Sunday 23 January 2011

Bill Darlison on Preaching

Saturday was a 9 am to gone 6 pm day out for me, with an hour plus each way trip to Wakefield. I was a passenger, with two others and driver. This was to the Yorkshire Unitarian Union (YUU) meeting and one of its better attended events, indeed some came from Sheffield and over the Pennines though no one came from Leeds (as is often the case). Reverend Bill Darlison was one attraction, speaking in the morning about preaching. In the afternoon the GA President took devotions and facilitated a group discussion on a set of questions regarding the present and future.

Bill Darlison addressed his successful reputation early on, saying that anyone who could not grow a Unitarian church when the main church (as in Dublin) is in meltdown would need examining. However, most think he (and the others helping in Dublin) did better than that. For me, Unitarianism is a representation of the modernity coming into Ireland with its place in the European Union and alongside the decline of old, cultural, Roman Catholicism. Younger people have gathered at the Unitarian church as part of that modernity.

Bill assumed we were all local preachers, though we weren't (I am not in the sense that I don't go beyond the local church and take services, and I only do a few). He asked what themes we were using for sermons. Answers included Reverence for Life, the Spiritual Aspect of the Universe, the Book of Revelation as a great poem but also historical and non-literal, Epiphany in the sense of how wise men brought their own beliefs to Jesus and kept them, and a theme on What Does it Mean to be Made in the Image of God? which actually became more scientific.

Bill Darlison said how one person at Dublin referred to the sermon as 'a lecture' and I said how the now the now defunct Ethical Churches had a lecturer and a lecture (instead of a minister and a sermon). One comment was neither a lecture nor a sermon but an address is its name. But 'sermon' comes from the Latin meaning conversation, said Bill. The issue of feedback was raised and how: it comes in a variety of forms and in some settings better than others if not always or free flowing [I recall the 'answer back' in sermons immediately afterwards in my early Unitarian days]. One person preferred dialogue to sermons, and Bradford is the kind of environmental space to respond readily.

A sermon is often expected and of course it has often been propositional.

There is difficulty with lay preachers moving here and there, and being in different places, but if there is a leader present for 52 weeks then the sermon can be a process and not an event more easily. You get the space in time for different kinds of approaches.

Bill Darlison then gave his specific claim that there is a problem if a sermon contains nothing of a spiritual nature; the best sermon is of the spiritual kind that cannot be argued with, where no argument is possible. A bad sermon can lead to a 'so what?' and the puzzle as to how it affects one's life at all. But the experiential cannot-argue-with sermon is the one that says 'me too' in response.

Frances Power Cobbe was an Anglican who became interested in Unitarianism herself and needed the chance to attend a church. She managed this, only to enter a quarter full chapel to find a minister go on and on about a piece of Greek that demonstrated that John's Gospel really said The Word was with a God. She chose never to return there. She and Elizabeth Gaskell wanted not preaching on doctrines and the like but devotional preaching. Eventually she got that at James Martineau's church in London, which she attended when she was in London. I thought it somewhat contradictory that she wanted the idea of the motherhood of God principle in preaching, which was a means to arrive at the devotional.

Today we have the doctrinal equivalents of preachers who say 'Unitarians are free' but it's a bit rough if a succession of lay preachers arrive with that similar message. Outsiders would ask for content. Or perhaps people do an ecological sermon or something on gay rights. He suggested that there is some reverting to these when the spiritual should be involved.

Bill Darlison recalled how in 1998 he re-read the Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson and how this resonated. It stated how the formalist preacher makes much effort but it is as if he never has lived at all. Rather, a true preacher deals out his life: life passed through the fire of thought.

Someone once said to never use the word 'I' in a sermon, and Bill said that's no good at all. He recalls a most successful sermon of a woman at Dublin, while Bill watched the congregation. Despite the woman's academic and expressive abilities, she told how agoraphobia affected one journey on public transport and it was an affliction she could not overcome. It was a liberating sermon because it said to others that you can admit your problems. An intellectual response was not possible, the feedback was on the level of engagement and empathy.

Bill Darlison said that we all walk around with veneers of respectability and competence, and it isn't so. However, again, not every sermon should be so thoroughly confessional. You can bring your life into a whole variety of themes.

Bill saw a book on who wrote the Bible and that there were ten good sermons in there. A Dublin chap would do 27 sermons on each Bible book in the New Testament. Such would be very 'so what?' in impact. It would not put your life through the fires of thought.

A person present said some people do not want to hear confessional sermons. Others like some sort of inclusion of personal belief. One said engagement groups go deep into personal situations and they need managing well, whereas a sermon cannot have such management and deep personal issues may be inappropriate in a sermon.

I asked what then of the intellectual element. We all know that theology is ambiguous these days and that much of it is to allow you to appear to say one thing while meaning another and thus so much theology has been dumped by Unitarians. But go down this route thoroughly and it dumps all theology, I suggested.

Not so, Bill argued. For example, he saw how his notices of sermons ahead of their delivery resonated peculiarly with articles in The Guardian - and with all these self-declared atheist authors. He read a piece in the issue today from the family section about a train journey, and the angel who was a person this woman chose to sit opposite for a long journey to London. They were able to share deep, personal experiences. Now the idea or theological aspect of that is chance and coincidence, or what Jung rather called synchronicity. He quipped that if you think you have just coincidence then you may have a very dull life.

Bill stated that Unitarians are full of dogma, and it is the materialist dogma where somehow we have to encompass the likes of Richard Dawkins.

A chap said of a peak experience in a wood. Something strange was expected and happened. A voice in that forest said don't be afraid. Bill Darlison asked if he had ever preached on this. No he had not. He recalled his own rough upbringing and abuse and felt uncomfortable unburdening himself.

The point was made that you can say more to a congregation that you know. Bill said it is more difficult if you are just visiting. A woman at Dublin always took off her spectacles before making a personal anecdote, and that became the trigger for people in the congregation to pay attention.

We can put theology itself to a very low level, or at least into the context of a transformed life. All spiritual traditions tell of a transformed life, that is observations put into the context of spiritual living.

The principles of spiritual living are:

1. Concentration - about waking up: don't sleep but pay attention to your life
2. Compassion
3. Awe
4. Gratitude
5. Generosity
6. Transformation

He told the story of a man who would be a Buddhist monk, but whose only skill was chess. So the abbot said play this young monk who could play well but the loser loses his head. The new man played the young monk and achieved an advantage but realised that the monk could not lose his head - he had done nothing wrong. So the new man engineered his own disadvantage to lose. The Abbot came along and disturbed the pieces and stopped the game: no one would lose their head. But the new person had shown both concentration and compassion.

Bill Darlison then remarked on an episode in the gospels where a man tells Jesus he can't see, so Jesus rubs his eyes and he can see but people are like trees, so Jesus rubs them again and he can see clearly. He said materialists against miracles have missed the point and preached against miracles and about Jesus rubbing off the cataracts at second attempt. Rather the story is about really seeing.

Bill Darlison said that rationalism leads to big problems for Unitarians and partly explains the state in which the denomination finds itself. He had been in the denomination for 23 years and thinks the denomination is autistic. It attracts loners and difficult people who proclaim tolerance and community but find it difficult to engage. When we genuinely promote community and tolerance we will learn to do what the other person wants. People disagree: it is a club for difficult people.

He had bought along some books all of which have some emphasis on nurturing the spiritual sense, including one by Erich Fromm the American Freudian Marxist Atheist. It is about the fear of freedom and we fear freedom. He said how our enslavement to materialism is demonstrated in reactions to his own book, Darlison, B. (2007), The Gospel and The Zodiac, London: Duckworth Overlook. People go funny at the mention of the Zodiac, but here is some real radical theology he suggested. It's the notion that the Gospel of Mark fits around the signs of the Zodiac: the relationship to world faiths and writing in the setting in which it was written. Being open to anything, I decided I'd buy a copy. Bill Darlison said Mark's gospel is about you and me, and the piece on resurrection is all about transformation.

Personally I thought this was a very valuable session on preaching but went off at the end into something of his personal hobby horse, even though the position on materialism is worth stating.

So that was one part of the YUU meeting in Wakefield. More on the YUU meeting in subsequent blog entries.


Anonymous said...

3. Awe

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Thanks. I looked at it and looked at it...

Dr. Terry Dorsett said...

Thanks for your review of the meeting. If you are interested in learning how to create a sermon, you might consider the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. Among other things, it contains six lessons that lay people can use to equip themselves to prepare and deliver sermons in the local church as a lay person. You can find it on