"Take thou authority to preach the Word of God": routine preaching and the Anglican tradition

Ours is a wonderful heritage of excellent preachers.

The High Church Puritan's excellent post 'Why Anglicans Can't Preach' has rightly received considerable attention.  Now the post's title, of course, is meant to be provocative.  As the quotation above from the post indicates, it is not suggesting that the Anglican tradition has a fatal flaw which inhibits or undermines solid preaching.  No, the point is that we - in North Atlantic Anglicanism - have forgotten what was once a strength of the Anglican tradition: solid, substantive preaching.

Take thou authority to preach the Word of God ...

Every newly-ordained presbyter once heard these words.  Preaching was to be a normal, routine exercise of ministry.  "I read Prayers and Preached this morning" is perhaps the most common refrain in the diaries of Parson Woodforde, a reminder that preaching was the normal expression of the priest's teaching ministry.  It was not glamorous, it was not in the style of Edwards, Whitfield, or the Wesleys, but it was the routine, weekly teaching of the faith to the congregation from the pulpit.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, the Book of Homilies - intended for clergy not licensed to preach - demonstrates this.  As one commentator has recently stated, they show "the value of substantial homilies".  Rich in both doctrine and practical application, rooted in Scripture and attentive to patristic teaching, the Homilies point to what was intended by the petition that the presbyter should be "a faithful dispenser of the Word of God".  Hooker's description of the Homilies - a means by "whereby the Church doth also preach" - equally applies to the sermon:

profitable instruction ... for the better understanding of Scripture, or for the easier training up of the people in holiness and righteousness of life - LEP V.20.1.

Alongside the normal and the routine exercise of the ministry of preaching, an Anglican history could also be written around influential preaching: the sermons of Latimer and Ridley, promoting the Reformation of the Church; the sermons of Donne and Taylor, embodying an Anglicanism come-of-age; the sermons of Waterland and Simeon, expounding the Faith in the Age of Reason.  And when it comes to the Oxford Movement, here too preaching remains central, with the sermons of Keble, Newman, and Pusey defining the Movement.

All of which means the charge that 'Anglicans Can't Preach' is not a reference to our tradition over centuries but, rather, to more recent developments.  The High Church Puritan proposes a number of reasons for the current state of affairs.  To these I would add two further points.

The first has already been highlighted by Quodcumque in a discussion of the High Church Puritan's post:

doctrine is hugely important ... I particularly strongly urge us to spend time of systematic theology. If we are to preach the Christian faith we all need in our heads a systematic understanding of the whole picture of creation and redemption and the nature of the Godhead.

Substantive, serious preaching requires a doctrinal foundation.  And it is this which Anglicanism has lost, replaced by - in the words of John Milbank - "theological incoherence".  The genealogy of such incoherence, however, is rooted in the acceptance of the methodology of Newman's Tract XC, neutering the Articles of Religion, thus, as Richard W. Prichard has argued, establishing a "plurality of doctrine" which opened the way to "the theological challenge of modernism".  The "previous acceptance of plurality in Anglican doctrine" led to the "acceptance of plurality in mere Christianity".

That said, "mere Christianity" and "Anglican doctrine" are not separate entities.  Anglican doctrine embodies "mere Christianity"; Anglican doctrine is how we, in our tradition, receive "mere Christianity".  If Anglican doctrine becomes incoherent, our reception of orthodoxy is inevitably obscured and incoherent.  And this has blighted contemporary Anglican preaching.  As Quodcumque states:

Christianity is meaningless without the cross and without a clear explanation of the cross and the need for Jesus to be crucified.

Which is why we need Article 2:

who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.

Contemporary Anglican preaching needs the Augustinianism of the Articles of Religion, meaningfully received.  The Articles provide a doctrinal foundation which can enable substantive, serious preaching: put simply, nothing else in the Anglican tradition (certainly not the Lambeth Quadrilateral nor TEC's 1979 Catechism) can do likewise.

The second point relates to the liturgical context in which preaching occurs.  Since the mid-20th century, Anglicans have altered this context in a way which has had an impact upon the place and the understanding of preaching.  The Parish Communion movement sidelined preaching.  Table rather than pulpit became the focus of Sunday worship.

But should this not be the case?  Is this not following patristic example?

It is, to say the least, a rather dubious proposition that preaching should be sidelined in Christian liturgy.  Any attempt to claim that this follows apostolic precedent will be, quite rightly, very quickly dismissed.  As for following patristic example, it is similarly utterly unconvincing.  Augustine's sermons at the Eucharist were lengthy.  William Harmless notes of Augustine that his "sermons frequently lasted about an hour".  To suggest that the (at most?) ten-minute homily accompanying many Parish Communions reflects patristic practice is, to say the least, wishful thinking.

Parish Communion displaced the sermon's significance to the main Sunday liturgy.  The sermon became a short conclusion to the Liturgy of the Word, before moving to the central focus, the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  It was for this reason that Michael Ramsey stated in his famous lecture 'The Parish Communion':

I believe ... that there is still much to be learnt from the Matins and Sermon whereby congregations were nurtured in the Scriptures.

A case can be made that this, alongside monthly main celebrations of the Eucharist, and weekly 'early celebrations', reflects in a more meaningful way the patristic relationship of Word and Sacrament than the Parish Communion movement.

To be blunt, it is unsurprising that contemporary Anglicanism has forgotten how to preach when we have changed our liturgical context in a manner which has deliberately sought to minimise preaching.  Related to this, Bishop Dan Martins has recently suggested that the Liturgical Movement animus towards the pulpit and preference for a multi-use ambo has also undermined preaching:

The dignity of the pulpit, whether it is centrally located or off to one side, reflects the importance of the preaching office in the life of the Church.

The bishop concludes the post with a call for "a recovered appreciation for the solemnity and dignity of the ministry of preaching".

Today's post is not about making Anglican preaching great again.  It is about recovering the Anglican tradition of solid, substantive preaching as routine and ordinary.  It is not about seeking to imitate "Simeon, Ryle, Wesley, or Whitfield".  It is about following the example of numerous Anglican parsons over centuries, with seriousness but without glamour, handing on the deposit of Faith from the pulpit, week by week, year after year. 

In the Prayer for the Church Militant in the Communion Office, we petition that "all Bishops and Curates" may "set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments".  In is instructive to consider how preaching is here partnered with the administration of the Sacraments.  Priests "rightly and duly administer" the Sacraments and, similarly, they "set forth" the teachings of the Scriptures.  This is the "Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God".  The emphasis here seems to be on the routine, the ordinary, the undramatic.  It is what a priest does, administer Sacraments, set forth the teaching of Scripture. 

It is befitting that the renewal of this routine, ordinary, undramatic office and work of preaching should be at least partly dependent on that which should also be routine, ordinary, undramatic: the doctrine of the Articles of Religion and Mattins as a commonplace Sunday liturgy. 


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