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Knowing Me, Knowing You: Ahaa …  

06 September 2021

Autoethnography and the role knowing the congregation has on the sermon

Knowing Me, Knowing You: Ahaa …
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So, are you thinking Abba or Alan Partridge? Or perhaps you will just be thinking: What? Who? Your response, unknown to me, characterises the challenge for all of us as preachers. Whilst we are challenged to know our congregations, we need to consider the depth with which this challenge can be met. Can we really appreciate the multitude of experiences, interpretations, and reference points that make up the complex mix of the perspectives of the individuals that form our congregations?

 

THERE IS NOTHING WE CAN DO … OR IS THERE?

I want to start by affirming I am committed to the concept of knowing the congregation and this relationship helping form our sermons. Although here I use the word form rather than inform. At the heart of our challenge is the recognition that we cannot understand the significance of words and concepts to each individual due to the multitude of personal experiences which make up their perspective, all of which come with their own personalised interpretation and most of which are unknown to us (and often themselves). Yet, as preachers we can know ourselves before the congregation, and in doing so form authentic committed bonds which will not just inform the words and pictures of our sermons, but more significantly form a shared experience.

 

MEMORIES, GOOD DAYS, BAD DAYS. THEY’LL BE WITH ME ALWAYS. AUTOETHNOGRAPHY AND ASSUMPTIONS

Becoming a Christian aged twenty-one I initial worshipped with my now wife in a charismatic congregational church. When we moved to Liverpool, we attended an independent charismatic church before then moving to another Pentecostal church to develop my pastoral skills and eventually become its trainee minister. When we moved to the Wirral, we made home at our local parish church which has been described as evangelical – low and informal in an Anglican context. I have now worshipped there for the past nineteen-years, with this being my first real experience, save the odd church parade as a cub and scout, of Anglicanism. Whilst training as a Reader, given my background, when I had the opportunity to go on placement I requested to be considered for a high or liberal Anglican church to broaden my experience. I was delighted to be allocated a church which has been described by its congregation in various ways including ‘mid-church’, ‘high church’, and ‘catholic’.

Becoming part of my placement congregation provided me with an opportunity to explore the questions I had about the relevance of more traditional expressions of church to society. My previous Anglican experiences as a child attending church parade had led to me initially discounting Christianity when I sought spirituality. I had found the more structured approach to church boring, irrelevant, and had, on reflection, felt an outsider. I now had an opportunity to uncover and explore the memories of my experience and how this had an ongoing formative influence on my faith and preaching.

Taking up this challenge required an auto-ethnographical approach. Autoethnography engages the individual in describing and analysing their experiences in the light of a new experience. Essentially, I would find myself in the story of my placement congregation, reflect, talk the experience through with others, and then reflect again on their observations. The approach allows the discovery of alternative conceptions of truth and reality, challenging me to consider the way others experience and interpret shared events. This would provide a foundation for preaching through challenging me to know myself better through my own experience of the shared values and truths of the congregation, rather than by appealing to the limitless personal and biased assumptions about the individuals which formed the congregation.

 

KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU, IT’S THE BEST I CAN DO. DISCOVERING MY ASSUMPTIONS

Rituals and celebrations can become a valuable source of data for autoethnography. I decided to focus on three primary areas where I noticed immediate differences between my assumptions of church and the importance of those experiences to my placement congregation: Robes and choreography, church as an event and the experience of eucharist.

 

ROBES AND CHOREOOPGRAPHY

Unlike my previous experiences, in my placement ministers (including clergy, choir, gospel reader, eucharistic ministers and verger) robed for most services. Chorographically, there was also far more significance given to movement such as processing and bowing.

Reflecting on the differences in dress and choreography challenged my previous assumptions. As an unchurched child attending church parade, I found the movement confusing and excluding as I didn’t understand it. In relation to the robes, as I was also dressed in my scout uniform, the minister being robed just made it feel like dressing for the occasion was what people did as part of this routine. Reflecting on this, I think this formed in me a perception that more structured formal expressions of church were less personal and more about routine.

Discussing my reflection with the priest-in-charge at my placement congregation, I was able to challenge my assumed knowledge to discover how robes, choreography and use of repeated words each week could create what he termed a ‘Christian-shaped terrain across which … [the congregation can] walk with Christ. Like structured silence.’ This provided me with a new basis upon which to form my sermons grounded in the experiences of church which resonated with meaning for the congregation rather than my assumed interpretation of those experiences.

 

CHURCH AS AN EVENT

The second theme explored was that of Sunday services as a focal event. I had been used to worshipping in churches where Sunday attendance was important, but you would dress and approach the service very informally. Given this background, I was struck by how smartly people dressed at my placement church and how people came early and prepared with prayer upon arrival rather than casually drifting in either early to chat, or just after the service had started.

Reflecting on this, I was able to identify my approach to church, in the sense of an event and space, had been formed through a theology of there being no divide between the sacred and secular. The church building and service, therefore, were no more sacred than any other time or place I might find myself in the week. However, in this assumption I had missed the mystery experienced by many members of the congregation of the church’s unique role as a place standing between heaven and earth.

 

EXPEREINCE OF THE EUCHARIST

The third theme related to how I had experienced the eucharist and the elevated importance it appeared to have in my placement church. My previous experiences had left me feeling the Eucharist was something which we should share but primarily out of obedience. However, on my placement there felt an otherness to receiving communion. The eucharistic meal formed a focal part of most services, and the congregation would receive a wafer and the shared cup of wine whilst kneeling at a comparatively elaborate altar at the back of the chancel. Whilst on placement, I was able to serve communion, robed, and then participate in the ceremonial cleaning of the chalice and consumption of the remaining wine. This was something I had not experienced before, and it felt special.

Discussing this helped me discover how through the Eucharist, the congregation were not just enacting Jesus’ command, but also engaging in a mystery beyond our understanding. The experience was the perfect expression of the paradox of the familiar and other held in one event.

 

HERE IS WHERE THE STORY ENDS … OR NOT?

Finishing my placement was not the end of the story, but the start of a recognition that in preaching knowing the congregation was less about individual or demographic knowledge and more living and sharing their story. Undertaking this autoethnographic exercise I could begin to identify the theological significance of this familiar-otherness paradox in relation to the Kingdom of God, the church, my relationship with the congregation, and my preaching. This theological paradox of familiarity and otherness experienced through service styles and rituals and reflecting the equally paradoxical unfathomable holiness of God and our call to discipleship formed implications for my preaching.

First, realities and knowledge are messy, complex, and multiple. Everyone will have their own reasons for approaching, experiencing, and expressing their faith in their own particular manner. These may be hard for us to observe as the individual themselves may not be aware of their own formation history. This should remind us as preachers that we only have a fragmented vision of truth, but we can counter this with a relational commitment to explore and journey with our congregation.

Second, each member of a congregational has sensual preferences and using a variety of metaphors, images, sounds, smells and so forth when preaching will aid in communication on a multi-sensual level. Using a mixture of metaphors when preaching reflects theological vitality rather than confusion and can help to expand rather than contract the familiar yet other paradox.

Finally, the construction of knowledge is not only individually created but also rooted in local context and action. Congregations go on collective journeys of their own which we need to be part of as preacher. We enact and create knowledge through mindful action together. Thus, preaching designed to broaden a congregation’s faith will embrace the journey and direction of travel God is making with that congregation.

 

THIS IS GOODBYE

Preaching should always be personal. Personal to the congregation, personal to the preacher. Good preaching involves a theological reflexivity acknowledging the role of self in forming an understanding of the world yet looking outward beyond the limits of the personal. The sermon is both a personal, and yet beyond personal phenomenon. Familiar, yet expressive of otherness. Good preaching is formed through knowing ourselves better as we understand our own experiences before our congregation rather than allowing our limited knowledge of our congregation’s individual members experiences to be projected and assumed true for others.

So, can we know the congregation? Yes, but perhaps with a recognition that we are only ever really knowing our perception of them. Yet, as we get to know ourselves better, we may gain a deeper knowledge of our congregation’s collective identity, knowing them through knowing our part in their story.

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