many of the aspects of ministry which clergy tend to find satisfying (inter-personal interactions, liturgical action, community events etc) is reported to have left many clergy feeling burnt out. In this context, it is no wonder that finding the words to preach and a means to preach them has felt overwhelming for many.
What I heard at this event was an acknowledgement of all of that, expressed through that solidarity of members of a shared vocation with a shared experience. But this was not self-piteous; I also heard the sound of the vital pulse of the faithful through the call and determination not to give up and despair, but to hold fast to the Good News and to creatively, sensitively and honestly allow it to pierce the darkness of this moment even amidst the confusion of the present times. The crucial need for preachers to be preaching hope into the pandemic, holding out Good News for the present, not just some eschatological future, was emphasised to lead us all out of the cocoons of fear and anxiety into lives of hope. The festival was able to demonstrate examples of this, ranging from Malcolm Guite’s corona (a poetic form famously used by John Donne) David’s Crown – Sounding the Psalms, a series of poetic responses drawing upon the psychological scope of the psalms, to reflection on the constructive role of lament in preaching at this time as a way of honestly inhabiting the space of uncertainty and confusion the pandemic has dumped us in so that, open to God, we can inchingly, move towards a place of praise and thanksgiving.
The issue of form, particularly with preachers thrust into cyber-preaching, was acknowledged.
Hot on the heels of this event, with something yet to prepare for this Sunday’s online service, I find myself still struggling with how best to approach online preaching. Trying to give a homily or reflection through Zoom feels so flat when compared to the ‘energy’ of preaching to a community which is physically assembled. It’s not easy to ‘read the room’ and I certainly don’t feel the vibe of a particular day that is often tangible when we come together in church. However, I now have the slight consolation that, as I heard it, I’m not alone in this respect and that even the brightest and best of the preaching scene feel the same frustrations and ambivalences. A ready-to-download patch or update to solve the problem wasn’t on offer, however, there were enough trouble-shooting tips to stimulate local adaptation and experimentation. My congregations will continue to be guinea-pigs as I keep experimenting my way through this. At least now I don’t feel quite as inadequate about my failure to have fully crafted my multimedia stylings.
So often virtual life may feel like staring through a glass darkly, a shadowy substitute that doesn’t quite match up to the ‘real’ thing. I think this is very keenly felt with regards to liturgy where so much of the human and sensory aspect of our gathering simply cannot pulsate through fibres and screens. Yet, I realise that there is no little irony in the fact that I was able to participate in this event because of the pandemic. Stuck at home in lockdown, nowhere to go and no one to see, I was able to unbegrudgingly give over the time for this event, immersing myself in it. Was it just a sign of the deprivations of life under COVID-19, that I found a level of stimulation and encouragement in this event that I have not experienced for a long time? Or was this, like other strands of online ministry and communications, a sort of virtual manna, food for the journey?
Staring down the interweb through my screen ‘to attend’ this festival impressed upon me how God equips his people with what they need for the journey. In the words shared, the ideas presented, the sermons preached and the sharing of experience, learning and insight, I heard quite a lot. I heard words of encouragement. I heard words of inspiration, words of honesty and uncertainty. And whispered through, between and around these words I heard another Word speaking gently to me, speaking Good News.