Thursday, 16 July 2009

Preaching and Authenticity

In August I will preach again, in fact I will design and take a whole service. It matters to me that what I preach is a good representation of what I believe, at least in the area that I am preaching about, and that this is a dialogue with what I know about the congregation.

I'll come back to this, but let's proceed with some Anglican (but could be many denominations) underlying assumptions and views.

I have been in several discussions lately where I have heard that the function of preaching is corporate, that it is not about your own individual opinion, and that it is purely representative. One thing you are not allowed to do is demonstrate disbelief, because you are there to represent the tradition. This tradition is not just historical, but active.

So let's introduce a common difficulty. A simple one is my view on any virgin conception of Jesus. Now I don't believe in this, and I so don't believe in this that I really don't want to waste any lung power on it any more. Never mind anything else, or more, but I'll stick to this little matter and waste some finger power on it now.

What is not an option, apparently, is for me or anyone to preach and say, "I don't myself believe in the virgin birth, and here are the reasons why, though some people may do, as in the Church tradition, usually for these reasons why, and of course you may believe as you wish, or may want to follow the tradition."

So what strategies are open then? Well one is to use sophisticated theological language, that makes it sound like you believe in one thing when you don't. So there might be a reading that is about a virgin birth and the impregnation by the Holy Spirit, and what you do is refer to them as sort of headings, and from then on go on about what the Incarnation means and how the Holy Spirit acts. At no point do you connect these to the headings, and you write it assuming Jesus of Nazareth had a mum and dad as does any member of the human family. Just occasionally there is some reference to history as method or how we think today or a reference to a theologian who doesn't believe in the actuality of the virgin birth: and so clues are laid down for the hearer who can read between the lines. Look out for words like "story" and "text" along the way, though never used for undermining purposes and avoids an obvious contrast with 'history' and 'reality'. It's all nevertheless the preaching equivalent of the Freemason's handshake - oh hello, you're one of us kind, if you have done the training, learnt the lingo.

Here is the problem with this approach. It has inbuilt deception. It allows some individuals in the know to think one thing whilst the majority go off thinking something else. Its justification is that it obeys the rules of the Church. Well then, if so, the rules encourage deception.

There is another strategy for the disbelieving (on this matter) preacher trying to be more honest, which is this: you go through the belief and where it has come from, and then you say that this is the faith or tradition, and that - gosh - you as an individual "don't know" because you "were not there" but there is belief. Now this sounds great, because it is a universal statement. No one knows absolutely because no one was there. But it is a deception. It is not of any historiography and of course it is a blanket, cover-up statement, and you continue to appear to show belief though no one can actually know. Another alternative statement is something like, "Well many people think differently today, with all the research into biology and genetics." That seems to cover it. Aha, but you continue to appear to show belief. This strategy can be used over and over again, even with superstitions in the religion (July 15th for example is a superstitious day for rain), but if it is used too much even the untrained ear might start to wonder about thinking differently today and what this does to a tradition firmly set in the past.

So it is a deception. Then there is another strategy. This is what might be called the whole tradition strategy. In this case you do refer to the tradition in all its bits and pieces, including the stuff about a virgin birth. You don't actually affirm it, but you expand upon its possible meanings: so it becomes all about faithfulness, for example, and obedience to God - the sorts of attributes which we ourselves can take up. The whole thing opens out into questions about your own life direction.

I don't think we should criticise too much some of the aims of this strategy, and there is something in it for relating to the hearer, but in the end you begin to wonder why this thing not believed in continues to be presented over and over again. The answer sometimes given is that of not wanting to pick and choose the tradition, that there is something that would be 'lost' if it was no longer selected. Indeed you should not select at all, but present the whole thing lock, stock and barrel according to the Church calendar and preach to expand meanings. But again look for the words "story" (very important now) and tradition, and also expect (in some honesty) an ethical doubt about some parts of the tradition and yet what of the good that can be extracted even here.

Humm. But in the end, the individual doing the preaching melts away. This might be intended: there is that tradition and there is the hearer to make of it what he or she will. The question then is motive. Is the motive a genuine, postmodern, handling of the tradition not according to choice, and its facilitating, or is it just that bit useful that the person doing the preaching never identifies the personal view that might or might not be helpful for others. So it is potentially deceptive at least.

Then there is another approach. This is where you take the text, and preach on the text, and you simply enter its internal world, and expand upon it in some cross-referencing detail, perhaps with other unread text, and on this goes until the end. Here there is no reference to the hearer's potential (existential) 'questions', nor indeed to anything in the contemporary world. It is just am immersion in some text. Incidentally, this approach can then be hinged into the approach just above. Is this a deception? It is at least convenient. For example, you come to a point in the Church calendar where the reading is frankly, bloody awful. So you preach on it and away you go and give some intelligent work around the words. Now on the virgin birth matter it becomes a detailed reference back and forth to the Hebrew source, the Greek translation, the different gospels including or not including, to the genealogical line to Joseph, to the various stories therein, and even to some corrections around the sides regarding popular myths that are not in the text (you are allowed to disbelieve those).

It is all very learned, until you realise that nothing has actually been said - nothing was addressed, other than a bit of text tourism, as if you could live back when the writers lived, but of course you can't and this is understood. Then the hearer asks, "Why did we go on that textual tour?" The answer may be deception. It is because the person preaching is looking for a strategy of not disobeying the corporate rules of the Church.

As an update (Sunday 19 July) another comes to mind, and that is the socio-political and easy cultural transference. This is where a direct translation is made into the social and political aims of the day, usually about inclusion or bringing in the marginalised. We need to be careful about such straightforward translations of meanings. Some messages within the Bible and the tradition do allow for such transfer, but others involve a loss of particulars, and there is much particularlism that does not transfer from older ways of thinking to Enlightenment and after ways of thinking. If this strategy is used over and again, then one starts to ask what is missing, and if this strategy is forced (too much being culturally transferred) then something of difference is not being addressed.

And so goes on the merry dance of deception and expectation. Some members of the congregation expect and hear that their preacher or minister is fully orthodox: there might be those "at national levels" or "in America" who are letting the side down, because the hearer reads the newspapers or chooses some websites for information. At the same time, there are those who note these strategies at work, or at least have begun to read between the lines, and realise there is a sort of double-talk going on at the pulpit.

To me, preaching, indeed religion, ought to be about truth. Now I know there are truths, and that finding a truth is nigh on impossible, and I am no Habermas rationalist - that if we could just get rid of the clutter and the interests we might arrive at the Truth. But, nevertheless, preaching ought to be about authenticity. There is something of you there, otherwise the 'Church' just ought to hand out a sermon for a robot to present.

There is another strategy too, this by the Church, and it is licensing or some sort of limiting selection. Certain people only get to preach, and also these people may be those who invite others to preach. This is not based on ability, nor training, but upon authority: a relationship between making promises to an authority figure or committee that means, in the end, carrying out at least one of the strategies above (unless, of course, as an individual, you really do believe the lot of it as presented at the surface, or you are an innocent that has given up having any opinion of your own). So deception is at the heart of preaching.

I look forward to the day when these strategies get dropped. When I go to preach, and I know about these strategies, I am forced not to pursue them. Now in the Unitarians the idea is that you should not have to pursue any of them, but unfortunately there are committees and congregations where you end up doing just that - "creeds by the back door" I've called it. But still the expectation is that something of that individual will be heard.

But I really do believe that the Church of England for one encourages deception in its preaching, and that there is a lack of authenticity. There is a little O Books publication from 2001, called Time and Tide: Sea of Faith Beyond the Millennium, edited by Teresa Wallace and others, that I happened to take with me to the church this morning if there was no one to talk with afterwards, and it so happens that (as I did chat) afterwards I've looked at the chapter, 'Can We Worship the God of our Own Creation' (70-80). It's one of those dual topic chapters, because within it is Graham Shaw's own story of being an Anglican priest and giving up his ministry but not his orders to go into the Society of Friends. He is prepared to be critical of the Sea of Faith relationship with German Romanticism, whereas he has been looking increasingly for authenticity, which involves building this relationship with a disciplined God of your own creation. But he had to move because the Church of England has such difficulty speaking the truth - with sexuality, with understanding God and indeed "genuine religious debate" (76) and he was drawn to the Quakers because they had developed structures to elucidate truth "rather than cling to apostolic claims to authority" (76).

In the Society of Friends people have individual thoughts, and anyone may speak out of and into the silence. People are expected to self-develop, in the context of their membership, and their meditative worship, their own discipline and commitment to authenticity. The Unitarians are much noisier and possibly riskier, where worship is a slower, yet still thoughtful activity, where such disciplines are not made explicit under the banner of individual freedom.

If you do a job, then expect to be told what to do: if you are a teacher in Britain, for example, then you are these days told what to teach and how to teach. In such institutional life, you are a subsumed person and even deception is part of the job. Indeed one piece of advice I was given was to dress so neutrally and officially that you almost disappear and it makes you less of a target for pupils' hostile opinions and actions. A point may arrive, of course, where in any business or public authority the conscience says no, or do otherwise, but surely the business of doing Church is different from simply being told what to do. Surely Church is about truth and authenticity and the quest for these.

Personally I don't care where I am, and all institutions carry their negative aspects, and all have their positives. There is still community and there are still human values for which all this preached stuff is but a cipher - which would be the biggest justifying deception of them all ("Aha - it is all a cipher anyway! What matters is community and service and we just chatter away in between"). But in the end, if preaching is to be done, surely reflective authenticity and truth are important, and I suppose I tire of strategies in preaching that encourage the very opposite, except for a small group of sectarians, or those for whom there is really nothing to say, or where the light was switched off a while back. Yes you must be pastorally sensitive, you must engage in a dialogue within the one script, but it is you who preaches, of course in the context of a tradition, but you are not a slave of a religious corporation - are you?

I would indeed say, "I don't myself believe in the virgin birth, and here are the reasons why, though some people may do, as in the Church tradition, usually for these reasons why, and of course you may believe as you wish, or may want to follow the tradition." Basically, if you don't want me to say such, don't ask me. And they don't!


Erika Baker said...

I'd agree with you if you were talking about giving a lecture.
But you're taking about a sermon, a small exegesis of the spiritual importance of a particular bible reading.
For that, it is entirely irrelevant whether your or any theologian believes this or that.
Your only task is to find a way of speaking that allows people in your congregation to feel touched by God, regardless of what they might believe about the virgin birth.

In a sermon during worship you're called to give spiritual food, not intellectual development - that's for your in-depth group.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, I think that's a cop out. Because it always has to be in terms of agreement, whereas 'spiritual food' can still be done in terms of rejection.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

In any case, sermons should be more than about Bible readings, and more about life - 'life, life' as Don Cupitt would say. The strategies outlined are still played out and they are unhealthy whereas we should be affirming - yes, in a sermon - the potential of life.

laBiscuitnapper said...

I also agree with you. The only solution I have to offer for the time being is the 'long term plan' but I suppose there's a sort of duplicity involved there as well.

I think most congregations are just unused to honesty, but I can't see why if someone like you explained their viewpoint fully, it would be a problem for them. I can recall a few 'shocking' sermons (denial of the ascension, comparison of Jesus to poorly chosen modern dictator - don't ask: it did make sense in context, but you know how we Anglicans can be about context) and the strength of them lay in the honesty of the preacher as they explained where they were coming from.

And the fact that we already knew them quite well, which is what I meant by the 'long term plan'. Nonetheless, I think it is more a matter of 'taking the first step'.

Erika Baker said...

The problem with sermons is that you have no idea why anyone in your congregation is at church that morning and what they need. Some need encouragement, some comfort, some intellectual stimulation.
And they're all at different points in their faith journey, so even the intellectual stimulation required will vary from person to person.

It's very very hard to satisfy them all.
But I do believe that if a priest makes it about him or herself and about their intellect and theology only, they're badly missing the mark.

I'm not saying that you have to preach what is against your belief. But a sermon is not a theology seminar. It is there to provide a potential touching point with God.

For your average congregation, which is unlikely to be ultra-liberal, it would also help if you believed in God.

The more we move to the extreme liberal spectrum the less we're actually suited to preach to people.
Lecture, yes.
Discuss, yes.
Study group, yes.
But leading worship and preaching - I seriously doubt it.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I really cannot agree with that at all. That leaves the churches to the purveyors of superstition and the pure supernatural like a linear set up ticks of approval upwards. If that's the case, I'm out of there. If that's the case, then only the liberal denomination will do. Religious faith, and preaching, is not about how many belief hoops you can pass through, but it is about a relationship with authenticity.

Erika Baker said...

Religious faith is not about a relationship with authenticity, but about a relationship with God, however you define him, who is believed to be authentic.

Once you take God completely out of it you're in the realm of philosophy and not religion, at least not while you are operating within the framework of an organised church in the UK.

As a preacher, it really really isn't about you. It is about your congregation and their needs. To try and yank them out of what you call superstition - in the middle of a service where people come together to worship God! - is a huge category error.

john said...

I also agree with Erika.

I don't understand why people such as yourself, Cupitt and Holloway behave as you do. It is entirely OK for you still to attend churches - it's not OK for you still to want to lead churches. By all means, continue your explorations vocally IN SOME OTHER CONTEXT.

I qualify slightly. The Virgin Birth is such a trivial issue that it would be quite OK to say quickly, 'personally, I don't believe in it'; but it would be disproportionate and self-indulgent to devote a whole sermon to defence of your position.

I don't preach, but on the level of individual discussion, if someone in our congregation asks me if I believe in the VB or seeks to make it a litmus test of Christianity, I frankly declare my disbelief in it (and give reasons, if pressed). But I don't go around challenging the people in my church who do believe in it (including old ladies and gay guys) and who seem to derive great comfort from it.

There are serious issues here of charity, of comfort, of getting along with people you disagree with, of supporting one another, of keeping things in due proportion, of struggling along.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, I don't agree with either of you.

The person who preaches matters, and there is a dialogue between that person and the congregation pastorally and intellectually. And there should not be a situation where preachers are having to employ deceptive strategies because, surely, that would be against the notion of God as truth as well as love, and I translate that as authenticity.

Basically what you are saying is that people like Rev. Cupitt, Bishop Holloway and me (!) are not to preach because we have done some theology and this upsets some of the folk in the pews, but the consequence is that we should therefore either exclude liberals from leading the believers or just have churches identified as liberal, fundy, new age superstitious, sacramentalist and so on, so that you know what you get when you go in and so the converted can talk to the converted.

Don't agree: the theological enterprise is for everyone, and if there are a few shocks along the way then that's the time to set up a theology group and do a supportive course.

Erika Baker said...

The theological enterprise is for everyone, that is not being doubted.

But Worship and theology are two completely different things.
Worship is for people who find themselves somewhere within the intellectual framework of the church or religion they are part of, and leading Worship is for those who can represent the tenets of that church or religion with some personal conviction.

Worship is NOT an intellectual activity but a relational activity directed at God. By definition you simply cannot do it if you do not believe in God. The exegesis during a sermon is about trying to understand the God you’ve come to worship better, not about arguing that a belief in that God is superstition.

I agree that the notion that God is truth as well as love must not be violated. But the congregations’ truth that God exists must not be violated by the preacher either.
“The God I don’t believe in would be truth and love if I believed in him” is nothing more than playing games with the people who have come explicitly because they believe in that God and want to meet him in that one hour on a Sunday morning. You simply have no right to destroy that for them, because that’s precisely what Worship is for.

Erika Baker said...

My mind keeps going round and round what you seem to be saying and I want to question it from two angles.

One is your belief that you can be pastorally sensitive if you preach that God is superstition. And I feel myself taken back to when my daughter was first being treated for leukemia. When I spent more hours crying than I’d ever cried before, when I spent more hours trying to come to terms with the practical daily changes in our lives, with the fears, the harshness of the chemo, the extended hospital stays. The saving grace in it all was my palpable sense of being carried by God. I didn’t have much chance to go to church, but when I did it was an absolute haven. A time to rest, a time to connect, a time to cry, to pray, to be held. If my priest had interrupted that precious hour with her own agenda, with her insistence that I needed a bit of challenging, if she had said in principle that what I experienced as comfort was nothing but superstition, so there – I would have been absolutely devastated. I probably would have left in tears, feeling completely rejected and misunderstood at one of the most vulnerable times of my life.
What right would you have claimed to do that to me?

And you know that my theology is so radical that most liberals even won’t accept me as one of theirs. But my core belief in God is solid, my need for him in my life absolute.
I would happily go to your in-depth group, I would happily discuss theology with you over many pints of beer.
But when I’m at church I’m there to pray.

The other question is your own role in all of this. Why do you avail yourself of the outer forms of worship if its core content is meaningless to you? What are you saying, when you guide us through the prayers of penitence, through the hymns, the readings….. then comes the sermon slot and you have a “lets get rid of this superstition” interlude… and having clarified your belief and shocked the rest of us out of what you perceive to be intellectual complacency, we all forget the truth you’ve just shown us and continue with our little charade…. “The Lord is here, his Spirit is with us”…. How can you do this to us and to yourself, with any kind of integrity?

I don’t want to attack you, please do not understand it like that. But I have to ask the questions in such a radical way because unless I understand your answers to them I don’t think I can understand at all what you’re really saying.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Of course I've not called the whole tradition or some core beliefs superstition: superstition is that clutter of the magical that seems to be added on, and I made a reference to St. Swithin and all that, and one strategy about how people used to believe and we think differently today but we are free to believe as we wish. I called this more honest but it was dangerous if repeated.

What you are doing is moving the debate along - which is fine - to the big issues. You are saying that you have this core unshakable belief in God that I could devastate by my speculations. Really? I doubt it. After all, my speculations in a theology setting could be just as devastating, but I bet your belief is stronger than that.

But would I so speculate on this across the board basis in this way. Suppose I believe that you construct your God that is so central to your belief (and you disagree). Then my authenticity here is that you construct it and it matters to you. Well I gather that it matters to you, and there is the dialogue and pastoral sensitivity too. So the words I use will allow you to have your belief. Question is, then, does the fact that my view includes its construction (saying so here - what effect is it having saying so here?) have on you? It should have no effect on you, because the worship words have pliability for you (whose view you know - no deception here) and for me.

Now you are really asking more general questions: that is, what does it mean to ME to use these very theistic words when indeed I do. Have a look at my services to see how I use them - indeed, how I construct them. Now for that I would need to write a different blog entry or even longer, starting from the top.

Religious faith, when it is Buddhist, of course, is not about God and is about authenticity, and that's one of my starting points.

Erika Baker said...

I'm not saying that I have a core belief that could be devastated by your speculations.

I'm saying that I'm coming to church to worship God and to pray, and not to hear about the preacher's theological opinions.
Church is about spending time with God, not about spending times with the preacher's abstract thoughts about God.

When I'm really low, I need comfort and, say, the readings are about the miracles, it's wonderful if the preacher can illuminate their meaning in a light that gives me hope. What I don't need is an over-intellectualised sermon that informs me that it's ok if I should believe in the miracles, but the preacher doesn't, and here's a list of theologians who support him.

To do that is legitimate in lectures. It is not legitimate in worship.

It's like with music - at a lecture, I'd expect information on the construction of a piece, on its context, on its development and a hundred and other clever things.

At a concert, I want to be allowed to listen to it and let the deeper meaning of the music touch my heart, without a voice over from someone who feels they absoultely have to educate my musical knowledge at that very moment.
Only someone who hasn't understood what music is actually about would even want to do that.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Of course I don't usually preach in an Anglican setting, and have done so twice. Once was to a Men's Meeting in which I gave an interfaith based approach which left the villagers' jaws dropped, and after which there was a perceptible shift in the priest's sermons in the church (he was a religious humanist) and then I did a midweek Easter stations of the cross service where I now attend described part way through by the priest as "this is very good" and it also was challenging to the usual.

But there is the once a month almost concert service with no sermon at all and many a sermon is no more than a lifted description of some historical figure in the calendar who hardly deserves to be there.

So there is choice, and when its known that someone like me might present a service, some folks would inevitable stay away or read the notices while I say something inevitably controversial.

NUFer said...

On the whole I agree with Erika, that a sermon in a worship context should not be a theology seminar ; at the end of a worship service I want to go away encouraged in the broadest sense - Monday morning should dawn a little more brightly as a result of what the preacher has said on Sunday evening.On the other hand I recognise the 'deception strategies' that you describe only too frequently in the sermons I hear from the choir stalls - and no one can be encouraged by being tricked.