Walking together on the Road: Synodality; Ecumenism and The Preacher
‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ (Luke 34:32, NIV).
‘The road to Emmaus is a symbol of our path of faith’ (Pope Francis, May 5th, 2014).
The encounter between Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus provides a model for the preachers. Synodality, meaning ‘walking together’ comes from the Greek sou [”together”] and hodos [”way”]. In October 2021 Pope Francis initiated a synodal process, entitled ‘For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,’ intended to involve the Catholic laity and clergy in a process of collaboration and discernment. As such it might seem to be a purely internal matter for the Roman Catholic Church. However, ‘Synodality’ is about the way the entire Church—all of the baptized— seek to discern together where the Holy Spirit is leading. Cardinals Koch and Grech 1 are among those drawing attention to the ecumenical dimension to the synodal process, given that ‘synodality and ecumenism are processes of walking together.’ Adding that this means ‘being conscious of our need for the accompaniment and the many gifts of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we call on them to journey with us during these two years and we sincerely pray that Christ will lead us closer to him and so to one another.’
So, we might ask where this process finds its ecumenical dimension. Well, one place is in the columns of The Preacher. In successive issues and over several decades, preachers from different traditions have engaged in a journey of mutual enrichment as they seek promote better preaching. Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Mennonites, Lutherans, Methodists, Nazarenes, Orthodox, Pentecostalists, Presbyterians and United Reformed have shared their wisdom on the journey to a more effective proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Black Pentecostal Proclamation
In a series on preaching in various denominational traditions, Joe Aldred wrote on Preaching today in the Black Pentecostal tradition (Issue 130, July 2008) He emphasised that black Pentecostal preaching is always accompanied by a collaborative congregation, and he referred to the custom of ‘call- response preaching’ as evidence of this:
‘The black Pentecostal preacher never preaches alone. Various interactive prompts have been developed, varying from “tell your neighbour…” to “give your neighbour a high five…” to “you didn’t hear what I just said…” to “‘I wish I had a worshipping church here today…” to “give me an amen for that…”. All of these and more are aimed at generating a response from the listener or what has been called ‘call and response’ preaching. During a sermon that achieves the ‘a thing of sheer beauty’ trademark, people will respond to the preacher in many ways… If the congregation does not voluntarily respond, the preacher will not permit the silence.’
Orthodox liturgical preaching
The context of the Orthodox Liturgy is very different, but American Orthodox priest and homiletician, Sergius Halvorsen wrote that the preacher is never preaching alone there either (Issue 131, September 2008).
‘Orthodox liturgical preaching is full contact preaching because Orthodox liturgical worship is a full-body experience of encountering the Word of God. Every mode of sensory perception is engaged by Orthodox liturgy… The Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church is multi-sensory because Christ redeems the entire human person. Every life experience is an opportunity to enter more deeply into communion with God and with one’s neighbour. Preaching is an embodiment of this holistic experience of God’s transforming love. Preaching in the Orthodox tradition supports and contributes to the holistic aim of the Liturgy: to encounter the Word of God, Jesus Christ.’
Listening and sharing in Roman Catholic preaching
Likewise, the context of the liturgical renewal initiated by the Second Vatican Council provides that the homily is seen as an integral part of the Sunday Liturgy, an encounter with the Word of God that involves a sharing with the experience and insights not only of the preacher but also of the congregation. Echoing the very influential document on preaching, Fulfilled in your Hearing 2, Robert Hendrie spelt out this new understanding of the preacher as a listener as well as a speaker:
‘He listens to his assembly, he listens to the world he shares with them, he listens to the scripture readings and searches there for what they are saying to the situations of his hearers … interpreting the lives of the people in relation to God and drawing them together in this Eucharist, giving them the words to articulate their faith...The preacher must know what people want to hear before he can tell them what they need to hear. He is a listener as well as a speaker … Rather than expounding the readings and then searching for an application, the preacher should begin from what he knows of the culture and situation of his hearers and only then show that this scripture has something to say about them.’(Issue 132, December 2008).
Methodist preaching: from faith to faith
According to Dick Jones, a former President of the Methodist Conference, preaching in the Methodist tradition has also developed a more sharing, dialogic character:
‘The speaker holds together two mighty factors – the revealing of his truth which God effects through the witness of Scripture and the Christian tradition on the one hand, and modern living and its concerns on the other. Preaching is like a great bridge between these two and has the throb of the traffic going back and forth on it. No other form of communication is quite like this. It is unique. This was in contrast with the previous understandings, much influenced by the evangelical revival and later revivalisms. In those traditions, preaching was aimed primarily at the unconverted to cause decisions for Christ; now it was seen as an exercise within the Christian community to articulate, deepen and encourage its confidence in the faith and its relevance. Previously, the preacher confronted the crowd; now the preacher speaks as one chosen by the community to speak for it. Previously, the preacher was high above the people, now alongside and with the people. Previously, preaching tended to be from faith to unfaith, now from faith to faith.’ (Issue133, April 2009).
Baptist preaching as community forming
American academic and Baptist preacher, Michael Quicke writing on Preaching in the Baptist tradition (Issue135, October 2009) makes clear the Scriptural foundation of preaching and its frequent evangelistic aim but also suggests the same movement from preaching for the outsider towards an emphasis on building up a community of faith:
‘Baptist preaching has a high view of Scripture’s authority. Throughout its history, including ‘seeker sensitive’ preaching, the Scripture text remains foundational for Baptists. … Preaching is dominant within worship, services, and leadership. The dominance of the pulpit has its roots in New Testament understanding of the Church as gathered believers under the word … Preaching is often evangelistic. Preaching for faith-response remains a powerful Baptist emphasis, though other forms of evangelism are encouraged … Preaching is community forming … Preaching has a pivotal role in creating this community.
The Salvation Army: Preaching the Word with simplicity and power
Salvationist preaching retains the same primarily biblical and evangelistic quality and this is a key emphasis in Major Chris Baker’s article on Preaching in The Salvation Army tradition (Issue 138, July 2010):
‘The “Salvation” in the name of the movement indicated one of its key priorities, and this has been reflected in its preaching tradition from early days … The principles of being Biblically based, easy to understand, interesting and prepared would all still be seen as vital, combined with regularly preaching salvation and holiness, relevance, the “how to…” implied in good application, the need to challenge the hearer to a response, and underlying it all, the “heart,” earnestness, and sincerity of the preacher. Hope Mungate, a contemporary example in the tradition of women officer preachers in The Salvation Army writes: “Let us preach the word in purity and integrity, in simplicity and power…” Such sentiments echo the principles of William Booth, and when we succeed in putting these into practice, preaching can still contribute to life-changing transformations and commitments.
Anglican Preaching: an arena for engaging with God
Preaching towards life-changing transformations and commitments is undoubtedly a common aim for all preachers within the rich diversity of Christian traditions. The Church of England, along with the wider Anglican Communion hosts a diversity of theological traditions. Since theology informs both preaching and liturgy, this means that it is difficult to generalise about Anglican homiletics. This was the starting point for Michael Beck’s On preaching in the Church of England Tradition (Issue 136, January 2010):
‘The Church of England is still a broad Church that seeks to accommodate a wide range of theological belief and practice. This makes it difficult for any one form of preaching to predominate. Preaching in this Church is an arena for engaging with God. It is a place of increasing expectation from both preachers and congregations. It is taken seriously by a Church which values word and sacrament … In many congregations there is a genuine opportunity for people to meet God through the preached word indwelt by God’s Spirit. It is a time when many find a deepening awareness of God and his call to them to be people of the resurrection. It aims to provoke a response from its hearers. Perhaps words from the Alternative Service Book 1980 sum this up best. ‘But words, even agreed words, are only the beginning of worship. Those who use them do well to recognise their transience and imperfection; to treat them as a ladder, not a goal; to acknowledge their power in shaping faith and kindling devotion, without claiming that they are fully adequate to the task. Only the grace of God can make up what is lacking in the faltering words of men(sic).’
Preaching in an Ecumenical Context: proclamation and prophetic calling
The last port of call in this retrospective selection on preaching in different parts of the Christian family is a consideration of ecumenical preaching. For many preachers this brings to mind the occasional privilege of being invited to preach at a service in another denomination, perhaps in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. However, James Hayes, a former Roman Catholic priest with a Doctorate in preaching serving as Associate Dean in a liberal arts college with a Methodist heritage found the opportunity to preach regularly in traditions other than his own (Issue 134, July 2009) both refining and encouraging.
‘My experience as an ecumenical preacher has enriched my gift of proclamation and prophetic calling. I encourage all preachers, ecumenical or otherwise, to evaluate their ministry of the Word through a critical examination of identity, context, and operative theology. I am not the same preacher that I was before I began this unsolicited and surprising exilic ministry. I would like to think that my ecumenical opportunities have improved my preaching by refining my ears and eyes, as I listen closely and watch keenly for God’s work in the often stunningly divergent religious lives of God’s faithful. In truth, this journey has helped me realise that the preaching I do is not ecumenical at all, it is simply a faithful response to the great commission to go forth and preach the Good News to all people.’
Walking together and sharing the Word
For all preachers, this process of responding to the great commission involves travelling along the Emmaus Road, walking together with the stranger who makes our hearts burn as he opens the Scriptures to us, leading us closer to him, and so to one another.
1. Cardinal Kurt Koch is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops.
2. Fulfilled In Your Hearing (The Homily In The Sunday Assembly)
by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1982.
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