‘Three Vicars Talking’ is not what one expects to hear on BBC radio. The Reverends Richard Coles, Kate Bottley, and Giles Fraser pull back the curtain on the strange world of Anglican ministry, offering their audience a raw, unfiltered look at life in the parish. The series’ final episode, recorded just prior to Easter, grapples with life in the pandemic. We feel almost guilty as we listen in to these three priests’ intimate radio episode turned confessional. All three openly confess the spiritual trials and challenges brought on by the pandemic — particularly memorable are Bottley’s tales of reaching the end of her tether and longing to tear down the coloured rainbows her children had placed in their home’s window in support of the NHS.
Most moving of all is Coles, who speaks of the blackness falling upon him when his partner passed away. He recounts his plan to gather with his family at the grave of his recently deceased. Due to hastily instituted COVID restrictions, Coles finds himself standing alone at the graveside, the rest of the family isolating at home. The stillness and silence of the graveyard fills him with inconsolable grief and yet with something holy. In the midst of his story-telling, Coles falls silent, and we, the audience, enter for the briefest moment into that same stillness, encountering what in modern life is the rarest of things, uninterrupted quiet. I have never heard anything like it in radio or television. The episode closes not with an authoritative proclamation but a tearful profession, as Coles recites a Russian liturgy for the departed:
And weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. He is risen.
Preaching as Authoritative Proclamation
I remember sitting cross-legged on a lumpy mattress, scouring YouTube with my university mates for clips of John MacArthur on ‘Larry King Live’ (yes, we were a bit weird). To our mind, MacArthur was the gold standard for Christian public engagement, perfectly epitomizing the virtue we prized above all: authoritative clarity. In an age in which traditional Christian voices are marginalized from the public square, MacArthur offered a straightforward, ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ presentation of the gospel with nothing held back. In British conservative evangelicalism, one similarly finds that what is prized in speaking — whether one is addressing a secular audience or giving a sermon — are ‘clear,’ accurate, authoritative presentations of the gospel. As one of the most influential preaching training programs in the UK puts it: our aim is to produce preachers who are “competent in ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it across’”.
But are clarity, accuracy, and an authoritative tone sufficient virtues for speaking the gospel in a secular age? Some might think that a ‘high’ view of preaching requires this particular style, assuming that the authority of the Word of God requires an authoritative and declarative —‘thus saith the Lord’ type — disposition in the preacher. I worry this subtly and unintentionally undermines the distinction-in-relation, which characterizes divine and human action in preaching. It overly identifies the words of the preacher with the Word of God. A view of preaching more attentive both to its ‘sign’ character and to Christ’s prophetic office asks us to rethink what we are doing when we preach. It correspondingly calls us to reconsider how we think preaching should be done. In summary form, a gospel presentation or sermon is not merely an exercise in expository proclamation. It is likewise expository confession.
Confession in an Age of Authenticity
Albert Camus’s The Fall provides a hint as to why even in our secular age we find public acts of confession — like what I heard in ‘Three Vicars Talking’— so compelling. The Fall’s ‘protagonist,’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence, suggests that while moderns might think the ‘death of God’ would liberate us from the threat of judgment, it only subjects us to the even harsher judgments of our own conscience and those of our fellow man. It means: “no excuses ever, for anyone,” because any potential source of forgiveness or absolution disappears along with the divine judge.
The novel charts Clamence’s torturous quest for some way of resolving his irrepressible guilt, which arose because of his cowardly failure to save a woman drowning in the Seine. Only in the final pages is the ‘solution’ he has lit upon revealed. Clarence’s ‘method’ begins with his identification of some weary soul, propped up on a stool at Mexico City, a seedy bar in Amsterdam’s red light district. Clamence, gin in hand, begins to bare his soul, confessing his sins with such unflinching abandon and meticulous detail, that in the process of arguing that “‘I was the lowest of the low,’ [we] imperceptibly pass from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’….The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.”
In unreservedly bringing to light his moral failings, Clamence builds a bridge of sympathy with his victim, exposing their common fallenness and shared humanity. Revealing his own sin exposes theirs as well. While there is no hope for redemption at Mexico City, this revelation of ubiquitous depravity offers Clamence precisely what he desires, the justification to go on living the wanton, hedonistic life towards which he is inescapably drawn. “I continue to love myself and to make use of others. Only, the confession of my crimes allows me to begin again lighter in heart.” In a world without God, confession cannot bring redemption, but at least it lets us know that we are not alone in our fallenness.
What The Fall suggests, is that in a secular age dominated by what Charles Taylor calls ‘the ethics of authenticity,’ both the religious and irreligious feel condemned by their failure to live up to their self-determined sense of who they ought be. In some instances, this might lead us, with Clamence, to justify ourselves by saying ‘I am no worse than the other guy.’ Yet in others, it leads to what we might call a ‘pseudo-confession.’ Whether performed by a celebrity on Oprah or anyone on Instagram, such a ‘confession’ reveals one’s struggle to, for example, be the sort of parent or attain the body image which society expects. While this act appears similar to traditional acts of contrition and penance, it is rather different. In a medieval confession, my failure to adhere to the moral law subjected me to divine judgment.
In an age of authenticity it is the external, socially imposed norm which stands in the dock. For this reason, rather than receiving forgiveness and absolution, the pseudo-confessor is celebrated for their courage and society’s toxic standards are condemned. Again however, what this pseudo-confession achieves, like the confessions of Clarence, is a sense of human solidarity and common sympathy. Even in the most trite celebrity pseudo-confessions, we cannot help but sympathize with one willing to reveal their sorrow, disorientation, and sense of personal failure to others. Why? Because as Camus noted, we inevitably see in another’s confession our common human fallenness.
To recover the ‘sermon as confession,’ is to see how preaching might appeal to our common human experience, revealing — even in a secular age — a longing for redemption in the heart of every fallen child of Adam.
Confessing in the Presence of God
“I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise.” (Ps. 138:1, NRSV)
Augustine translates the opening words which the NRSV renders as ‘give thanks,’ as ‘confess,’ suggesting that: “the term confession in Scripture, when we speak of confession to God, is used in two senses, of sin, and of praise. But confession of sin all know, confession of praise few attend to.” Indeed, both the hebrew ydh and the Septuagint’s exomologeo are employed in a range of contexts across the Old Testament, at times referring to a confession or profession of praise or thanksgiving (Gen. 29:35; Psalm 54:8; Psalm 67:4) and at others to a confession or profession of sin (1 Kings 8:33, 35; Psalm 32:5). The key feature undergirding these various forms of confession, for Augustine, is found in the next phrase. A confession, whether of praise or sin, is an act performed ‘with one’s whole heart.’ The core of confession is its self-involving nature. It is not a dry, merely propositional claim, but involves the revelation of some need or longing of one’s inner self.
Augustine goes on to suggest, in line with the perverted use to which Clamence put confession in The Fall, that confession is unitive. In making public an aspect of our inner life, confessions reveal something basic to our existence which we share with others. It is thus an implicit invitation to solidarity and mutual sympathy, even amongst people who seem to share little in common. When the Psalmist proceeds to talk of ‘singing,’ Augustine thinks he refers to the basic human act of confessing joy. Everyone “sings” to something: “the wicked rejoices in his tavern, the martyr in his chain….Our heart is pregnant and comes to birth, and seeks where it may bring forth.” What Augustine suggests therefore, is that ‘confession’ is a characteristically creaturely, human act. It makes public some aspect of our inner life, often resulting in interpersonal unity; unity both between the self and God and between the self and other creatures.
Preaching is an act of confession in this broader sense. It exults in and professes our need for divine grace. While this sort of ‘confession’ can encompass a great many different ‘modes’— including lament, denunciation, exaltation, consolation, repentance, etc.— in every instance it will involve an act of interpersonal revelation, as we bring to light something of the way in which our deepest selves are in need of God. What makes the confessional form so suited to preaching? Confession maintains the relation and distinction between the preacher’s words and the divine Word.
Yes, the preacher is a creaturely means through which God speaks, but if this leads to the identification of the preacher’s words with God’s, we have bypassed the creatureliness and ‘sign’ character of the human words. Again, demands that the preacher’s mode of address isomorphically represent the characteristics of the divine Word (such as when an ‘authoritative’ or ‘declarative’ style is required of the preacher), have the unintentional tendency to elide this distinction and to — somewhat paradoxically — overly focus attention on the preacher’s particular words and modes of expression.
To employ a controversial way of speaking, preaching should instead be seen as almost ‘sacramental.’ In a sacrament, God’s personal presence is discerned in and through the medium of creaturely signs. These creaturely signs disclose something of God’s presence without being identified with his uncreated being. Of course, preaching does not replace the irreplaceable sacramental elements of water and bread and wine, but nonetheless this sacramental model is clarifying. In a sermon, the words of the preacher are not identified with the Word of God as such, but nonetheless, they are employed as creaturely signs to disclose his uncreated, vivifying presence.
To approach preaching as ‘confession’ then, keeps the creaturely, ‘sign’ character of the preacher’s words in view. Further, like all confessions, it unifies the preacher with their religious and irreligious audience, displaying, through the preacher’s act of self-revelation, their shared need for redemption. Finally, confession ultimately points away from the preacher to the object of his or her confession, i.e. God Himself.
As John Webster states, all churchly acts are “defined by confession — that is, by dispositions and activities which give expression to the fact that the centre of the church is not within but without itself…ministry is thus ostensive, a work of testifying.” Preaching is confession then, because in speaking the gospel our hope is not merely to talk rightly about God, nor that our words would be confused with His. Instead, the prayer of the preacher is that their feeble words might be set fire by the Spirit, facilitating an encounter with the divine other who lives, speaks, and acts for Himself, today. Surprisingly then, the self-involving nature of confession and testimony, which makes public the preacher’s need for grace, is a way of pointing away from oneself to the present presence and activity of the risen Christ via His Holy Spirit.
We are often implicitly disenchanted in our modern views of preaching and evangelism, acting as if a mute, distant, deist watchmaker requires us to speak on His behalf, or that the only divine ‘speech’ with which we are concerned is what God said long ago to scripture’s authors and not what he has to say to us today. A rich theology of Christ’s prophetic office, like what is found in Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV/3, shatters such barriers. We needn’t crawl back through the ages to the historical Christ or ascend from materiality to an unmoving Platonic realm. No, Christ is not “indolently resting,” trapped at a distance or in the past. Rather “in fulfilment of His prophetic work in the power of His Holy Spirit He strides through the ages still left to the world.” Like Saul’s stunned encounter on the Damascus road, Christ does not wait for us to make our way to him, but “encroaches…upon our human existence,” not as an object to be “viewed and understood…at a safe distance” but as a fully alive, self-revealing subject.
Christ still speaks for himself, taking up the faltering confessions of his messengers to make himself known. As an influential Puritan preaching manual suggests, preaching concerns “the demonstration (or shewing) of the Spirit,” which occurs when “all, even…unbelievers may judge” that our “speech and proclamation [are] not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
Preaching in a confessional mode has the capacity to unify the audience, whether religious or irreligious, in their common fallenness and need for grace, but further, it is supremely well suited to remind us that if their is the possibility of redemption for fallen men and women, it will be dispensed not by the hands or words of the preacher, but by the agency of the risen Christ by His Spirit.
Therefore, like the crooked finger of the Ishenheim Altarpiece, might the proclamation of the gospel in a secular age take the form of astonished indication and honest confession of our need for the life-giving presence of the risen Christ? As Lloyd-Jones rightly says: “I can forgive the preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is inadequate himself, he is handling something which is very great and very glorious.”
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- Three Vicars Talking, “Easter,” produced by Neil Morrow, released 12 Apr 2020, on BBC Radio 4. ↑
- e.g. Martin Lloyd-Jones seems to suggest that scripture’s authority requires a preacher to similarly adopt an authoritative style: “I would emphasize a sense of authority and control over the congregation and the proceedings. The preacher should never be apologetic, he should never give the impression that he is speaking by their leave as it were; he should not be tentatively putting forward certain suggestions and ideas. That is not to be his attitude at all. He is a man, who is there to ‘declare’ certain things.” Martin Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2011), 97. ↑
- https://www.proctrust.org.uk/proclaimer/cornhill/ ↑
- See footnote 2. ↑
- Albert Camus, The Plague, The Fall, Exile And The Kingdom And Selected Essays (New York: Knopf, 2004), 347. ↑
- Ibid., 352. ↑
- Ibid., 353. ↑
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 473-503. ↑
- Augustine “Expositions on the Psalms,” trans by J.E. Tweed, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 8. ed. Philip Schaff. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.), https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801138.htm. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- This more general employment of sacramental language can be found, e.g.: Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973). Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). For those uneasy with the drift of sacramental language, one could appeal more neutrally merely to a theology of participation, or one might appeal to Barth’s description of preaching in Church Dogmatics I/1. For Barth, preaching is a mode by which God makes himself present to the hearer by granting to human speech a capacity it does not intrinsically bear. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), I/1, 47-53. ↑
- John Webster, Word and Church (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2001), 202. ↑
- This undermines the fashionable derision sometimes directed towards evangelical ‘testimonies.’ They are not mere ‘entertainment’ as Lloyd-Jones suggests, nor are they ways of elevating the importance of our own stories over God’s. Lloyd Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 24. ↑
- Webster notes a similar set of trends in academic theology. John Webster, The Culture of Theology, ed. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 84-90. ↑
- Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, 663. ↑
- Ibid., IV/3.1, 202. ↑
- William Perkins, The Arte of Prophecying (London: By Felix Kyngston for E.E., 1607), Chp.X, p.131. ↑
- Ibid., Chp.X, p.134. ↑
- Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 110-1. ↑
- Particular thanks are due to Jake Meador, whose helpful comments led to a restructuring of this piece. ↑