“The heart ignites. Boom. We are on our way.”

In Igniting the Heart Kate Bruce, Deputy Warden, Tutor in Homiletics and CODEC Research Fellow in Preaching at Cranmer Hall, Durham, argues for a rediscovery of the imagination in preaching. Here’s an extract:

igniting-the-heart_photoPicture the scene. It’s Wednesday. You are sitting at the dining-room table surrounded by scribbled notes on screwed-up pieces of paper. You have done your homework. You read the passages earlier in the week and have been praying and pondering over them. You’ve now focused on and wrestled with the text, identified possibilities and difficulties, chased down ideas in commentaries, prayed and pondered some more and yet you have nothing concrete to work with. The laptop is fired up, but you are not.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking.

Sack it all. You snap the lead on the dog and head for the hills. The internal panic monster growls in your ear. As you walk, ideas and snippets of the text come to mind and drop away. A possibility starts tugging at your sleeve, but as you turn to look it flits off – a half-baked idea, it is dismissed. Returning home, other things press in and occupy your attention. The sermon worries are set aside. Meanwhile, as yet unnoticed, deep in your imagination something starts to stir.

At this stage in the sermon preparation process I have learned to trust that somehow it will come together – an approach that mugs the panic monster. When I return to focused preparation I discover that while my conscious mind was dealing with the day to day, the sermon was taking shape. Something seems to have happened in the incubator of my imagination. Impressions gathered as I strolled through the biblical landscape might tug insistently at my sleeve. Odd thoughts connect with ideas I might have picked up in a commentary or a conversation. Perhaps overheard snippets from the supermarket queue will float into consciousness and offer themselves as illustrative material. Scripture speaks to Scripture and sets up resonances. Links are forged: a scene from a film; a picture in the paper; a headline; a Facebook comment; a line from a song; a Tweet. Seemingly random materials seem to fuse together and the sparks start flying. The structural framework emerges from scribbled ideas. Scripture, image, day-to-day instances and applications are welded into shape; form and content inform each other.

I picture the preaching space and play with delivery ideas as I pace around the living room: gesture; eye movement; use of space; tonal variation; verbal emphasis. The dog looks quizzical. I rehearse possibilities on the stage of my imagination, playing with the sermon material, hammering it out on the anvil of possibility. I find myself engaged, absorbed and focused. The blue touch-paper is lit. The heart ignites. Boom. We are on our way.

This is invariably my experience in sermon preparation, which is a process that takes me through the valley of creative despair (where I have no ideas and on a bad day don’t want the hassle), up to the heights of delight in the privilege of exploring with people the power of the ancient text alive in the present moment, inexorably pulling us towards the love of God.

Of course, working on a sermon prior to the delivery is only half the story. Arguably the sermon doesn’t become such until it is delivered live in the event. Here the lifeless text or notes become the sermon as the preacher interacts with the congregation, and in that specific context the Spirit breathes life into dead words. Some ideas are dropped; improvisation might lead to new thoughts and ideas as the preacher works on their feet, responding to the nudge of the Spirit in the moment of delivery. As they speak, the sermon leaves them and wings its way to the hearer, where it might take a new shape as it fuses with themes in the life of the whole community; in this person’s current life experience; in that person’s present concerns or hopes. As different hearers apply aspects of the preached material to their own situation, other sermons are heard, birthed from the one preached.

Perhaps this view of preaching is too positive. It is also true that the sermon may die in stony cynicism, become buried in the soil of distraction or worst of all nosedive into the barren rocks of boredom. The day of the poorly conceived, ill-prepared, dull, disconnected, boring, irrelevant, authoritarian, yawn-inducing, patronizing, pontificating, pointless and badly delivered sermon is most emphatically over. However, I want to go in to bat for the enduring power of the sermon. Imaginatively conceived and delivered, guided by the revelatory impulse of God, the sermon has the potential to move and inspire people; in short, it can ignite the heart.

The image behind the title for this book, Igniting the Heart, suggests a sense of words pulsing with revelatory potential, leaping out and sparking connections in the imagination of the hearer. This is an understanding of preaching laden with illuminating possibility, the ‘Aha’ moment when the switch flips, the lights go on and we see anew. For preaching to ignite the heart, it must spark connections with the hearer. Achieving such connection requires the active engagement of the imagination of the preacher and hearer.

The imagination is of vital importance for preaching. In all the stages of the sermon process the human imagination, filled with the revelatory power of God, is at work: in prayer; in biblical spadework; in observation and reflection; in mulling and contemplation; in the unconscious fusion of ideas; in the play of words on the page; in the forging of empathetic connection and the logical linking of ideas; in the work of performance; in the task of reception and action. Imagination matters to preaching.

This book explores how we might helpfully understand the work of imagination and why it matters so much to preaching. It examines the theological and practical consequences of this and offers preachers ways of strengthening their imaginative muscle. With this in mind, imagination needs to feature in homiletics teaching, both as a subject in its own right and as a factor shaping the approach to the structure and delivery of curriculum content. The purpose of this book is to inspire and equip preachers and homiletics teachers to be imaginative in the way they think about, prepare and deliver sermons.



Just Published: The SCM Studyguide to Preaching

SCMSG PREACHING (002).jpgWe’ve just published our new SCM Studyguide to Preaching by Peter Stevenson. Peter is Principal of South Wales Baptist College. Previously he taught at Spurgeon’s College in London, where he was the Director of Continuing Ministerial Development.

Our hope is that our new Studyguide will provide a much-needed introduction to the practice of preaching. It is designed for people from various church traditions, in the early stages of ministerial formation. Preaching is a complex and challenging business requiring a demanding mixture of skills. People listening to a sermon have the right to expect that a person who stands up to preach, can interpret the Bible competently, has a grasp of core Christian beliefs, and believes what they preach. They also expect someone who has the necessary range of communication skills to put the message across in an accessible way. Such a range of expectations presents daunting challenges to the most experienced preacher, and the Studyguide is designed to help preachers deal with those challenges. It includes practical exercises which could be used by individuals or by groups. Paula Gooder had this to say:

“This thoughtful yet practical guide to the art of preaching is a brilliant resource both for those new to preaching and for experienced preachers who are looking for ideas to reinvigorate how they preach. It blends helpful theory with down-to-earth examples in such a way that captures and communicates Peter Stevenson’s own passion for preaching. A must for every preacher’s bookshelf.”

We’re also putting together some extra resources, such as accompanying worksheets and a video introduction for each chapter available online – you’ll be able to access this content very soon. In the meantime, though, here’s a sneak preview of one of the videos. Here Peter Stevenson introduces Chapter 1:


The Promise of Money

9780334041429In the UK it has been a week where we have all suddenly become aware of exchange rates, of pounds and dollars, as the money markets have adjusted further to a gradually emerging new world order. For Christians, as for others, this stirs us to think again about what this thing we call money might be, and what its value really is.

Today we bring you an extract from Philip Goodchild’s Theology of Money. In the book, Goodchild argues that money is a promise, a supreme value, a transcendent value and an obligation or a law. He argues that money has taken the place of God. It is the dominant global religion in practice – even if no one believes in it in principle.


A parable:

And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. Money came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread. For I would do as much for the least of masters whom I serve.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

’Then Money took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for you can command your angels to bear you up, so that you do not dash your foot against a stone. For I would do this much for the greatest of masters whom I serve.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

’Again, Money took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, and said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, choose to master me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Be gone, Money! For it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” One cannot serve God and Mammon.

’As Money departed, he replied, ‘If the owner is unwilling to sell, one may always pay someone to remove him. I will go seek out Judas Iscariot. For though some seek bread, some seek power, some seek the world, and some seek to leave it, most will accept money instead. ’And suddenly the earth was opened, and the fire of the infernal mint was seen rising up to touch Money so that his face shone like the sun, and the voice of Mammon came from the depths, saying, ‘This is my son, my beloved, upon whom my fire rests. Whosoever eats of his flesh and blood will have life in all its fullness.’

The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth on wealth stand out as distinct within the history of religions. Many others have taught and practised asceticism, the renunciation of worldly ways and pleasures. Jesus, by contrast, warned against wealth while feasting and drinking himself. The kingdom of God was a feast promised for those without wealth. Such teachings on wealth make sense within the tradition of Hebrew prophets who protested against theft, exploitation and the appropriation of property. The warnings against riches are economic: corruption of the lives of others is the true meaning of corruption of the soul through avarice. This economic meaning of Jesus’ sayings may be evaded if they are interpreted individually; when surveyed together, however, the meaning is both radical and transparent.

Jesus announced a gospel of good news to the poor (Luke 4.18). Woes were proclaimed to the rich; blessings to the poor (Luke 6.20–26). Jesus’ followers were enjoined to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12.33). Keeping the Ten Commandments was insufficient for a landowner; selling possessions and giving to the poor were also required (Mark 10.21). It was impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10.25). Jesus sent out his followers to travel without money (Mark 6.8). He did not habitually carry spare money (Matt. 17.27; 22.19); his disciples had a common purse carried by the traitor Judas Iscariot who was accused of stealing from it (John 12.6). Wealth was described as ‘unrighteous’ (Luke 16.9). Prudent economic behaviour such as planning and accumulation were rejected (Luke 12.13–21; 13.22–31). The use of wealth was regarded as minor in contrast to the ways of God (Luke16.11). The extraction of taxes, the fundamental activity that maintained the political power of the Roman Empire and the Herodians, belonged to a different sphere from the service of God (Mark 12.17). Similarly, the children of God were regarded as free from paying the temple tax (Matt.17.26). When Jesus attacked the centre of religious power in his society, it was the tables of the money-changers that he overthrew (Mark 11.15). All debts were to be forgiven (Matt. 6.12); hence even the principle of contract, the fundamental political power of civil society, was to be laid aside. In declaring that one cannot serve God and wealth (Matt. 6.24), Jesus set the divine power of the kingdom of God in the starkest opposition to one of the most fundamental principles of both worldly and religious power: the power of money. Such is the radical significance of his teaching. Jesus’ betrayal by Judas for the sake of money (Matt. 26.15) was a poignant rejection of the heart of his teaching. theology of money.

Jesus may therefore be regarded as among the most radical of religious political thinkers. The fifth-century British heretic Pelagius explained such teaching by the observation that the chief sources of wealth in the ancient world were extortion, robbery and inheritance of the benefits of extortion and robbery. Jesus’ protest was at once political, moral and religious. In a pre-capitalist economy, it was evident to all that inequalities in wealth largely arose from the accumulation of the products of others’ labour, whether through theft, slavery, tribute, patronage, taxation or debt. Such accumulated wealth is stored and exchanged in the form of money; without money, there is less scope for such unequal accumulation. Christian theology has largely attempted to evade the uncomfortable legacy of the social significance of money by internalizing Jesus’ message: it is love of money, not money itself, that has been regarded as the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6.10). Christian theology has preferred to concentrate on the opposition of the world to Jesus, expressed in his execution as a criminal, or in the scandal of proclaiming a crucified, itinerant preacher as son of God. In doing so, it has tended to overlook the radical opposition of God to the world, or divine judgement, proclaimed by Jesus himself: ‘woe to you who are rich’(Luke 6.24). The proclamation of a new saviour belonged well within the hopes, desires and political norms of the ancient world, even if the specific choice of a humble and crucified saviour gave offence. By contrast, a proclamation against the most fundamental and pervasive ways of the world was nothing less than a claim to reveal a different underlying principle or power: the rule or kingdom of God. Jesus opposed the power of God to the power of money. Every time Christianity has worshipped Christ enthroned as a heavenly Caesar, it has repeated Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus.

Theology can have no neutrality here. As Saint Paul well understood, the central question of theology is that of the essence of the power to be used in final judgement (e.g. 1 Cor. 15.24). If theology is to judge the ways of the world by the power of truth and goodness, then it must explain truth and goodness in accordance with their own specific power. Theology, concerned with the ultimate criteria of life, is the most fundamental and radical inquiry. It attempts to discern how truth, goodness and life come to be constituted. It offers to the world a vision of life interpreted according to the richest categories of meaning. It has the duty to invest life with the deepest layers of spiritual wealth; that is, it has to determine what is the nature of true wealth. Such is the vocation for theology, whether Christian or not; such is the most fundamental inquiry, whether pursued by believers, non-believers or no one at all. It is against a new revelation of divine power that worldly wealth, which can only measure exchange value in terms of money, is to be judged. Such a judgement is inevitably surprising: it is an eschatological replacement of all fundamental principles. In this life, material wealth is the source of all benefits, all delights, all investments, all sustenance, all welfare and all charity. Few ascetics have questioned its necessity for those who remain in the world. To question its benefits risks charges of insanity. The quest for wealth is the one practical activity that unites the diverse people of the contemporary globalized world. It is the means or precondition for undertaking all subsequent worthy ventures or enjoying all pleasures. As George Bernard Shaw put it:

Money is indeed the most important thing in the world; and all sound and successful personal and national morality should have this fact for its basis. Every teacher or twaddler who denies it or suppresses it, is an enemy of life. Money controls morality . . .

Furthermore, in a capitalist economy, accumulation occurs through the use of money: in the equitable relation of voluntary trade, the moral and political relations from which wealth derives are no longer directly evident. The equitable relation of trade appears to embody justice. To oppose money as the fundamental principle of the social order is therefore deeply immoral and unjust from the perspective of that order. It destroys just standards of measure as well as hindering opportunities for accumulation. To question the pursuit of wealth is to set oneself against all common sense, all agreement, all political power and all practicality. Moreover, since wealth gives access to power, to question the pursuit of wealth is to abandon all power, so dooming oneself to a futile quest. Itis little wonder that Christian theologians have sought to accommodate themselves to the world rather than risk their entire heritage.

Nevertheless, the strategy of internalization to accommodate oneself to wealth betrays an infidelity. Jesus appears to have been quite content to enjoy the hospitality of the wealthy, to allow others to provide for him out of their wealth, and to consume to the extent that he and his followers were accused of gluttony (Matt. 9.10–11; Luke 8.3; Matt.11.19). Feasting provides the paradigmatic symbol for the arrival of the kingdom of God. It is not the subjective enjoyment of wealth that was his target; it was wealth as a principle of power or judgement. In Jesus’ opposition to the service of wealth the furthest differentiation from the ways of the world was marked. In this difference there lies an opportunity to explore how the value of values may be determined. Jesus’ announcements raise the most fundamental of theological problems: what is the value of values? Do our scales of evaluation express true values? Indeed, the theological tradition has perhaps had to wait until the furthest point of opposition to Jesus, the self-proclaimed anti-Christ, for the true nature of theological inquiry to become clarified. Perhaps theology can only come to maturity after Friedrich Nietzsche raised the problem of the revaluation of all values. For it is nothing less than a revaluation of all values that Jesus himself proclaimed.


Philip Goodchild is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Nottingham University.

Theology of Money is included in our winter sale. More details here.

Word Made Flesh, 23rd Jan 7pm

cymy1gkw8aaf3_oThe SCM Press/St Martin-in-the-Fields panel event ‘Word Made Flesh: Does the Church Really Need Academic Theology?‘ is just a few days away. In this guest post, Canon Dr Julie Gittoes outlines some of the themes of the event, and reflects on the place that church and academy have had in her own ministry.

Is there still a place for academic theology in the life of the church – or should we spend less time mulling over big ideas and focus more on living out the Gospel?

Would the church be any poorer if academic theology didn’t exist – and in what way does academic theology need the church?

These are the overarching questions which we will be discussing  on Monday, 23rd January in an event co-hosted by SCM Press and St Martin-in-the-Fields during Academic Book Week.

Taking those challenges as a starting point, our own responses and further reflections will be shaped by our context, our experience and our preoccupations. We bring to the conversation assumptions and suspicions about what mean by ‘academic theology’.

Our conversation will be shaped by a panel of theologians and church leaders, lay and ordained, who will provoke, inspire and encourage us to speak about the place of theology in the life of the church: Alison Milbank, Christina Rees, Lincoln Harvey, Mark Oakley, Steve Chalke and Sam Wells.

You might be concerned about voices which seem to be absent from theological debate or perceptions of elitism. The pursuit of theological wisdom might be something which inspires and equips you in the midst of ministry; or as an academic, you may face the reality of demonstrating impact and excellence.

As we think about these challenges, we are also seeking to ensure the vitality of our complex theological ‘ecology’ – which ranges from conferences to social media, ministerial formation and academic journals, church commissions to festivals.   How might we not only encourage one another in this task, but also inspire a younger generation to pursue their theological vocation?

Perhaps one way into the question ‘does the church really need academic theology?’ is to tell our stories. It’s then that we appreciate both the joys and the challenges; the pinch points and opportunities. Above all, it enables us to reflect on what helps or hinders a healthy theological ecology – recognising responsibilities between and within the church and academy. Such stories remind us that the pursuit of wisdom is a gift of the Spirit for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

Perhaps I might begin with mine!

I was 18 when Graham Sykes, the curate of my parish church in Herefordshire lent me a copy of Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology. If I’m honest, I had no idea who Barth was; so I read it cover to cover without preconceptions. I read it in the context of conversations with Graham which were serious about God-talk.  We spent time mulling over the ‘big ideas’; we spent time thinking about living the Gospel.

However, that’s not the starting point: the rhythm of worship had shaped my childhood and adolescence. I was fascinated by the language ‘consubstantial’ and ‘coeternal’ in hymns; I couldn’t wait to make my first communion. All this spoke of love and belonging; of realities human and divine; of mystery and justice. Theology was expressed in praise and proclamation. There was a seriousness about God-talk – at home, at school and at church; it was credible and compelling.

For me, falling in love with theology – as an academic discipline at Durham – deepened, challenged and enriched my faith in unexpected ways. It was Alan Ford who saw potential in a plumber’s daughter who’d not taken A-level RS – and who made us think as historians as well as theologians.

It was Walter Moberly who opened up the realm of theological interpretation of Scripture; and Colin Crowder who pressed us to think afresh about the nature and scope of salvation. It was David Brown and Ann Loades who wove together an appreciation of art, poetry, pastoral care and sacramental theology.

As I wrestled with vocation and entered into the discernment process for ordained ministry within the Church of England, the ‘big ideas’ of theology weren’t nudged out. To commit to proclaiming the Gospel afresh in this generation demands active engagement with the inheritance of faith as well as the stuff of culture. As well as being bilingual, able translators, perhaps we also have to be capable of improvising: only by knowing the chord structure and tune can we sing a new song.

Ann Loades had been robust in encouraging me to do a PhD alongside ordination training – she was aware that women’s voices were still a minority within doctrine. But training meant that I was having to learn to reflect theologically in a new way – in relation to the reality of residential religious community and preaching for the first time; in relation being on placement in a Cambridge college, psychiatric hospital and parish church cathedral.

Life beyond full time study has meant the evolution of a diverse theological ecosystem: teaching, reading, conferences, mission action plans, mentors, preaching, youth groups, writing, informal networks, reviewing (and being reviewed!), books, prayer, festivals, films, lectures, committees, societies and conversations – very many conversations. There are friendships full of encouragement, support, disagreement and collaboration. There’s the ongoing internal dialogue with my late supervisor, the Anglican priest and theologian, Prof Daniel W. Hardy.

At Guildford Cathedral, those conversations are about public theology too – offering space to engage with politics, art, ethics, history, development, human rights. In that context, God-talk remains serious and credible as we seek wisdom, together, for the sake of the common good, for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

Living out the Gospel and academic theology could be seen as woven together – or in a more dynamic way, as habits which informed and transformed each other. There have been moments of tension: when academic theology has been viewed with suspicion or seen as irrelevant; when time to read, let alone write, is a long way down the list of things competing for time.

My gratitude to those who are living out their academic vocation in a range of institutional settings or working freelance is huge. Their pressures and challenges will be different to mine. I need them. I believe the church does too.

So join us at St Martins on Monday, 23rd January!

Does the church really need academic theology? Does academic theology need the church?Is there a choice between mulling over big ideas and getting on with living out the Gospel?

Come and share your questions: about academic pressures, future trends, and whose voices we listen to. Be prepared to have assumptions challenged, to reflect on our experience of God-talk in the church and for our theological imagination to be stretched. Contribute to this theological ecosystem!

If theology is rooted to attention to light of God in worship and habits of prayer; it also demands that we pay attention to God’s world. I want to give Dan Hardy the final word. He wrote in God’s Ways with the World that the ‘the truth and purposes of God are “refracted” – as it were spread like a band of colour – in other forms of life and thought; and the purpose of theology is to rediscover the dynamic of God’s life and work in this “band of colour” and from it’ (pp. 1-2).

 Julie Gittoes has been a Residentiary Canon at Guildford Cathedral since 2012.  She is responsible for developing the Cathedral’s educational work, including establishing a series of lectures on issues in the public square. She was previously Vicar of All Saints’ Hampton in the London Diocese. She teaches doctrine for Guildford’s Local Ministry Programme. 

Word Made Flesh is on Monday 23rd January at 7pm at St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square. You can register and find out more information by clicking here. If you can’t make it in person, we plan to stream the event live via Twitter 

An Ethic of Preaching

alive-to-the-wordStephen Wright’s Alive to the Word, which features in our Winter Sale, offers a constructive reflection on the practice of preaching – from its basic theological rationale right through to the dynamics of live communication and its aftermath. In this extract, Wright explores what an ethic of preaching might look like:

The preacher as listener

If it is the case that as creatures and children we can have no pretension to initiate genuine God-speech that is both loving and true, but can only repeat, echo and imitate that which God himself has already said or is saying, then it follows that the preacher’s first task is to be a listener to God. If, in addition, it is the case that only together in human community are we destined to bear God’s image, and that together in Christ we are ‘being renewed in knowledge after the image of the creator’ (Col. 3.10), we are called also to be listeners to others, and especially those within the body of Christ.

We will listen for God in those places and in that manner that are suggested by our account of how God has revealed himself. We will hear him first and above all in Christ: the Christ who is alive, who speaks through his Spirit, who is more than Scripture and over Scripture, yet is also the Christ of Scripture, those books where through humility and prayer the Church has discerned that he is especially and normatively to be found. But at the same time, in Christ we discern that God’s creation itself, the world of nature and of history, are also vehicles of God’s revelation, so we shall not neglect to look and listen for his word there too.

To claim that God in Christ both continues to speak by his Spirit and continues to speak through his creation (which, of course, is imbued and enlivened with his Spirit) will sound risky to those who wish to guard the preacher’s words – and the Church – by tying ‘the word of God’ in a strict sense to Scripture itself. Yet, as we have seen, a living Christ and a creation of which Christ is Lord forbid us from thus narrowing the field within which we may listen out for God’s word. This does not mean that we may presume to discern in events or culture or nature a ‘word’ from God that is inconsistent with the trajectory of Scripture. It is rather that a respect for the dynamism of the word of the living God forbids us from confining that word to Scripture or thinking that careful Bible study, principled exegesis and prayer will somehow guarantee the faithfulness or appropriateness of our message, or that it will be a means of encounter with God or teaching from God.

Listening only in Scripture for ‘the word of God’ may sound a safe option, but in fact it is not. Significantly different readings of Scripture as a whole are offered by different Christian groups. When we get down to individual passages, a glance at the commentaries or a discussion with Church members will quickly reveal that even on matters of some importance, the implications of the text are received in a wide range of ways. ‘Refuge in Scripture’ may end up, therefore, being a mask for refuge in the preacher’s own construals – delivered as if they were the authoritative guide to the authoritative word.

Openness to the Spirit who speaks in the present, and to the creation too as a vehicle for God’s speech, may seem to make our discernment of God’s word less secure and certain, but in fact it acts as a bulwark. Scripture is our central, definitive channel for this word, but it is not the only one. Another difficulty with the view that confines God’s word simply to Scripture is that it offers no help with drawing out Scripture’s import for our own times, which in the nature of the case cannot be found within the pages of Scripture itself. To recognize that there are other channels for God’s revelation is to allow the impact of Scripture to be felt in an authoritative way, as its witness is confirmed, clarified and applied through God’s speech through his Spirit and his world.

Another vital check on our preaching is the calling to listen to others, especially those within the Christian community. This is far more than a merely pragmatic matter, as if this were just a good way to ‘communicate better’ or ‘make the gospel relevant’. It is the ethical consequence of the shared character of our calling to bear the image of God and echo his voice in the world. As we have seen, this is perfectly compatible with the calling and gifting of some individuals to be special ‘voicers’ of the word of God. But such spokespeople are called not just to listen to God in the silence of meditation or Bible study, nor only in the careful discernment of God’s ways in the world, but also among God’s people themselves (cf. 1 Cor. 14). In all these ways the preacher must listen out for the voice of God, as he or she prays: ‘Lord, speak to me, that I may speak / In living echoes of thy tone.’

The preacher as gospeller

If we as preachers are fundamentally creatures, called to echo the tones of the creator, what may we further say about the kind of voice we should be listening out for, the kind of tones we can expect to hear?

The key reality here is the gospel itself. The gospel is the proclamation of God’s good news for the world, and it concerns Jesus Christ. It cannot be reduced to a formula, or simply summed up in a guaranteed form of words. It is God’s own pronouncement and decree, and as such belongs to God himself. It cannot be domesticated any more than any of his words can be. But as we read the Scriptural testimony to the gospel, we discover that, amazingly, it is precisely this good news to which all his other words point.

We may say, therefore, that it is both illogical and unethical for a preacher to preach anything but ‘good news’. There are countless ways to ‘preach the gospel’, for different occasions and groups, and these will be modified as the gospel is unfolded for each new generation. We shall look at some of the classic varieties of the sermon in Chapter 8. But the essential gospel character of God’s revelation, and therefore of our attempts to echo it, have certain implications which must apply to all our preaching. Especially, it is important to hold together certain realities that at first glance may be seen as incompatible or even as opposites.

First, to preach the Gospel is to announce what God has done in Christ, in fulfilment of his promises, but also to relate it to the contemporary world. If we preach a vaguely comforting but timeless message about (say) God’s present care, we are not preaching the good news, which is unambiguously tied in the New Testament to the Christ-event. Equally, if we preach a historically sound message about what God did in Christ, but demonstrate no sense of what God in the living Christ can do and is doing now, we are not preaching the good news, whose climax is not the death of Christ but his exaltation to the Father’s right hand as living, present, Lord.

Thus all preaching must hold together these two poles of the decisive past action of God in Christ, and the claim that action makes upon us in the present. Fundamentally, that claim is simply that we should accept that past action for what it was and live out its consequences. But a preacher who is unable to discern or to communicate any particular ways in which those consequences are being or should be played out today will be a poor guide and gospeller to the world.

Too often Christian preaching has suffered from a dichotomy. The ‘liberal’ tendency has emphasized the present reality and possibility of human transformation – not denying Christ, but always in danger of relegating him to a timeless principle, and downplaying the uniqueness of his historical life, death and resurrection. Meanwhile, the ‘conservative’ tendency has emphasized the uniqueness of his historical life, death and resurrection, but has sometimes downplayed his power in the present by speaking of the impact of his work in purely inward and individualistic terms. A gospel that is faithful to the living Lord of Scripture will speak both of the historical story of Jesus and of how his transforming power remains for us not only as individuals, but as communities, and for the world itself.

Second, the gospel is both good news in the profoundest, most heart-warming sense, and a challenge to the most fundamental and radical reorientation of life. To drive a wedge between these two is to separate what God has joined. Both Jewish and Roman backgrounds of the word ‘gospel’ emphasize this, and it is confirmed in the way both Jesus and his early followers announce God’s ‘gospel’.

In Judaism, ‘gospel’ carries echoes of Isaiah 40—66. The ‘good news’ is Yahweh’s royal proclamation that his people’s sins are put behind them, and behind him, and that he is coming in power to give them a new start. This is a breathtaking, intoxicating hope. But it is also a profoundly, disturbingly world-shattering hope. There is no room left for the dreary, despairing settling-down which would seem the only option if the future were unchangeable and purposeless. The good news is an announcement demanding a response. The same is true of Roman imperial decrees: the birth of the emperor Augustus may indeed have been ‘good news’ for the whole earth, but this is not merely a benevolent reassurance (that people might or might not have found credible) that the emperor was the guarantor of worldwide peace. Such peace was dependent on submission to the imperial rule and system.

When Jesus goes public in Galilee proclaiming God’s gospel, it is demonstrably ‘good news’ for all who find themselves restored in mind, body and spirit, welcomed back into the community of God’s people, and joyfully encountering God himself in Jesus. But this is the gospel of a ‘kingdom’, a divine empire, a real state of affairs which demands a transformed attitude and praxis in all spheres of life. It demands ‘repentance’ (Mark 1.14). Jesus brings to fulfilment the hope announced through the ‘gospel’ of second Isaiah (Luke 4.16–21; cf. Isa. 61.1–4). It is intoxicating in its joy, and uncompromising in the new perspectives and actions it calls for. None is excluded by God, but only by their own hardness of heart.

So it is with the gospel concerning Jesus proclaimed by the apostles and their colleagues. It is good news of God’s eternal love (cf. John 3.16; Rom. 5.8; 8.31–9) but as the New Testament amply testifies, it is quite possible to remain in a state of resistance to it. It calls for recognition – not a merely passive response, but faith or faithfulness like that of Abraham, active trust in God that demonstrates one’s right relationship with him as a true member of his family (Rom. 4). God in his mercy has overlooked past transgressions, but now commands all people to repent. Jesus is not only Saviour, but the one through whom and by whose faithfulness to Yahweh the world will be judged (Acts 17.30–1).

So if the sum of God’s words is ‘gospel’, and our words are to echo God’s, all our preaching will have the two-sided character of ‘gospel’ as both genuine good news, and news which demands a response. Sometimes preaching has failed to hold these two sides together as Scripture does. The sharp Lutheran theological division of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’, for example, can push Torah away from gospel in an unscriptural fashion (though as Paul Scott Wilson has shown, this was not Luther’s own approach to preaching).[4] There is good news in Torah – it is given as a gracious gift to guide God’s people, by the one who has redeemed them (Exod. 20.2; Ps. 119). And the gospel is, in important ways, the summation of the law. Jesus’ disciples are commanded to go and make more disciples, teaching them to observe everything Jesus has commanded them (Matt. 28.20). This closeness between Torah and gospel explains the tension seen in Paul’s writing between different statements about the ‘law’. It is good, yet on its own it is insufficient, because a fuller revelation of God has now appeared in the gospel. Therefore preaching which echoes God’s word cannot neatly divide up these ‘words’ of God, law and gospel, for the one is truly fulfilled in the other.

It is also quite possible to get the weighting of good news and challenge wrong even without a doctrinaire law/gospel division. Any sermon may fall into a trap of proclaiming a merely reassuring ‘gospel’ without the challenge, or a merely challenging ‘gospel’ without the reassurance. Some may genuinely try to do both, yet fall short, as when the good news of Jesus is followed by various unrelated or purely humanly inspired exhortations or demands. Hence the power of Eugene Lowry’s proposal that having allowed the congregation to experience the gospel, a preacher should simply ‘anticipate the consequences’. The ‘so what’ flows out of the gospel itself; it is not a mere add-on. Paul Scott Wilson’s schema of ‘trouble and grace’ in the sermon is also a helpful check to ensure that the preacher’s ‘gospel’ is really ‘gospel’.

Thus it is a part of the basic ethic of preaching that it is genuine good news which echoes that of God.

Stephen Wright is an Anglican priest and former Director of the College of Preachers, who now teaches biblical studies and preaching at Spurgeon’s College, London.

Alive to the World is available at a special sale price of £5.00 until Friday 17th February 2017. You can find a great range of other titles in our Winter Sale by clicking here.


The Tactile Heart

tactile-heartJohn Hull, who died in 2015, was the subject of the award winning documentary Notes on Blindness , released last year to considerable acclaim. John was Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham. He was the author of a number of books and many articles in the fields of religious education, practical theology, and disability, including Mission-Shaped Church. Here’s an extract from his book The Tactile Heart, a collection of theological essays  on blindness and faith.


The beauties of touch are, I suppose, largely hidden from many sighted people. For those who go blind in adult life, the loss of beauty must be one of the most perplexing problems. Those in the blind state who do not wish to remain as sighted people who cannot see, but to become authentic blind people, will find that discovering the beauty of touch is one of their most important tasks.

In my own experience – perhaps I am not alone in this – one passes through three stages in the learning of tactile beauty. First, there is the stage when, with our hands, we learn again to do. There is the second stage when, with our hands, we learn to know. Finally, there is that stage when, with our hands, we learn to appreciate beauty.

The first stage, the doing stage, is in itself sufficiently perplexing. So accustomed are sighted people to think of the eye and the hand as being interlocked that the separation of the eye from the hand, which is the condition of blindness, causes considerable puzzlement. It takes time for both blind and sighted to realize that you don’t have to see to do up your shoelaces, to brush your teeth or put on your tie, although I must admit that it helps a little to know what tie you are putting on. It takes time to realize that, as a blind person trying to unlock a door, you have to remember what it was like coming home late at night drunk. You need one hand to locate the keyhole and the other hand to shove the key in. This is an example of blind doing.

When one has rediscovered blind doing through the hand, the next stage is more difficult. To move on to blind knowing is so much more complex. Of course, sighted people do use their hands for knowing. One licks one’s finger and sticks it up in a breeze. One touches something to discover whether or not it is hot, and one says ‘ouch’. These experiences are relatively isolated for the sighted. In the case of the blind, we see with our fingers more regularly. For us, tactile knowing is our standard form of knowledge.

It is surprising, for those who lose sight, how difficult this is, although for those blind from birth it is, of course, their natural form of knowledge. I well remember, as a recently blinded person, learning again to play chess with my children. How difficult I found it to remember that in the case of the blind one not only moves the pieces with one’s fingers; one knows the whole structure of the board with one’s fingers. One must not try to hold in one’s imagination a picture of the board with its black and white pieces, but one must learn to play the game with one’s hands. One must let the hands solve that intricate puzzle of tiny relationships which is typical of tactile knowing.

In the last month, I have started to learn to play the piano. As I explore my major musical achievement so far, which is the key of C in contrary motion, I try to repress that image of the black and white notes of the keyboard which keeps coming before my mind. My hands are beyond light and darkness. To me it is nothing that there are black and white keys. My fingers have to learn that the keys are grouped in bunches spread out in rows across a space; some stick up and some are flat. They are arranged into these little groups of twos and threes. This is what my hands know and this is the way my mind has to work to play the piano. I must, in other words, have a tactile brain which will match my tactile form of knowing.

When we arrive at the third stage, the stage of discovering tactile beauty, we reach realms that are yet more subtle. Here, I think, there is not such a difference between those born blind and those who have lost some sight or all sight later in life. Just as sighted people need continual education in how to appreciate visual beauty, so blind people of all kinds need education in order to appreciate tactile beauty. It is foolish for blind people to sit around bemoaning the loss of the moon and the mountain. For us, beauty is more intimate, more concrete, more immediate, more particular. Gradually the blind rediscover the beauty of ordinary things. In the world of blind beauty we rediscover the loveliness of cups and saucers, of milk bottles and teaspoons, of rocks and bricks, of the bark of trees and the feel of human hair.

One of the remarkable things about tactile beauty is the element of surprise. I admit that not all tactile surprise is particularly beautiful, and I have frequently been surprised by a very tactile encounter with a lamp-post or the edge of a door. Nevertheless, one of the treasures of blindness is the great capacity to be surprised by joy. A dozen times a day we blind people find ourselves holding something in our hands, whether it is a cat or a cushion, and saying, ‘Oh, so that’s what it’s like.’ That capacity for immediate surprise is one of the delights of the tactile beauty which is only accessible to the blind.

I have spoken of the tactile brain. Now I would like to move on to the tactile heart, because, although we know with our brains, we feel with our hearts. How interesting that we should feel both with our fingers and with our hearts! It may be that in the case of the totally blind the intimate link between the eye and the finger is broken, but the other equally intimate connection between the finger and the heart may be restored.

Let us think how the tactile heart is used in religious imagination to express our response to God. In tactile doing, knowing and appreciating beauty, we find metaphors of our human condition before God. Do you remember how the Lord God made us human beings in the first place? Did God not kneel down in the dust of the earth and use fingers to mould us? Did God not hold us, warm against God’s own body, and breathe into us the breath of life? So we became living men and women. We are close to the heart of this tactile God.

Do we not remember those stories about Jesus Christ? His contemporaries were amazed because he touched people. He touched the untouchable, the unlovely, the poor and the sick. He laid his hands upon little children. Moreover, he made himself available to be touched, for to touch is to be touched. So it was that Thomas was invited to touch his hands and his side, and when the first Christians looked back and described the experience they had had of God in Christ, they spoke of that which they had touched with their hands (1 John 1.1).


Learning to Tell the Time

becoming-friends-of-time-003New Year’s Eve is a moment when we become more aware of time than at any other point in the year. Around the world, groups, crowds and couples gather around clocks, watching the second hands draw towards midnight. We wait in excited anticipation, or struggle to keep our eyes open as the seconds tick by, our game of Monopoly having reached a natural conclusion an hour too early. We think about where we will be in a years’ time, and make resolutions. We reflect on the year just gone. Time is suddenly thrust into the limelight.

And of course, we laugh the following day at the arbitrariness of all that clock-watching. Clock-time is man-made after all. And long after we have gone to bed, others across the globe are going through that midnight moment themselves, working to an entirely different clock.

The beginning of the year is the perfect moment to consider time, to reflect on it, and appreciate it. Theologically, time is, says John Swinton in his new book Becoming Friends of Time, a God-given gift, but one which we so often treat as a commodity.

“We have become a people who think we have to fit God in rather than fit in with what God is doing”, Swinton says “Time has ceased to be perceived as a gift in which we participate; now it seems to have a life of its own”.

But the implications of this go further, Swinton argues:

“All of this has significant implications for perceptions of and responses to disability. The time of the clock contains a worldview, a politics, and an economics. It also creates and sustains a quite particular anthropology. The desirable state for human beings living within Standard Average European Time is to be able to handle the economics of time efficiently in a world that adores speed, loves intellectual prowess (quickness of mind), and worships comfortably at the altar of competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, and self-sufficiency (using your time well on your own behalf). The implication is that to live humanly is to learn to live one’s life effectively according to a series of culturally constructed time tracks that are laid out according to the fixed and relentless rhythm of the two-handed clock (or the four-figured digital clock). Not to be able to move one’s body or one’s mind to such a temporal rhythm is to live in a way that pushes the boundaries of acceptable humanness. Time and its close corollary, speed, combined with an awareness of the nature of our linear, progressing temporal direction, are intricately woven into what we consider to be normal and abnormal. If time is money and money is the product of temporal dexterity, speed, competitiveness, and efficiency, then being quick and efficient inevitably becomes the norm. If our identity (who we think we are in the world) has to do with knowing who and where we are at any given temporal moment, then our autobiographical awareness becomes central to who we are. Thinking, speed, self-awareness, and autobiographical identity all become entangled in what personhood is assumed to be and what is presumed necessary to retain such a status. The problems that this raises for people with certain forms of disability are obvious.”

In the light of this, Swinton’s book is a passionate call for us to see the world, and time, differently, affecting everything from our sense of where we stand within God’s creation to how we understand disability. As Swinton puts it:

“As we begin to come to terms with the transformative fact that time is a gift and that our identitywho we truly areis not the product of human possibilities but is, rather, something that is given to us and at the same time hidden from us in Christ, the barriers between so-called able-bodied people and so-called people with disabilities begin to crumble.”

Perhaps our prayer this new year should be that we might, in Swinton’s words, “begin to learn to tell the time properly“.


Becoming Friends of Time is published later this month. You can preorder a copy, at a special 20%  pre-publication discount here.