Second language learners of English are often struck by the arcana of pronunciation (such as the legion of ways that the cluster “ough” can be vocalized), the subtleties of vocabulary connotation, and the vestigial remains of the Indo-European case and conjugation system. Behind much of the difficulty of acquiring a native facility with English lies a common phenomenon: the rough-and-tumble interaction of Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and the Romance languages in shaping the modern-day lingua franca that is English. Vocabulary register is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. Anglo-Saxon roots are often short, pungent, and visceral, such as “cut” and “walk.” By contrast, Romance language roots can be more expansive and evocative, such as “lacerate” and “ambulate.” Yet mastery of a large set of vocabulary registers—prose and poetry, literal and symbolic, direct and oblique—is vital to good command of English.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in the variety of Anglican preaching forms that is encountered on a given Sunday morning in North America. Because of the dual heritage of Anglicanism as both Catholic and Reformed, the variety of such forms is enormous—some sermons are more characteristic of the Catholic tradition, while others are more characteristic of the Reformed or Protestant tradition. Let me go even further. I would contend that the range of preaching forms that an Anglican priest is called upon to deliver is not only quite large, but possibly larger than in any other Christian tradition. Yet explicit seminary training in the breadth of these preaching forms is often lacking.
My interest is a very personal one. As a newly-minted curate in a small Anglican parish in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico,((Church of Our Lord (http://www.coolabq.org/) is led by Fr. Harold Trott, who has been in ordained ministry for over fifty years.)) I found myself singularly unprepared to preach the kinds of sermons that my rector was preaching as the occasion called for. My seminary training had prepared me to preach only a narrow range of those forms. In short, when it came to mastery of preaching forms at the beginning of my curacy, I was a bit of a one-trick pony.
Categories of Anglican Preaching Forms
During the course of my curacy I developed a categorization scheme of Anglican preaching forms, which is presented in Table 1. One invariant of the table should be noted—each of the preaching forms is not only based explicitly on a Scripture text, but the structure of the preaching form is controlled by the sermon text in some way. In the rest of this article I will explain my categories, describe each of the preaching forms in the table, and offer some suggestions about shaping and delivering the preaching event.
((Other types of sermon are possible, such as narrative or redemptive-historical. However, since they are neither as common nor as central as the types listed, they will not be explicitly described in this article.))
Table 1: Categories of Anglican Preaching Forms
The two dimensions of Table 1 are “seasonality” (i.e., sermon text taken from the lectionary readings or inspired by the liturgical season), and length (short, medium, long). To link the table to the title of this article, seasonal homily or sermon forms are generally associated with the Catholic heritage of Anglicanism, whereas non-seasonal, expository, or evangelistic sermon forms are generally associated with Anglicanism’s Reformed or Protestant heritage. By “short” I mean ten minutes or less; “medium” is standard homily length, generally 18-22 minutes; and “long” is anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes. These length categories are the ones commonly observed in practice.
A few more words on length are in order. The length categories evolved based on extremely practical considerations, both logistical and psychological. Ten minutes or less is a good length for a devotional, as it allows sufficient time for a single striking thought or an emotional image to be absorbed by the audience. Homilies can perhaps be best conceived as one-point expositions; the homily length strikes a good balance between the time needed to communicate and illustrate that single point, and the need for brevity so that multiple worship services can be scheduled on a Sunday morning. Expository sermons generally cover the scripture text in greater depth and contain a larger number of points (often three). The length of time allotted is a balance between the time needed for greater depth and the attention span of the congregation. Though expository sermon lengths are highly variable (and were much longer during earlier periods of Christian history), I generally shoot for about 35 minutes, on the basis of the paedagogical rubric that “the mind cannot absorb what the seat cannot endure.”
Preaching Form Categories—Meditations and Devotionals
Let me briefly discuss each preaching form in turn. I’ve placed meditations and devotionals in both seasonal and non-seasonal categories, since they can be occasioned by the liturgical calendar and by other events. For example, a common liturgical occasion for a series of meditations is a “Seven Last Words of Christ” service on Good Friday. Other occasions could include a campfire service during a High School youth group retreat or the final devotion at the end of a vestry retreat. Meditations generally last for ten minutes or less, are more reflective and devotional than expositional and exegetical, and often aim at emotional impact. However, they are (or at least should be) based on a passage of Scripture. To increase the effectiveness of the communication event, meditations should consist of a single point or image, and perhaps be unified by a story. Meditations allow for considerable freedom and can be quite creative. For example, I once gave a meditation during a “Seven Last Words” service on Good Friday in the first person voice of a bystander on Golgotha looking up at Jesus on the cross, who laments that he too had shouted, “Crucify him!”
Preaching Form Categories—Lectionary Homilies
The homily form is the one generally associated with seasonal preaching, in particular the lectionary homily, which takes its sermon text from the lectionary readings for that Sunday. But the homily is technically an oral communication form, not necessarily a particular application of that form. As stated above, the homily can perhaps best be conceptualized as a one-point exposition that is communicated in a suitably small compass, generally about twenty minutes in length.((Its brevity makes a homily not only suitable for a Eucharistic service, especially when multiple services are scheduled on a Sunday morning, but also for Morning and Evening Prayer services.)) Though other kinds of homily are possible, I have called out two common kinds of Anglican homilies in Table 1, the lectionary homily and the seasonal or Holy Day homily. Each will be described in turn.
Several lectionaries are available from which to choose the texts for a lectionary homily. Authorized Books of Common Prayer generally contain a lectionary as part of the front matter; modern versions of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer actually contain two such “Tables of Lessons.” The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has recently released its own lectionaries, one for the Daily Office and one for Sundays and Red-Letter Days.((http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/texts_for_common_prayer)) Rev. Michael Fry has created a particularly novel lectionary that covers the entire Bible.((http://www.pricejh.com/readingplan/plans/frylectionary.pdf)) Technically, most of these lectionaries are Daily Office lectionaries that follow a one-year cycle, but the readings for Sunday can be chosen as sermon texts.((The 1928 BCP contains up to three sets of Sunday lessons to choose from for each Office.)) Both the 1662 BCP and the 1928 BCP contain Epistle and Gospel readings (called the Proper) in the main body of the prayer book for each Sunday in the liturgical year; these are the ones generally read during the service of Holy Communion. At least one modern prayer book tracks the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which follows a three-year cycle.((The RCL is available online at several sites. One particularly useful site is http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/. However, be aware that “sensitive” or “offensive” portions of Scripture are intentionally omitted from the RCL. See the section entitled “Sensitivity to Scripture passages” in the introduction to the RCL, available at http://www.commontexts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/RCL_Introduction_Web.pdf.))
Numerous structural options exist for a lectionary homily. The default is to preach a single point from the Gospel reading, but I recommend the exploration of other choices, to vary the text and texture for the sake of the hearers. For example, Prof. Jack Gabig of Nashotah House Theological Seminary is fond of preaching from the Psalm reading during Morning Prayer. Since the compilers of a lectionary generally package readings together on the basis of one or more thematic similarities, a powerful way to structure a lectionary homily is to pick one of the readings that exhibits a particular theme as the sermon text, and weave in one or more of the other lectionary readings that follow the same theme during the course of the homily. The theme, of course, forms the single point for the homily.
Additional structural options are available, and form something of a continuum. At one end of the continuum is to preach from all of the texts in the lectionary readings, ideally by drawing a common theme from each of them instead of just trotting through them in rote order. At the other end of the continuum is to preach from one of the texts in the lectionary readings, without reference to any of the other lectionary readings. Sometimes the latter is done by extracting multiple points from the text, not just one, as a kind of expository sermon in miniature. However, each of the points should be unified in some way so that the homily forms a coherent communication event in the mind of the listener.
Behind any categorization scheme lurks the question of paedogogy. How does someone learn how to preach an effective lectionary homily? This was a gap in my own training; I was schooled to preach an expository sermon, not a lectionary homily, and had to learn how to do so on the job during my curacy. Unlike expository preaching, I was initially unable to identify any classic texts on lectionary preaching. The closest thing I could find was Preaching the Lectionary, by Fuller and Westberg.((Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg, Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today, Third Edition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006). N. T. Wright’s Twelve Months of Sundays: Biblical Meditations on the Christian Years A, B and C (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2012) also falls into this category. During the writing of this article I was made aware of a true instructional text that some consider a modern classic, Elements of Homiletic: A Method of Preparing to Preach, by O. C. Edwards, Jr. (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo Books, 1990). Two Web sites that can be very helpful when using a traditional one-year lectionary are http://www.lectionarycentral.com/ and https://anglicanexpositor.wordpress.com/.)) However, its purpose is to serve as a homiletical commentary on the RCL, and its introductory section on “Preparing the Homily” I found inadequate and a bit tendentious. So I learned over time simply by listening to a wide variety of Anglican homilists, both in person and online. I found the homilies of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton (George Carey), particularly timely and instructive. He visited my home state of New Mexico to speak at a lecture series, and preached in several churches during his stay. Bit by bit I picked up how to preach a lectionary homily by modeling and induction. For me, at least, how to preach a homily was caught, not taught.
Preaching Form Categories—Seasonal or Holy Day Homilies
Another kind of homily is a seasonal or Holy Day homily. The set of seasonal and Holy Days is listed in the Prayer Book, but common seasonal days for a homily include Christmas Day, Epiphany, Baptism of Jesus, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. Holy Days include the Annunciation to Mary, the Transfiguration, All Saint’s Day, and Christ the King Sunday. Such homilies tend to be more theological in nature, in keeping with the seasonal theme of the day. Ideally, a text would be chosen (or selected from the lectionary readings) that would allow a topical sermon on the theme of the day to emerge from an exposition of the sermon text.((This recommendation stands in contrast to another approach to topical or thematic sermons, in which the sermon text consists of multiple texts scattered throughout the Bible. This approach is much less desirable because its Scriptural control is weaker, since both the sermon texts and the points derived from them are chosen and controlled by the preacher.))
The final column in the Seasonal row of the table, “Lectionary or Seasonal/Holy Day Sermon,” can be mentioned briefly in anticipation of a fuller discussion of expository sermons in the Non-Seasonal row. Since both homilies and sermons are simply oral communication forms with different lengths and structures, it is entirely possible to preach a lectionary sermon (or even a lectionary exposition) instead of a lectionary homily, and to preach a Seasonal/Holy Day sermon as well. Note that to some degree, the categories in Table 1 blend together and are not mutually exclusive. For example, homilies can be structured expositionally, and sermons can be based on the lectionary readings.
Moving down to the Non-Seasonal row of the table, non-seasonal meditations and devotions were discussed earlier. Non-seasonal homilies can be inspired by a number of occasions, from personal (weddings, funerals, celebrations of life, baptisms, confirmations, church membership) to national (Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Memorial/Labor Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,((John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN, made a practice of preaching on the theme of Race on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.)) even Mother’s/Father’s Day). They can be thematic or topical, but ideally controlled by a single passage of Scripture.((A particularly Anglican topical sermon series is one on the articles of the Creeds (either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed), or on the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.)) And they can be evangelistic, which needs a few words of explanation.
Preaching Form Categories—Evangelistic Preaching
All preaching should be evangelistic in the sense that all sermons should point the congregation to Christ, who is the metanarrative not only of Scripture but also of Time and Eternity. But some preaching is explicitly evangelistic, aimed straight at a lost world for the express purpose of leading them to Christ, by exposing the Bad News of sin and rebellion and the Good News of redemption in Jesus. This kind of sermon is often delivered outside of the church, directly to the target audience in a location that is much closer to where it actually lives. In America we often unfairly caricature such preaching as “hellfire and brimstone,” and associate it with crusades and revival meetings and (sadly) with traditions other than Anglicanism. Unfortunately, I can probably count on one hand (and surely on two) the number of purely evangelistic sermons that I have ever heard in an Anglican context. But as evidenced by great evangelists such as Wesley and Whitefield, it was not ever thus in Anglicanism, and it need not be in future.
How can one learn how to preach an Evangelistic sermon? A good starting place is the embedded sermons in the Book of Acts. Then study the sermons of famous evangelists such as George Whitefield, John Wesley, D. L. Moody, and Billy Graham.((A riveting series of Billy Graham crusade videos can be found on YouTube.)) A book of particularly useful models is Evangelistic Sermons at Aberavon by D. M. Lloyd-Jones.((D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Evangelistic Sermons at Aberavon (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1983).)) Modern-day Anglican exemplars include Canon Michael Green; Rico Tice, the evangelist at All Souls Langham Place in London; and John Chapman and John Dixon in the Diocese of Sydney.
Preaching Form Categories—Expository Sermons
Moving on to sermon-length communication forms, the only subcategory that has not yet been examined in detail is the expository sermon. Expository sermons are generally based on a single text, consist of multiple points (traditionally three) that are unified in some way, are often based on a study of the original languages, and are of greater length and depth than a homily. It is quite common for an expository sermon series to be preached through an entire book of the Bible. In Anglican contexts this is known as lectio continua, and is generally practiced during Trinitytide (a.k.a. Ordinary Time) in place of lectionary preaching. Though some proponents of expository preaching insist that this form of preaching is superior to all others,((This view is particularly associated with John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA, and The Master’s Seminary. See John MacArthur, Jr., et al., Rediscovering Expository Preaching: Balancing the Science and Art of Biblical Exposition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992).)) in my own view this ignores both the variety of the preaching forms in the Bible itself as well as the preaching forms practiced throughout the history of the Church. However, a good case can be made that expository preaching enforces a stronger control mechanism than other preaching forms, since the structure and points are controlled by the text itself instead of by the potentially arbitrary or idiosyncratic choices of the preacher.
Expository preaching is the preaching form most commonly taught in seminaries, especially Reformed or Evangelical seminaries. I submit that expository preaching forms the base for all other forms of preaching, for several reasons: its method is the most rigorous; it takes the most time to learn properly; and most other sermon forms can be conceptualized as variants. My own experience leads me to believe that it is easier to have learned exposition in seminary and picked up homily preaching on the job than to have acquired those skills the other way around. So how best to learn expository preaching, short of a formal seminary course?((A complete course on Expository Preaching from The Master’s Seminary is available on YouTube starting at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jCyfWwz3-Y.)) Modern classic texts abound, such as Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell,((Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005). BiblicalTraining offers a Preaching course by Dr. Chapell for free at https://www.biblicaltraining.org/group/course/3139.)) Preaching and Preachers by D. M. Lloyd-Jones,((D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971).)) and Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson.((Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).)) The Proclamation Trust((https://www.proctrust.org.uk/)) is an organization with Anglican roots whose purpose is to promote biblical exposition; they have numerous resources and sermon examples online. And how best to learn Anglican preaching? Drink deep from great preachers throughout Anglican history, including Hugh Latimer, Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, George Whitefield, Charles Simeon, John Wesley, Edward Pusey, J. C. Ryle, John Stott, Dick Lucas, Christopher Ash, Thad Barnum, and John Guernsey.
Storytelling is an entry that I could have made in each in the cells in Table 1, but chose not to because it is somewhat idiosyncratic and not very common in Anglican contexts. An extended story can be used in a variety of lengths on both seasonal and non-seasonal occasions, such that it can stand in for meditations, homilies, and even sermons. The key is that the story is crafted such that not only is it based on a particular text of Scripture, but it also expounds that text of Scripture as the story unfolds. For example, I have created a story series with a continuing character, Father Dave Williams, the rector of Christ-in-the-Valley Anglican Church in Medio de la Nada, New Mexico.((A collection of Father Dave stories and story sermons, including a sermon that develops a Biblical Theology of Story, can be found on SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/jmlineb)) Some are meditation length, while others are homily and sermon length. Though some might object that such stories are not “preaching the Word” in the traditional sense, I would counter that in terms of retention of the Word by the congregation, stories are often superior to other preaching forms. And because Biblical truth is proclaimed through images, and indirectly instead of didactically, stories are also very effective communication mechanisms both for children and for postmodern adults, who often belong to the growing ranks of the unchurched “Nones.”
Model of the Preaching Event
A few brief suggestions about the preaching event follow. I am personally disturbed by a phenomenon which I can only characterize as modern-day Gnosticism, in which the preaching event is conceptualized as a bulk information transfer from the mind of the preacher to the minds of the congregation. If that information transfer is reasonably complete and undistorted, then the preaching event is deemed a success and the preacher’s work is done. All else is left as an exercise for the hearer, albeit guided by the Holy Spirit. I find that conception of preaching very difficult to reconcile with James 1:22-25, in which the purpose of the encounter with the Word is to obey it, not just hear it. The implication is that the work of the preacher is not done until his congregation is challenged to apply the Word and change their behavior. The goal of the preaching event is to influence behavior, not just to enlighten the mind. The mind is the starting point, but behavior is the desired end result. Please understand that I am in no way advocating a crass moralism in which the Christian life is reduced to a set of rules and legalistic behaviors. Instead, the preaching event provides the occasion for the congregation to encounter the crucified and risen Christ through the exposition of God’s written revelation. But it is part of the preacher’s responsibility to address the behavioral implications of that encounter with Christ, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit those implications can be recognized, internalized, and actualized by the congregation. Figure 1 depicts a model of the preaching event that moves from the mind to the will to behavior.
Figure 1: Model of the Preaching Event
G. Campbell Morgan recognized the vital importance of moving beyond cognition in these immortal words: “The preacher should never address a crowd without remembering his ultimate citadel is the citadel of the human will. He may travel along the line of the emotions, but he is after the will. He may approach along the line of the intellect, but he is after the will.”((G. Campbell Morgan, Preaching (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1937), 13.)) I have been quite influenced by the way that Tim Keller inverts the process of sermon preparation by making it application-driven and outcome-oriented from the very outset. His lectures at Oak Hill College on the topic of “Preaching to the Heart”((http://www.oakhill.ac.uk/people/tim_keller.html. Rev. Keller also taught a workshop on “Preaching to the Heart” at the 2015 National Conference of The Gospel Coalition (TGC); a video is available for download on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/125797573.)) form an excellent introduction to this approach.
One other observation. I have heard too many sermons that are nothing more than running commentaries on the text, with offhand observations made along the way. No attempt was made to unify or organize the presentation, such that the sermon becomes a coherent oral communication event. The confusion seems to be between the acts of preaching and teaching. Preaching is not the same thing as teaching, although a sermon might have a teaching component. Preaching structures each communication event such that is unified and in some sense stands alone; teaching often picks up right where the last event left off. Teaching stops at the mind, while preaching drills down to behavior. Perhaps most significantly, teachers teach concepts, but preachers preach images.((This was a favorite saying of Dr. Gordon Fee when I was his student at Regent College.))
Finally, a suggestion about delivery. A certain kind of sermon or homily has a long tradition in Anglicanism, in which the sermon is crafted as if it were a literary event. Such a sermon often begins with a quote, ends with a poem or a hymn, and is sprinkled throughout with quotations and literary references. The sermon is delivered by reading from a manuscript in the pulpit. While this particular sermon form might have been effective in the 19th Century—and it was not uncommon for such sermons to be collected and published—I contend that its effectiveness is diminished in the 21st Century because it can be perceived as an anachronism, a sterile, read literary event instead of a fresh, oral communication event. By contrast, extemporaneous preaching allows the preacher to make extended eye contact with his congregation, and to dynamically adjust the sermon in the moment. And it rivets the congregation and gives them the sense that “he’s preaching right to me!”
I strongly recommend that Anglican preachers cultivate an extemporaneous preaching style and speak directly to their congregation without the mediation (and barrier) of a manuscript. And I say this as someone who for almost a decade preached from a manuscript, which I clung to like a safety blanket. It was only when a medical condition prevented me from using a computer for an extended period of time that I was thrust into the brave new world of extemporaneous preaching, of approaching the pulpit with only my Bible and the Greek text in hand (well, sometimes with an index card tucked into my Bible too).
How can someone make the transition to extemporaneous preaching? The most straightforward way, and a good first step, is to memorize a sermon manuscript. That removes the barrier, but the preacher must take care that it does not come across to the congregation as a memorized speech. The goal state is truly extemporaneous delivery straight from the text. Toward this goal I have had a handful of good mentors and exemplars, especially the retired bishop who preached the sermon at both of my ordinations, the late Terence Kelshaw. I asked his son Michael how he did it, and Michael speculated that he “hid the sermon in the text” somehow. That is precisely the approach that is currently working for me. Certain key sentences in the text serve as if they were sermon points on an index card, and function as hooks with which to retrieve all of the predigested material that I have stored in my brain under that point. In using this approach, be careful to associate sentences and clauses in the text with your introduction, conclusion, transitions,((In my experience, coherent transitions are just as important in sustaining listener attention as coherent sermon points.)) and applications as well, so that they are smoothly stored and retrieved. And beware a tendency to preach too long since the length is no longer controlled by a manuscript, so make judicious (and surreptitious) use of a clock.
Though all true preaching should be faithful to the text on which it is based, the Scriptures come to us embedded in concentric circles of context. For example, a psalm had an original context at the time it was composed, an enclosing context within one of the five books of Psalms, and canonical contexts as part of the Writings (Kethubim), the Old Testament, and the canon of Scripture, respectively. Each circle of context imparts a layer of meaning, which should inform the sermon in some way. But the outermost context of Scripture—its final canonical context—shapes its function in the revelation of redemption, and that revelation always points us to Christ. As a result, each sermon is incomplete unless it also connects the text to Christ, and to the claim of the Gospel on our lives.
The implication for the theme of this article is clear. Good Anglican preaching in particular, and good Christian preaching in general, is always a triumph of content over form. When the Apostle Paul spoke of “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21), he was referring not to the foolishness of the preaching form per se, but instead to how its substance, its core content, was perceived by the outside world. Jesus Christ has ever been skandalon in the eyes of the world, a stumbling block to the unregenerate mind and an impediment to unfettered behavior. Yet it is only the freedom and reconciliation unleashed by that scandalous event, the ignominious sacrificial death of the Son of God on the cross of a common criminal, that can heal the ruinous aftermath of unfettered behavior and actualize deep human needs for relationship and wholeness.
Regardless of form, may all our sermons trace the trajectory from skandalon to Good News, such that Christ and him crucified are exalted before the congregation. May our congregations always respond not with “What a wonderful preacher!” but instead with “What a wonderful God!”