The learned preacher?

clergy-processionSome thirty years ago, I remember Professor Tony Thiselton, then principal of St John’s College, Nottingham, stunning a classroom of seminary leavers. Apart from a small number (myself included), those present were charismatic evangelicals. Everyone showed signs of bemusement shading into incomprehension as Thiselton lectured passionately on the importance of wearing one’s academic hood with clergy robes.

Most were baffled because they hoped to wear robes as little as possible, and certainly couldn’t see them as important. I was among those who thought that robes (and for me that meant primarily vestments, not the choir dress of which an academic hood was traditionally part) were about inhabiting the role of the ordained, not drawing attention to personal achievement. Vestments were self-effacing, academic hoods seemed self-aggrandising.

But for Professor Thiselton, the academic hood symbolised what he saw as a key truth of the Reformation: preachers should be learned, and able to expound the Scriptures in which they were meant to be steeped. It is that idea with which our next article, Article 35, is concerned. Perhaps this article, rather like Thiselton’s passion for academic hoods, demonstrates something of the huge change in culture between the Church of the Reformation era, and today’s.

XXXV. Of the Homilies
The second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these tunes times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.
(A listing of the Second Book of Homilies follows)

The homilies not only provided what were then thought of as model sermons. they served to provide sermons for those priests (and there were initially many) who were not licensed to preach, because they were regarded as insufficiently learned – especially in the new expressions of doctrine of the Reformers. The emphasis on a learned clergy, and efforts to create them, slowly obviated the need for the homilies, as the licence to preach eventually became universally part of the priest’s licence. I guess, though, that the Reformers’ judgement on those parishes who allow lay people untrained in theology, and without a bishop’s licence, to preach on a fairly regular basis, would nonetheless still be unprintable.

It is also worth noting that these homilies, taken as patterns, reveal some significant differences with much contemporary preaching, not least in the complete detachment from the Scriptures set for the day. This set up a model which has overall had a negative effect, especially when combined with the relative limitations of the Sunday lectionary in the BCP.

In evangelical parishes there was an increasing abandonment of the lectionary in order to preach sermon series from scripture (a practice of continuous commentary that went back to the fathers). In the rest of the church there was an increasing detachment from specific scriptural passages, which made the relevance of scripture seem less obvious than it might have done in the hands of a skilled interpreter. The newer lectionaries have made great strides in restoring the link between preaching and the scriptures that have just been corporately read. Such a practice should better inform the individual scripture reading people might engage in in the week.

Stressing the need for a learned clergy was not an unmixed blessing. On the positive side, it produced not only a thoughtful theological approach to scripture and ministry, but also encouraged a general fascination with learning. Anglican parish clergy were noticeable in every field of knowledge, not least the natural sciences, until increasing professionalisation and specialisation took over in the later nineteenth century. Of course, there was for a long time an effective Anglican monopoly on learning in both universities: college fellows normally had to be ordained. Moreover, one had to be Anglican to gain a degree until the middle of that same nineteenth century that saw the disappearance of Renaissance man as an educational ideal.

On the negative side, this was one of the features that set the typical priest on the side of the gentry and apart from the normal run of people in the parishes. It was class division, twinning education with religious affiliation and money. Both the disenfranchised dissenters and the extremely unlearned clergy that came over with poor Irish immigrant labouring families were by contrast pretty much on the same level as their people. Clerical learning, initially intended to serve the gospel, became part of the social pattern that estranged the clergy from the emergent working class.

The church regularly exhibits the desire to fight yesterday’s battles, and having digested the divorce from ordinary people that accompanied this stress on learning, has looked for a broader base from which to call its clergy, and far greater diversity in the methods and modes of training offered. Ironically, of course, this has happened at the same time that more and more people enter higher education, a higher education whose often unspoken tenet and cultural milieu is one that assumes real learning and religion are fundamentally incompatible. The church has, responding to past criticisms, so much turned its back on elitism, that it has allowed an educational elite to assume that Christianity has nothing for them, and propagate that view in the universities and the media.

Preaching and theology alike need to escape from this false dichotomy that has paralysed too much of their history. Deep learning and good communication need to go together. It is usually the person who has understood something most deeply who can express it most simply. We should strive for clarity, and see the quest to be comprehensible as a significant gospel virtue.

(The obfuscating terminology that has affected so many arts and humanities subjects in the post-modern world should have no place in theological discourse, far less spill over into preaching. It is hard to escape the cynical view that this is primarily done to establish a claim to subject expertise by creating difficulty for the uninitiated, and only secondarily to develop a precise vocabulary – Radical Orthodoxy, please note!)

At the same time as aiming for clarity, we must resist all those who would treat “theology” as a dirty word, and either try to reduce Christian doctrine to cosy nostrums and self-help manuals, or to cast a sprinkling of angel dust over secular moralities. The challenge of truly proclaiming the gospel in clear language in a complex world demands nothing less the greatest learning we can aspire to.

6 Replies to “The learned preacher?”

  1. Delightful typo in your quote of the article = ‘tunes’ instead of ‘times’. It adds a whole new dimension. Great stuff as always, Doug. Cheers.

  2. You make a thoughtful case and I agree with you that learning combined with good communication is key, especially in an environment where many assume that religion and reason are at odds with each other.
    I don’t think, though, that it’s helpful to use the term bog-Irish as it is derogatory and is (ironically) beyond the Pale.
    Oh and as for hood and scarf, no this eejit doesn’t have or wear them.

    1. Hi Mick. Thanks for the correction. Because I think I’ve only come across the term in historical contexts, or in Mary Douglas’s anthropological discussions of Catholic immigrant communities, I don’t think it even occurred to me that others heard it as derogatory. I shall amend the post accordingly. Sorry.

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