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Preaching from Year A, August to October 2023

Features Editor, Catholic Permanent Deacon and retired Principal Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham

‘First of all, you should rid yourself of the idea that people are seeking God. They’re not.’ John McDade

‘Scripture fuels and mandates the preacher to offer an artistic counter story, and fund an audacious, daring reconstruction of the “world”.’ Roger Spillar

‘Apologetics necessarily involves understanding the questions that non-believers ask.’ Harry L Poe

Apologising means admitting you were in the wrong, apologetics consists in constructing a systematic demonstration that you were right. Preachers should never apologise for the gospel. However, while the Sermon is never just apologetics, apologetics certainly has its place.

But if John McDade is right, it follows that the apologetic element in preaching has become both even more essential and more difficult. The world of the earlier part of the twentieth century where apologists of the stature of C.S. Lewis once met the challenge of unbelief is gone, at least in mainland Britain. When his account of his own conversion from atheism in

Surprised by Joy was published in 1955, the Census of 1950 showed that 80 per cent of People in England and Wales identified as Christians. But whereas an estimated 70% still describe themselves as Christian in the US, the Census of 2021 found for the first time that fewer than half of the population of England and Wales described themselves as Christian. The residually Christian cultural imagination has largely disappeared along with the residual Christians, and the vision offered by Roger Spillar of the preacher providing an artistic counter story, funding an ‘audacious, daring reconstruction of the “world”’ has become even harder to achieve. Or, as McDade rather pessimistically suggests, ‘No number of sermons can breathe life into the word “God” again and insert it into our account of human flourishing, at least for the foreseeable future.’

If as Poe reminds us ‘apologetics necessarily involves understanding the questions that non-believers ask’, what does the preacher do we do when many are no longer even asking the questions? McDade advocates that, like Paul on the Aeropaus, we move ‘from a feeling of desolate helplessness in the face of unbelief to a position of conversation and dialogue.’ This must surely be the way forward to ‘bridging the gap’ so as to fulfil Spillar’s view of the preacher’s vocation ‘to offer hope for a transfigured earth, a world sanctioned by God for a world of grace and newness whose signs can be glimpsed in surprising places.’

In the sermons that follow we can look for ways in which our preachers search out these surprising places where, as Spillar envisions, ‘bridges can be built from unbelief and indifference to create ‘an artistic web out of the kingdom values of grace, freedom, forgiveness and hope, that will set in train a spontaneous response of wonder, praise and thankfulness in the hearts of our hearers?’

As Christopher Burkett reminds us in his Editorial, ‘disputed choices and disputed facts require discussion that is compassionate, engaged and patient.’ Failure to do this would surely require an apology.

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