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Preaching from Year C, February to April 2022

A person of faith preaching

In the 1980s a survey of American Catholics found that what they most wanted from the homily was to hear a person of faith preaching. Christians of all traditions would probably echo this sentiment. The three articles in this issue address the question of how much ‘a person of faith’ preaching God’s Word should refer to his or her own faith and life in order bring home the message. Some homileticists strongly advocate directly autobiographical preaching. This advocacy has roots in the Evangelical tradition of offering ‘personal testimony’. But as Kenneth Davis observes ‘the test of a testimony is the focus: are listeners drawn more to the source of conversion or to the drama of the converted?’

There are occasions when preachers can and should describe their own experience by way of illustration, and the great American pioneer of the New Homiletic, David Buttrick, probably went too far in ruling such personal preaching out entirely, although when I asked an eminent professor of preaching if he knew of any homileticist who followed Buttrick on this, he remarked, ‘I am aware of no one. Actually, the one time I heard Buttrick preach he told a long story about his grandson!!’

As Dave Bland tells us, ‘preaching autobiographically in whatever form it takes is absolutely essential if the sermons we preach are to transform lives and shape listeners into the image of God.’ But although the personally authentic does not need to be strictly autobiographical, the fact that the Gospel message finds correspondence in the personality and conviction of the preacher is edifying and, indeed, crucial.

Examining the sermons in this section, there are not many examples of self-referencing autobiography. Belinda Priestley’s sermon for the Second Sunday after Easter refers to her own return to faith but Arani Sen’s Maundy Thursday homily is the only clear-cut example of personal testimony, but his focus moves speedily from his own childhood experience and religious conversion to a Christ-centred invitation to serve the poor. Examples of other explicitly autobiographical references include Christina Beardsley struggling uphill to visit her mother and Paul Johns getting a new passport, but these serve to provide vivid illustrations and do not distract from the central message. There are also examples of sermons drawing from experiences that the preacher shares with at least some members of the congregation: whether coping with a mortgage; surviving the pandemic; news of floods or reading Life Of Pi or Don Quixote.

The ethos of the preacher always shines through in the sermon, and people can always detect when a person of faith is preaching. As Alton Bell reminds us, ‘Autobiographical preaching not only encapsulates the lifestyle and experiences of the preacher, but it also reflects his or her devotional life … As a way of life, autobiographical preaching must not only reflect the way of life of the preacher, but must be Godcentred, that is, having a sense of what God requires of all humanity. To “do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with one’s God.”

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