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Preaching As Paying Attention: Theological Reflection In The Pulpit

Review by Rob Esdaile, Sermon Commissioning Editor, Parish Priest of Woking and Knaphill

Edward Foley, Capuchin

Liturgy Training Publications, 2021, £21.49. ISBN 978-1-6163-1637-0

<strong><em>Preaching As Paying Attention: Theological Reflection In The Pulpit</em></strong>

Karl Barth famously said that preachers should have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That image is showing its age now, when so few read newspapers and so many flit online from one meme to the next, but it is still a powerful challenge to those who think that preaching is just about expounding this week’s lection or explaining some eternal verity. Edward Foley himself clearly has a magpie mind and is no slouch at trawling the internet, books, films, poems, scientific papers, and anything else for arresting images with which to reach contemporary congregations.

His little book (just 140 pages) invites preachers to ‘pay attention’ not only to the Word of God but to the lives of those they address. That applies in the moment of proclamation (noting our effect on those before us and potentially adjusting our delivery) but also during homily preparation and in general pastoring. We are, as Pope Francis has put it, to ‘keep an ear to the people,’ using language and themes they are comfortable with. We need a ‘theory of mind’ that can understand those sat before us – even if we’re not all on the same page. Preaching is, amongst other things, an exercise in empathy and it requires a recognition of the wide variety of opinions, life experience and stages of faith development present even within our own Sunday assemblies.

Writing in the Catholic tradition, Foley has a more sophisticated view of the homily than the notion that the (active) preacher addresses the (passive) congregation. ‘Rather, preaching, like the liturgy itself, is an encounter between God and the assembly which the homilist is commissioned to facilitate … the homily [is] a ritual conversation between God and the liturgical assembly … The preacher facilitates this encounter by offering a credible and imaginative interpretation of the in-breaking of God’s reign for Christian living – in sustained dialogue with the lives of the faithful – that draws upon the whole of the liturgy especially the lectionary texts, in the context of a particular community at a prescribed moment of their shared life.’ (p.13)

The rest of the volume gives flesh to this way of incarnating the Word in people’s daily lives and choices. Foley urges preachers to deepen their understanding of the great variety within our communities across different ethnicities, generations and genders. He offers sage advice on listening to women’s experience – particularly important in the Roman Catholic community! He also reflects on how to interact with ‘world events’, arguing that a focus on ‘attending to the Word’ leaves many preachers ill-equipped to engage with ‘the Liturgy of the World’ – ‘God’s continuous self-revelation in the great and small moments of life’ (p.51). All in all, a useful reminder of the need to ‘pay attention’ to Word, Spirit and audience in our preaching.

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