Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Importance of Preaching for Anglican Renewal The Importance of Prea The Importance of Preaching for Anglican Renewal

Editor's Note: The editor of this blog is an Anglican and I concur with the thrust of this essay.

by The Rev. David Beckmann

The hearts of the faithful in the Com­munion are aching for renewal. We long to see a resolution to the weak­en­ing, the fragmentation, and the loss that Anglicanism has experienced, not just recently, but over decades. We recog­nize that God has to bring this about: “Apart from me, ye can do nothing.” Yet, we remember the ele­ment of responsibility, and seek the Lord’s leading in good works which may assist renewal. As we pray, we try to be obedient. We are holding conferences, conducting evangelism, blogging, making statements, fighting in courts, and taxing our alphabet to the limit in organizing different Eccles­i­astical bodies. But in our desire to be obedient, surely it makes sense to ask, “Where did we go wrong? Where were we disobedient? How did the Anglican Communion in North Amer­ica get into such a mess?” Many have been asking these things, and there are, of course, many answers. But the answers that really matter are those that come from our Shepherd. Is not our first duty and only real hope, when we are troubled by such ques­tions, to consult the Divine Oracle, the Holy Scriptures?

The Marks of the Church

As we read the Scriptures concerning the life of the Church, we find certain basic elements that define the Church. In the Articles, our fathers helped us to understand what the Bible says these basic elements are. Those of you who are familiar with the Reformation tradition will recognize these im­med­i­ately:

XIX. Of the Church.

The visible Church of Christ is a con­gregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same….

XXXIII. Of excommunicate Persons, how they are to be avoided.

That person which by open denun­ciation of the Church is rightly cut off from the unity of the Church, and excommunicated, ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publi­can, until he be openly reconciled by penance, and received into the Church by a Judge that hath the authority thereunto.

Here are references to the classic three “marks of the Church” which our fathers expounded from the Scrip­tures: the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and Church discipline. These three marks of the Church also appear in the question asked of the priest at his ordination by the Bishop (BCP, 1928):

Bishop. Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the Doctrine and Sac­ra­ments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath com­man­ded, and as this Church hath received the same, accor­ding to the Commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your Cure and Charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?

In this last quotation, you will notice how “the pure Word of God preached” has been replaced with “Doctrine . . . of Christ.” Such inter­change of language is common enough. We find this in Calvin’s Institutes, for example, when, in speak­ing of the mark of the Church per­tain­ing to the Word of God, he uses such terms as “preaching,” “ministry of the Word,” and “the administration of doctrine.”[1] Bishop Jewel does the same thing in his Homily for Whit­sunday: “The true Church is an universall congregation or fellow­shippe of GODS faithfull and elect people. . . . And it hath alwayes three notes or markes whereby it is knowen. Pure and sound doctrine. . . . ”[2] Hooker says that “preaching,” under­stood as the public proclamation of the Word of God, includes both preach­ing, per se, and public reading of the Bible.[3] While I agree with his argu­ments, I’ll be limiting the word “preaching” to proclamation through exposition of the Word, viz., ex­pos­i­tory sermons.

So how do we compare to these marks? When it comes to the admin­i­stering of the Sacraments, in various respects, we have probably done fairly well. There are bishops that are trying to hold the church spiritually account­able; others obviously are not! On a Communion-wide scale, the GAFCON primates are trying to address the accountability issue, which leading up to GAFCON, had been a disaster. How many people are talking about the state of Anglican preaching in North America? Not many. Why should they be? As one reads, talks with people, listens to what people from outside the continent say, and makes other observations, it becomes very apparent that Anglicans in North America have lost the vision of what the preaching of the Word of God is supposed to be, what it does, and how important it is. A fellow priest told me recently that he hears comments from Episcopalians that belittle the place of preaching “all the time.” I’ve found people who think that a simple, homily—strangely different in nature from The Homilies—of no more than ten minutes is what the “Sermon” is “supposed to be.” It’s only window dressing for the real event, which is Holy Communion. I have even heard priests apologise for taking the time to preach! This is nothing but ignorance of the Anglican tradition and of the Biblical ordinance of preaching. It is also, sadly, why the Episcopal Church has managed to degenerate so badly. The flock has not been fed; there has been a famine of the Word of God. The sheep have not been kept by the truth of the Word, and so they have been devoured by the wolves.

I herein contend that the preaching of the Word is the most important means entrusted to the Church for minis­ter­ing the Word of God, and that con­se­quently the condition of our pulpits is a barometer of how well the Church is fulfilling her duty with respect to this particular mark of the Church. If we are failing in our preaching, there is no way we are going to see the Com­mun­ion improve in a lasting way.

Why Preaching Has Declined

The ministry of the Word of God is absolutely necessary for both the mis­sion of the Church (Romans x.17) and the life of the Church (John xvii.17). Richard Hooker considers the ministry of the Word to be “first and chiefest” of the gifts God has given the Church. Let me quote him in full:

Because therefore want of the know­ledge of God is the cause of all iniquity amongst men, as con­trar­i­wise the ground of all our happiness, and the seed of what­so­ever perfect virtue groweth from us, is a right opinion touching things Divine; this kind of know­ledge we may justly set down for the first and chiefest thing which God imparteth unto his people; and our duty of receiving this at his merciful hands, for the first of those religious offices, wherewith we publicly honour him on earth. For the instruction therefore of all sorts of men unto eternal life it is necessary, that the sacred and sav­ing truth of God be openly pub­lished unto them. Which open pub­li­cation of heavenly mysteries is by an excellency termed Preaching (V.xviii.1).

If this is so, then why has the ministry of the Word been so neglected in North American Anglicanism? We may begin to answer this question by recognising that this is not a new condition for our Church. There have been other periods when preaching has waned and for much the same reasons, such as, 1) a low view of Scripture, 2) moral failure among the clergy, and 3) an unbalanced sacra­men­talism.

Over the last century, a low view of Scripture has been fostered by our educational institutions, both secular and ecclesiastical. Heeding the sirens of German Rationalism and Higher Criticism, the Scriptures lost their traditional authority in the minds of many Episcopal clergy. If a man be­lieves the Scriptures are merely a faulty record of men’s religious ideas, reworked regularly for the sake of dif­ferent agendas, then he is surely not going to be inspired to sweat very much over preaching from its pages.

A gracious, moral character is very im­por­tant for a strong pulpit, for other­wise the preacher has no ethos with his hearers or simply not the moral ability to get into a pulpit with an informative and well-prepared sermon. In our day, the moral deficiency may be connected with a lack of a spiritual under­stand­ing of the role of the priest. One cannot expect people who style the priest as a kind of CEO of an org­an­i­za­tion—or worse, the head of a political action committee—to approach the pulpit in a spiritual fashion. Sadly, moral failure, ignorance, indolence, and wrong ministry ideals among priests are everywhere around us. Thankfully, I am too new to North Amer­ican Anglicanism to personally know of many instances of the above, but surely, the TEC could not have become what it is without such things being present.

We can find also in times past, when the pulpit was weak, a competition between the ministry of the Word and other aspects of the life of the Church; some good, some bad. It seems to me that we have a modern day example of this in an unbalanced sacramentalism. It is obvious that the Tractarians made great inroads on this side of the Pond. North American Anglicans generally have a high view of the sacraments. They are held to be necessary means of grace, so much so, that Holy Com­munion is, today, universally con­si­dered the most important service in the Church. The symbolism in the sa­cra­ments is also carefully considered, and it is commonly conceived that the sacraments are “the Word preached” in symbol. There is thus a strong tendency to hold the sacraments on par with the ministry of the Word, as if they were both of equal necessity.

The problem is that many of us have apparently not held these two ordin­an­ces on par. Instead, we have exalted the sacraments above the Word to the neglect of the preaching of the Word. As exampled above, the ministry of the Word has become only window dressing for the Eucharist. Along with this tendency is the unprecedented de­crease in the use of the Divine Service. The loss of Mattins and Evensong has aggravated the loss of the ministry of the Word. Thus, an unbalanced sacra­men­talism has, in some places, con­trib­uted to the loss of the traditional Anglican vision of preaching, and in its own way, to the weakening of our pulpits. This has certainly not been the intent of those involved, but the result is there nonetheless.

Preaching is the Pre-eminent Means of Ministering the Word

To recover the ministry of the Word, on what should we focus? Should we focus on instruction and application in the pulpit, or should we be more concerned with Sunday school, Wed­nes­day evening classes, Bible con­fer­en­ces, and the like? Hooker being so fresh on my mind, let me dip again into his Fifth Book to answer this question.

The problem Hooker addressed was that some men in his day believed that salvation was only available through the extemporaneous preaching of the Word. These same men, consequently, attacked the practice of reading the Word, or reading sermons expound­ing the Word, in the Church. Hooker ably defends these traditional means of ministering the Word against these attacks. He argues that the Word of God may be savingly ministered in a variety of ways: conversation “in the bosom of the church,” religious edu­cation, the reading of “learned men’s books,” private conference, and “what­soever pain and diligence in hearing, studying, meditating day and night on the Law, is so far blest of God as to work this effect in any man.” (V.xxii.8) It is in this context that he includes the public reading of the Word with sermons as “Preaching,” as I have stated above. Thus, as he seeks to maintain the sufficiency of Scripture and its various means of dis­sem­i­na­tion, he argues for an equality of value between these various means.

At the same time, however, inter­woven among his arguments, are ad­mis­sions that there is something spe­cial about preaching. He says that he does not want to speak derogatorily against that which men esteem about sermons (V.xxii.1). He admits that ser­mons naturally have an especial ad­van­tage over reading in procuring attention (V.xxii.20). But there is one place I think especially important, where he writes:

It is true that the weakness of our wits and the dullness of our affections do make us for the most part, even as our Lord’s own disciples were for a certain time, hard and slow to believe what is written. For help where­of expositions and exhortations are needful, and that in the most effectual manner (V.xxii. 17).

Well may he speak in such terms, be­cause the Scriptures lead us to this con­clusion. We need only observe the work of John the Baptist, of Jesus Him­self, and of the Apostles as recorded in the Acts. Here we see examples of the proclamation of the Word of God, accom­panied by logical interpretation and argument, with pointed ap­pli­ca­tion, and even rhetorical devices. In this fashion, these preachers not only disseminated the Word of God, but so brought it to bear upon the minds and wills of men as to effectively bring them into confrontation with God Himself. It is because the Word needs not only to be read, but also applied to the heart that The Homilies were pub­lished, seeing as how not every priest was sufficiently gifted to so handle the Scripture.

Note also that they preached with refer­ence to the same Scriptures which were read regularly in the synagogue. The fact is that the Scriptures, however they are inculcated, require the illum­in­ing work of the Holy Spirit for their truth to be brought to bear upon the heart in a life-giving, life-changing way. God may move the heart by His Spirit directly as the Scripture is read by oneself or by another. Indeed, such action of the Spirit is one of His “ordi­nary” works. It is evident, however, that God loves to use means in this age, and that his particular means for bringing the Scriptures home to the heart is preaching. “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long­suf­fering and doctrine” (II Timothy iv. 2).[4] Without disagreeing with Hook­er’s contention against those who think there is no salvation without preaching, it has to be admitted that apparently the Jews, hearing the Word read, just weren’t “getting it.” The Holy Spirit saw it necessary to use a preacher to bring the truth home. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”[5]

I conclude, therefore, that due to the human condition, due to the fact that God uses means, due to the instructive acts of God and apostolic admonition we find in the New Testament, the preaching of the Word has a pre-eminence among the other means of ministering the Word. Therefore, if we seek renewal and reformation in Angli­canism and the world around us as well, we must pay attention to our pulpits. Reorganizing ourselves and duplicating our old programs under new leadership is not going to bring new life. John 6:63: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” We need a renewal of Biblical exposition from the pulpit that is informing, arresting, and persuasive. There is no telling the kind of changes that God will powerfully make in our Church and this world if we give His Word the place for which it has been ordained and heed it.

Concluding Remarks

If our pulpits are to be renewed, attention must be paid by the preacher to the study of Scripture and personal holiness. In other words, he must pay serious and diligent attention to those aspects of his ordination vows that pertain to such duty. At the same time, we need to have instruction in the Scriptures for our people by every other means as well. We need to do all we can to soak them in the life-giving Word if there is going to be hope for North American Anglicanism.

My brother in the ministry, when was the last time you picked up a book on preaching to inspire you or to instruct you to become a better preacher? Are not such studies a part of your vows? As one priest to another, this is some­thing we all need from time to time. As you should know, there are tons of such books out there, but may I recom­mend the following: John R. W. Stott’s Between Two Worlds (originally, I Believe in Preaching); The Christian Ministry, by Charles Bridges; Bryan Chappel’s Christ-Centered Preaching; Evangelical Eloquence, by R. L. Dabney; Preaching and Preachers, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones; and Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students.

It would also do us all good if we were to pick up such books which tell of the lives of great preachers in the past and how God has used them. Many of the greatest preachers in the history of the Western Church have been Anglicans, and the reading of such books should spark the desire within us to see God bring such refreshing times to our Communion and our countries as he has in the past through the means of expository preaching. Read the life of George Whitefield. Read Bishop J. C. Ryle’s Christian Leaders of the 18th Cen­tury, where you will read of White­field, Wesley, Romaine, Venn, Hervey and others. Read the lives of the Reformers, such as Latimer, and of later men such as Charles Simeon. See if the Lord will not fire you up to fervently seek for a renewal of preach­ing in our Church today.

Finally, let me speak a word of encouragement. As I have stated above, much of what we face today is nothing new. The Anglican Church has seen her times when the Word of the Lord has been scarce, her ministers weak, even in error, and her members going astray. She was in such a condition before the Reformation. She was certainly so in the days before George Whitefield began his ministry. Yet when God raised up men to preach the Word of God in the apos­tolic fashion, great awakenings occur­red and God gave new life to the Anglican Church. God can do it again. As we do all the other things we do in hope of a new day for North American Anglicanism, let us not for­get the first and chief gift God has gi­ven to us for spiritual health and pow­er:

The preaching of Holy Scripture.