Pooh and Piglet proliferated in social media immediately following the announcement of Brexit. Largely they encouraged us to “still be friends” despite disagreement. And I can’t help thinking that this meme rich delicacy - that avoids, rather than faces, issues - reflects not only aspects of our culture, but also some of the preaching in our churches. We have been encouraged to “disagree well”, but only about the place of women, not where the poor, the ethnic minority or the racist are concerned. If Christians have followed the example of their preachers, they will have remained silent on such issues.
Relegated once again to the back of our collective wardrobe by the Olympic games, the depth of national division revealed by the referendum was surely a shock to most. Since, our two major political parties have undergone significant trauma, resulting in a new government with new direction, but without the inconvenience of a general election, and an opposition party that seems mainly bent on opposing itself. The far-reaching outcome was unanticipated, the rift in our society unsuspected.
In a wing of the church that claims to embrace the injunction to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, it seems we too have failed – badly failed. The question, I believe, for those who preach, is what do we now say? The danger is that we turn to a Piglet and Pooh style message, encourage people to love each other, and forget that love is a verb requiring action, not just positive regard. As Fred Craddock enjoined his hearers: “don’t sit on your patio in the high noon of your tranquility and make light of the huts that people build in the midnight of their desperation.” (Craddock, 2011)
As the political conference season looms, perhaps it is time to admit that Jesus was profoundly political, and calls his church to be the same. Not political in the confrontational, party political sense, but political by speaking for the good news of Christ in the public square, and political in enabling Sunday congregations to do so, because their preachers do it well.
In the Church of England, some of our bishops have led the way. Prior to the last election a pastoral letter from the house of Bishops encouraged us to think about how we voted. Before the referendum several bishops spoke out about the risks of feeding racism by voting “Leave”. Yet, I wonder how many parish preachers ignored this lead and continued to preach a cuddly gospel in which everything will turn out right in the end.
It’s time to re-think preaching.
Reading the Common Awards modules to be used in teaching Anglican ordinands to preach, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Bibliographies list books about communicating in a postmodern world, books about reflexive practice, books about preaching in the context of worship, but virtually nothing that encourages preachers to preach prophetically, to hold up a mirror to society and allow hearers to see what is wrong.
In 2006 Marvin McMickle asked of the American church, “where have all the prophets gone?” Preachers were not asking the difficult questions, but instead were occupied with positivity, hope and joy, thus downplaying the pain evident in our world. Too much preaching has promoted Jesus as our life coach and God as a benign power who will make sure everything turns out right. American preachers, McMickle claimed, had ignored the task of calling people away from false gods, highlighting God’s preference for the poor and seeking to speak truth to power. I suggest that the same has been true among preachers in the evangelical wing of the church in England. Judging from a straw poll conducted among students preparing for ministry in 2015 a very small percentage of preachers used the Bishops’ pastoral letter as a basis for preaching prior to the general election. I suspect even fewer addressed the social attitudes which eventually decided the outcome of the referendum.
In America, for a decade, a return to prophetic preaching has been called for by a small number of Christian thinkers. The state of Britain as revealed by the referendum demands something similar. Various Christian blogs and Facebook posts reveal the kind of “prophetic” thinking that forecasts the end of the world, and is unconcerned about the fate either of the planet or of those predicted to be doomed. That is not the kind of prophetic word I mean. Prophetic preaching should be in the tradition both of the Hebrew prophets and also of Jesus himself. This, I suspect, is where the church, or areas of the church, may have erred. Where sermons actually have focused on Jesus, rather than on Paul or other New Testament texts, they seem to speak mainly of a Jesus who “went to parties and made friends”. Little is said about the Jesus who angered the establishment, who people wanted to kill and who enraged the community in his home synagogue not because he claimed Scripture had been fulfilled but because he spoke of other nations being included in the commonwealth of God (Luke 4).
If preachers take their prophetic responsibilities seriously, they are those, commissioned by God and the church to speak the truth, to highlight wrong and to call God’s people back. We cannot give Piglet and Pooh style reassurances, or comforting memes, but we must enable congregations to think biblically for themselves, to address issues courageously and to demonstrate radical love of the other. It is time we dared to preach prophetically and politically, seeking to understand the Jesus who challenged and usurped earthly powers.
Liz Shercliff has been Director of Studies for Readers in the Diocese of Chester since 2009. She holds MAs in Adult Learning and in Mission and Ministry. As part of the management team of All Saints Centre for Mission and Ministry she holds particular responsibility for developing homiletics, and is currently reading for a Doctorate in Professional Practice at the University of Chester, focusing on women’s preaching. With Professor Elaine Graham she inaugurated the Women’s Voices conference for women preachers and those who seek to support them.
She has been Resources and Reviews Editor for The Preacher magazine since 2014 and was, until recently, a member of the Executive of the College of Preachers. Outside of work, Liz has attended every production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre for 27 years. She is a member of a local badminton club and a keen football fan.