Wow, fancy that. The big talking point from Saturday’s Royal Wedding seems to have been the sermon. Yup, double-take right there: the sermon. When was the last time you heard a ‘preach’ – or perhaps a preacher – make international headlines?!
But it’s a sermon that has also divided. Some were quick to pour praise on Bishop Michael Curry’s thirteen-minute address: engaging, refreshing, attractive. Others not so much: either too long (8 minutes longer than the 5-minute brief apparently!), or too-showy, or more significantly, offering a “Christianity-lite”.
I’ve been preaching fairly regularly for about eight years – not too long in the grand scheme of things, but long enough to care about preaching. Ok, it’s all too easy to have Roast Preacher for lunch every Sunday, but given I’ve never heard a sermon so widely discussed in the UK, and given it’s been a big talking point amongst friends, both online and at church, here are 9 observations as part of the conversation:
1. First off, to preach to 1.9 billion people (and how many more afterwards) – and then to have your words and manner analysed worldwide… Well, yikes.
So my first thought is: Rather someone else than me. There’s a sense in which whoever was tasked with the job should get a bit of respect from the rest of us – and a bit of slack, perhaps. You’re never gonna please everyone.
2. But, that said: to be a preacher of the gospel is a high calling, one that brings with it responsibilities.
You are not simply an orator or an entertainer; you are nothing less than a herald of Christ. So, whilst as sermon-listeners we should never duck what God’s word might be saying to us, that doesn’t mean we don’t also hold our preachers to account and seek to weigh up their words. 1.9 billion people is a tough gig, but it’s also 1.9 billion people hearing words from a Christian pulpit, in the context of opening up the Bible. Just like me last Sunday, just like every Christian preacher across the land, it matters how Curry preached. We want to hear God’s word to us, but it’s ok to consider, critique and discuss too. I remember an old pastor telling us to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:10-12, who, after hearing the apostle Paul, “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what he said was true.”
3. The passion.
Ah yes, the passion. Probably the most-used word in describing Saturday’s sermon. Oh, to have sermons preached with passion. As one self-confessed atheist – and former leader of the Labour Party – tweeted:
The sad thing here is how surprising this was for so many people. (Ok, yes, it was also pretty funny seeing some of the Royal faces not quite knowing how to handle it). As ABC Australia put it,
“From the outset, it was clear that this was not going to be a standard Church of England sermon, which tradition dictates should be delivered in the tone of a very shy person asking the way to the train station.“
If I’m honest, all I can remember about William & Kate’s wedding sermon in 2011 is that it was a non-event. And by the way, I’m sure the same could be said about many of my own sermons. If only all ministers/pastors/vicars – and bishops – showed such passion!
And it wasn’t simply enthusiasm. This was a passionate persuasion. Curry engaged people: the eye-contact, the pauses, the connection – did you see the smile he got from David Beckham?! He knew his material and where he was going. He had crafted his words and rhetoric carefully (Ian Paul details some of this helpfully). So preachers, what have we been doing that people are so surprised by passion?
4. This was a preacher who had found his own voice.
One of the things we’re often told at ‘preaching class’ is to be yourself. Don’t try and be someone else. So for starters, that means the rest of us shouldn’t all try and preach exactly like Michael Curry next Sunday. Ok, yes, maybe we’d do well to take a leaf out of his passion book. But we’re all different, and so, for example, passion won’t look the same in everyone. But as Michael Sadgrove pointed out, I think it was clear that this guy was comfortable in his own skin. As a preacher, there’s something I envy about that.
5. To quote my friend Hugh Bourne, “it vindicated preaching as a highly effective means of communication.”
So often we’re told that preaching is old hat: people just can’t concentrate anymore. They want conversation, not one-way monologues. “To reach x, you need to quit preaching (x of course can be substituted for just about anyone: millennials/the working class/men, etc).” I think those 13 minutes have blown that out of the water. If people do decide they might just set foot in a church in the hope of hearing an engaging sermon, then let’s give thanks to God in his sovereignty for that. And God forbid that we stop working on our sermons.
Curry was big on love. The Times‘ even quoted Curry for their front-page wedding headline the next day: “There is power in love”.
Ok, so maybe we kind of expect that at a wedding. Indeed, a few people have pointed out that Curry hasn’t said anything “unusual” in that regard.
But to give his words credit, it was more than just saying “love matters”. It painted a beautiful and compelling vision of human life shaped by love. There is a lack of love across a world – in our commerce, our institutions, our families – we know that and feel that, and so we connect with Curry’s desire for something more. As someone said, “It captured doubters with a vision of hope. It gave a glimpse of the world we long for.”
7. But did Curry’s vision of love really showcase the glorious love of the gospel?
Now, here’s where someone starts to say, “Yeah, but you can’t expect him to say absolutely everything in just 13 minutes.” Sure, but I wonder if that’s ducking the question. Shouldn’t preachers be masters at deciding what to include and what not to include. (By the way, it seems remarkable that despite forty years of ministry, Curry says he was surprised to go over his official time limit by 200% !). One of the best preaching exercises someone set me was to get me to turn a 25-minute sermon into both a 10-minute sermon and a 2-minute ‘elevator pitch’. What do you cut – and how do you retain the heartbeat of your message? The idea is that time should never be an excuse for missing the heart of our message.
And then you see what Curry didn’t say. He was big on love, but it was chiefly a call for us to love. This sounds ‘Christian’ – but for all that it is glorious and noble and the aspiration of the Christian life, it isn’t the Christian good news. As Tim Keller puts it, we need good news, not just good advice. Because what happens when we fail to keep on loving? This, as I always tell couples, may seem a strange thought when you’re staring into each others’ eyes and the skies are metaphorically blue (and which wedding day isn’t like that?), but what happens when the clouds gather, a few years down the line? What happens when feelings change? When lovers ‘fall out of love’? When selfishness wages war in our hearts?
As Stephen McAlpine said, every wedding needs a cross. Even Royal Weddings, as anyone who has seen The Crown or read the papers over the last thirty-seven years knows. And not just a Jesus who dies on the cross as an example of sacrifice, not even a vague sacrifice “for the good of others,” but a Jesus who died to rescue sinners and to win forgiveness. Every bride and groom – and every human – needs to be faced with the reality of our own sin – yes, in a gentle and appropriate way – and to be shown that we have a Royal Bridegroom who gives his life to love the unlovable.
To those who think this is wanting to have our cake and eat it, maybe it’s helpful to see the concern is not so much that Curry just made a few poor choices about what to leave on the cutting room floor, but that the gospel of forgiveness of sin through faith and repentance was probably never was on his radar. And that takes us to the question of what’s going on below the bonnet in Curry’s theology…
8. Sermons never stand alone.
The preacher and ‘the preach’ are inextricably linked. That’s just a Bible principle. We’re not professionals performing an act. The person – their conduct and lifestyle – matters, and this is important for understanding some of the pushback against Curry’s sermon. Curry is the leading Bishop in The Episcopal Church (TEC), the American branch of the worldwide Anglican communion. More significantly, TEC has effectively been under sanctions since 2016, following its “fundamental departure” from Christian teaching when it changed its doctrine on marriage. Not just that, but TEC – under Curry – have been taking to court those churches who have stood up to those changes. Churches holding to historical Christianity have been stripped of their buildings and assets. Over the weekend I heard the leader of one such church wondering how exactly that fits with the “power of love” referenced in Curry’s sermon.
Therefore it’s no surprise that many have taken the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to Curry to preach in England – and at a wedding, no less – as making a mockery of those sanctions. Curry then partook in a Thy Kingdom Come Beacon event at St Albans’ Cathedral. If you hold to an orthodox position on sexuality, it’s hard not to interpret this as a clever step towards normalising TEC’s teaching within the Church of England, which is currently at logger-heads on the issue.
Now, the most common response to this goes something like: “The sermon wasn’t about sex, so what’s with the big deal – and wasn’t he great!” But I wonder if that’s exactly the point. The normalising has occurred. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what he said. His position in the pulpit establishes his theology’s place at the table.
9. Lastly then, how do we talk about the sermon?
It’s complex, because many of the responses have not just been responses to the sermon, but responses to the responses to the sermon. Still following? In other words, you seemed to like it, so I need to show you why you’re being naive. Or, you seemed to write it off as heresy, so I need to show you’re why you’re a cold, heartless fundamentalist.
And part of the complication is that we’re just not used to having Christian sermons being broadcast on national TV – and then discussed unceasingly on social media. The only time we get remotely close to that is The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast, Hugh Palmer’s slot on The One Show, or someone grabbing a live mic to share their testimony.
So there’s a sense in which many of us want to celebrate it – as well as use it as an opportunity to get others thinking about Christianity, rather than simply bemoaning it. Of course, part of that opportunity may be expressing that a world full of love would be incredible, but that you feel Curry could have done more to showcase how God’s love makes that possible. And yet, we also need to allow that space for winsome conversation and critique – rare in a social media age – which is particularly pertinent given Curry’s role as leading a branch of the Church that has departed from orthodox, historical Christianity.
But the dress was nice, wasn’t it?
Now, for something a bit different…