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!