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Changing Shapes

30 November 2020

Pandemic Possibilities

Christopher is Editor of The Preacher and Director of Ministry in the Diocese of Chester. His blog PreacherRhetorica has been accessed more than 60 million times since 2012.

<strong>Changing Shapes</strong>

The pandemic is a huge shape changer. Patterns which have been familiar for generations have suddenly been overturned. I think, for example, of the shape of my preaching ministry. Formerly I prepared a sermon around the margins of a Monday to Friday working-week and preached it in person in a congregation on a Sunday. Since the lockdown that pattern no longer applies.

I’m still preaching, but now ‘delivery’ is in the hands of others – perhaps literally in that sometimes sermons are posted on notice sheets and physically delivered to individual recipients, but also technologically when a colleague edits the video I have recorded into an act of worship accessed via the Internet. The possibilities of vlog, blog and podcast homilies change the shape – in time and form – yet again. What is received on a Sunday may or may not have been finalised days before. And what is available on a Sunday may be accessed by worshippers days or even months afterwards. The ‘shape’ of this preacher’s week has radically shifted.

 

SHAPING TIME

What is true of my humdrum routine has, of course, wider ramifications. Working from home and restricted out of home activity has the effect of flattening experience. Every day becomes all too similar and routinized. The peaks and troughs of activity are reshaped into a disturbing sameness. I miss the way Sunday observance shaped the whole of life, providing a weekly focus, pause and marker that brought direction, anticipation, and variety to experience.

Sameness, even when it means twenty-four-hour access to things through the Internet, is tedious in comparison. I’ve come to appreciate anew that the preaching life is a rhythmed life – shaped by the shifting genres of the Bible and by the liturgical calendar. These things are not to be taken for granted. Part of homiletic practice must be to bring that patterning to people’s attention again and again so that it may help us all to shape our lives according to Christ’s pattern. Too often I have not been intentional about this. One pandemic resolution for me is, consequently, to give renewed attention to shaping sermons to emphasise movement and changing tone. What we preach and how we preach needs to form in faith’s imagining a dynamism that gives life where restriction and fear flattens experience.

Underlying all that we say is the Christian conviction that we are moving towards the end that God has prepared. Ours is a faith that is essentially teleological – we look to an ultimate purpose and end that is in God. In that sense our understanding of our times is always shaped by eternal longing. From within the vicissitudes of time our experiences are framed in hope by God’s purpose beyond this common time – ‘we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.’ Alongside preaching that gives shape to time, we must also shape our sermons to bring reassurance that is beyond time.

An eternal focus must not be a pretext for glib assertions about meaning in the face of the pandemic. Facile ‘answers’ to the worries of the present are best avoided. Instead, an eschatological – beyond time – reference can be an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything. That is both a reassurance of our safety in God and a hopeful but humble conviction that our times are not solely shaped by human perceptions.

 

SHAPING ENGAGEMENT

The pandemic has in a way democratised preaching. Traditionally most preaching has been authorised and institutionally controlled. In other words, the preacher received authority to preach from a regulatory body such as a denomination, a diocese or a congregation and spoke within an environment to some extent controlled by that body. Preaching via the Internet cannot be regulated in the same way. With little more than a smartphone and an Internet connection almost anyone can be a preacher. Clearly that’s an exaggeration, but the underlying point holds true: who preaches now often depends more on technological savvy than institutional authority.

In the traditional set-up, organisation structures, inherited social relationships, and recognised boundaries of power determine how things are heard, as well as who says them. These things don’t apply on Facebook. The obligations (say, to pay attention to a whole sermon, or to do only one thing at a time) have no force. Power in the new circumstances, lies wholly with the receivers of the message, and they can click away at any moment.

My suspicion is that even in congregations where face-to-face gatherings have returned, the strangeness of new practices that go with that (physical distancing, face coverings, hygiene regulations, lack of singing, and absence of socialising, etc.) mean that mediated worship (whether online or by other ways) retains an appeal it otherwise wouldn’t have. Mediated worship now feels intimate in a way that church worship doesn’t. Watching a preacher on a tablet propped against the salt on the kitchen table is an altogether more homely activity than sitting in your own space in a largely empty and echoing church.

My response – like so many others – has been to quickly learn new techniques. Yes, I can now video, edit and broadcast my sermons; yes, I can engage in homiletical dialogues on Zoom; and yes, I can render a sermon into an article to be read. But those approaches require of me a vastly different style and sermon shape than when preaching from a pulpit. So, my learning has had to be about becoming a different kind of preacher, and that is a lot more demanding than getting to know a few technological processes. And it is a lot more tiring too!

So far I’ve discovered being a different kind of preacher requires me a) to be sharper and less discursive, this is simply not the arena in which to make a case, however worthy; b) to be shorter because I must respect that the location of reception is not in my control; c) to be more consciously rhetorical in that what I say has to make the hearer want to listen to the end; d) to shape ideas in narrative and visual ways that make the sermon more of an imaginative happening than a conceptual argument; and, e) to be more conversational so that I can see myself sitting alongside someone in their own space. It is still early days and no doubt there’s much more to be said, and learnt, about preaching across the kitchen table. It seems these pandemic times are changing the shape of sermon engagement for all preachers, whatever our individual circumstances.

 

STUBBORN SHAPES

Unfortunately, there are some shapes that aren’t changing. In the early days of the pandemic it was often said that Covid-19 was a great leveller in that everyone was susceptible to the disease whatever their social circumstances. These months further on it is now plain that although universal susceptibility remains true, the rates of infection and the consequences of infection are profoundly shaped by social circumstance.

Simply put, people from the most disadvantaged communities suffer the highest rates of infection and highest mortality. The pandemic follows the pattern of economic, social, and ethnic inequalities. And it is likely that the aftermath of the pandemic will worsen inequalities, as did earlier public health crises like the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-20. The shape of illness prevalence and its consequences is stubbornly familiar.

Context continues to matter, as it always has done. The ubiquity of Internet information and resources, alongside the globalisation of news and markets, can tempt preachers towards an almost generic, a-cultural gospel. That’s a temptation to resist. The Word of life must be as rigorously enculturated now as ever because life circumstances are as significant as ever.

The preacher’s calling has always been to be radically contextual, to preach a particular gospel to particular people in particular circumstances. We strive to make the universal into the local. In that we resist the de-contextualisation that easy global technologies might suggest. Kitchen table sermons cannot but be addressed to the shape of local realities. That is something I must constantly remind myself of as the technology urges me to aim for more ‘views’ or ‘clicks.’

 

KEEPING IN SHAPE

And finally, what of the preacher’s own fitness to preach in these changed times? ‘Don’t let yourself get out of shape,’ was a nurse’s advice to me at the beginning of the lockdown. Judging by the number of people I see cycling, running, and walking while I’m out trying to keep in shape, I guess lots of other people have had the same thought. Keeping in shape needs effort and determination.

For this preacher that means more reading, as pleasure as much as work; more physical activity as a way of keeping my mind off things; keeping a pattern of work and leisure that reinforces the boundary between the two; and seeking out what intrigues and delights me however it may be found (in conversation, in research, in radio, films, and TV, in working with my hands, and more). The rhythmed life of which I spoke earlier must be bodily expressed and not be just something of mental categories.

In the dilemmas and debates about public policy in these trying times, reference is frequently made to ‘scientific facts.’ Of course, those facts must be the reasons behind our actions, socially and individually. Yet ‘the facts’ don’t contain all that is required to contend with a pandemic. We also need to rehearse the narratives that have sustained hope in times past; to resource minds with words and images that linger in thought and bring comfort and reassurance; and to share a deep sense of spiritual belonging that overturns chaos. These are Gospel consequences; and these are preachers’ tasks.

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