tales from the outside:sacramental space I

One of the most distressing things that I experienced at my Conservative Evangelical church was the way that the pulpit was used to further the CE agenda, and the particular fallout for me, was that I was alienated further and further with each sermon.

In my friend’s dissertation he says this:

‘the consequences [of a CE vicar leading a non-CE church] have been almost identical. Sooner or later, the congregation notice differences: the subject matter of the sermons change, the style and tone of sermons can become more judgemental as the ‘seriousness of sin’ is constantly emphasised. I have heard many people say they have come out of services feeling ‘beaten up’ rather than built up. Many are unable to put their finger on exactly what the issues are, but simply sense a hardening in the tone and style of services, preaching and general church life.'

I can certainly identify with this feeling, and it is no small relief to hear that others were feeling the same. And, paradoxically, it was also a relief to hear that others were unable to articulate exactly what it was that was wrong. Some may be surprised at this, but for me it was an affirmation that not all communication is verbal. Whilst I could never fault the words that were being said, I could feel a dissonance between the words and an underlying force which felt much more malevolent. What do I mean by this? Because I understand that these might feel like strong words, I shall give a couple of examples over the next 3 posts, but I need to begin by explaining my understanding of the nature of preaching.

Just under 2 years ago I undertook a module at college called ‘communication and hermeneutics’ – that’s preaching with knobs on J - and, whilst I knew that this was going to be challenging for me with respect to my abject horror of public speaking, I found this to be a huge challenge for a reason that I had not foreseen. The first lecture was with regards to the sacramental nature of preaching – ie the idea that, in preaching the Word, the preacher is opening up a space for people to encounter God. Now any of you who have been involved with preaching will know that some people will come to church and use the 20minute sermon time to catch up on the lack of sleep from the night before, some will be wondering whether the roasties are setting the house on fire, and some will be opening themselves up to listen for the Word of God. Now, I am of the temperament that I tend to expect to meet God (with the occasional detour into tangential thought processes), so I would fit into the category that tends to strip off a layer of themselves, making themselves vulnerable, open to God. In this situation, there is much possibility for damage to occur. In fact one of the first things that we had to do in this module was to write a short sentence describing what we thought preaching was. I can’t even remember what I put down, but what I do remember was that after a few of my fellow students had offered their suggestions, I realised that my offering had nowhere said anything about Scripture! For me, preaching was not about the Bible, because the Bible was used to tear down, demolish, and beat up. It brought me up short. And I was suddenly overwhelmed with the enormity of the damage done. My beautiful beloved Scripture had been taken away from me, I was suspicious of it, worried what it would say to me next about how sinful, shameful, evil and wicked I was. Over the next few months this module brought a huge amount of healing to me, restored the Bible that had been taken away from me.

So how had I got to the point where the Bible was no longer a rich revelation of God?

Not long after our new vicar arrived, he started preaching with a heavy emphasis on the authority of the Bible. Now whilst there is nothing wrong with this in itself, it was used as the platform from which there was set out a hierarchy of theological colleges. Now bearing in mind the fact that I was studying at a theological college, and that I was fairly vocal regarding my understanding of theological issues, which in some, even most, cases was at odds with the vicar’s understanding, it was with dismay that I heard words to the effect ‘some theological colleges up and down the country are ripping the Bible out of people’s hands.’ Aaaaargh, what!? In the next few weeks I would go to church on Sunday and I heard successively a diminishing of theological education. Each week I sank lower in my seat. Not only was this an unwarranted and unjust attack on most theological colleges in the country, besides the ‘approved’ ones, but it meant that any persuasive discussion I might engage in with someone was immediately undermined by what had been said from the pulpit – I was someone to be suspicious of.

I remember engaging in a discussion with a woman who was an apprentice at the church. She had exams in her course she was doing (an in-house course – ‘approved’) and I was lamenting with her about revision. The conversation was going well and she opened up to me that she was having doubts about Penal Substitution, particularly because the person teaching the course said that Penal Substitution theory necessarily led to a belief in Limited Atonement (by which Christ only died for the elect – the rest being the reprobate and going to the other place - based on the idea that the penalty has been paid, and so everyone who it has been paid for must end up in heaven – the other alternative is universalism) I had a conversation with her regarding my misgivings of PS and my strong feelings against LA, it was an open conversation, easy, discussional. The next time I saw her, I naturally asked her about her exams and how she was getting on on her course. The conversation took a completely different turn, she couldn’t meet my eyes, she started fidgeting, she said that she shouldn’t have mentioned anything, and the conversation was over. I was no longer an ‘approved’ conversation partner.

This kind of behaviour occurred a few times – a woman at my Bible study group had been worrying about a 3 week period that her husband would not be around, I tried to set up a date where we could meet up and the children could play together, at which she became the fastest person to leave my house yet, she quite literally ran away from me saying that she was too busy to meet. And then there was the time when a friend who had been looking into doing an Open University course through Spurgeon’s (my ‘unapproved’ theological college), was told, by someone else I had thought a friend, not to go there because ‘Jody has some funny ideas’. Well, I suppose she was right about that – God loves everyone, strange.

These are a few examples of the subtle dynamic of power which takes a few words from the pulpit and spreads a disease through the congregation by which there are not only approved and unapproved theological colleges, but approved and unapproved children of God – I am definitely ‘unapproved’.


dave williams said...


There is always a difficulty in treading into a private rant made public. Especially when a prophesy has been made that people like me will try to tear you apart. So at the risk of not being welcome can I just make some gentle suggestions.

1. There are Christian ways of dealing with things and indeed church ways of doing things. We don't need to look far to find them.

Blogging about unanamed people that cannot defend themselves and then using such unnamed people to make insinuations against others -that people like me lie and deceive and set an agenda seems a long way from that.

2. There is a time to move on. I think in the end we can only tear ourselves apart. Who is being healed, who is being reconciled. Certainly not the writer it seems.

3. I realise that faithful preaching is one of those irregular verbs "I preach faihfully, you have a hobby horse, he is pursuing x agenda." And maybe just maybe what looks like an agenda is actually when I should be open to God using someone no matter how human and sinful to disagree with equally human and sinful us.

Move on Jody!

jody said...

Hello Dave

thanks for your feedback.