Festival of preaching

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I was fortunate to attend the first Festival of Preaching, organised by the Church Times and the Canterbury Press held at Christ Church Oxford from Sunday 10th to Tuesday 12th September, attended by about 500 people.

The festival started with Sung Evensong in the Cathedral (around which the college is built), with a sermon by the Dean, Martyn Percy about how God did things in his own time, and that there are no shortcuts. After the formal Festival dinner in the college’s Great Hall, there was an informal service in the Cathedral, singing the Taize chant Ubi Caritas, with Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tattooed Lutheran pastor and best-selling author preaching on Joel 2:12. “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me, with all your heart.”

Monday started with a Morning Service led by Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin’s in the Field, who preached movingly too on Isaiah 43:1-7, focusing on v4, “... you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”.

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, spoke with zest and humour about The Craft of Preaching, and the precision and energy of language, asking how we could be better story-tellers. Nadia Bolz-Weber talk was A Week in the Life of a Neurotic Preacher.  She said that when she worked on a passage she was always looking for what would be the Good News to the congregation who would be listening, and after exploring different challenging ways in which the news was often not good, she homed in on Jesus’s claiming of the image of the mother hen who could not provide safety in a dangerous world, but would always provide warmth and love.

In the afternoon, we split into two groups. I listened to Sam Wells whose subject was How to Turn Good Sermons into Great Ones. His session was OK but really livened up with questions at the end. Sandra Miller (who heads up national work for the CofE on life events) then spoke on preaching at baptisms, funerals, and weddings. She quoted John Sentamu: Christ is the host, we are his friends, his guests… It isn’t your church the couple are getting married in, it is the church of Jesus Christ, where all of us are guests.” She was full of interesting, practical, ideas.

At the Evening Prayer in the Cathedral, Mark Oakley, Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, preached on 2 Corinthians 5, about the body, speaking of his personal experience deciding what was important following a heart attack. After dinner, the New Testament scholar Paula Gooder spoke in the Cathedral about how to deal with the difficult passages that the lectionary gives us to preach on.

The interesting late-night liturgy was led by Padraig O Tuama, quoting Leonard Cohen, and looking at God creating night as well as day, and seeing that it was good. Padraig is a poet and leader of the Corrymeela community in Ireland.

Tuesday started with a service of three very different but moving sermons on three different Marys. Nadia spoke about Mary the mother of God, Doug Gay on Mary, the sister of Martha, and Padraig on Mary Magdalene. Doug Gay has been a URC minister, and now lectures at the University of Glasgow. Each one represented a different but rule breaking choice of a woman as God bearer, close friend and disciple.  

Mark Oakley spoke on The Sacrament of Language, about preachers becoming more poetic and even seeing church as a poem, about dreams and not nightmares. Martin Percy used his subject Jesus’ Healing Ministry to cover a wide range of issues. He quoted John Robinson – the church is only the construction hut on God’s building site – the world.  He explained why the feeding of the 4000 and 5000 both happened (one speaking to the 7 gentile tribes and the other to the 12 Jewish ones), and was fascinating as he talked about the Jesus who broke boundaries in the story of Jairus’ daughter.

In the afternoon, we were again in two groups. Kate Bruce spoke about preaching from the imagination, occasionally using her extra-curricular gifts as a stand-up, and made me want to hear her sermons.

Malcolm Guite, who is Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, had a title of Preaching, Parables and Poetry, in which he read poetry both by others and himself.

His poem, called Love’s Choice goes:

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,

A little visitation on my tongue,

A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.

This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung

A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,

Even its aftertaste a memory.

Yet this is how he comes. Through wine and bread

Love chooses to be emptied into me.

He does not come in unimagined light

Too bright to be denied, too absolute

For consciousness, too strong for sight,

Leaving the see blind, the poet mute;

Chooses instead to seep into each sense,

To dye himself into experience.

The Festival finished with Choral Evensong at the Cathedral, where the eminent writer and monk, Father Timothy Radcliffe preached against the words of contempt often used against those who disagree with us.

Martin also went with me, taking in some of the alternative sessions, by Doug Gay, Jessica Martin and Joanna Collicutt. Joanna’s on Nurturing the Soul of the Preacher, in which she discussed personality using the imagery of cake (she is also a lecturer in psychology), her time out doing an MA in Theology and the Arts, and how biblical scholarship is like pastry (essential for structure, but not always good if you eat all of it!).     

What a huge amount crammed into a couple of days. It will take time to reflect on what was said. It is over 10 years now since I did my original training on preaching, and it was good to be reminded of some things, to have new ideas to think about, and to listen to some amazing sermons and talks.