There is power in preaching. If you were someone who struggled to believe that before Saturday’s royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, you surely must now. After all, here we are some 48 hours or more after the event and people are still talking about Bishop Michael Curry’s ‘show-stealing’ sermon. What makes Curry’s sermon even more remarkable is the fact that it is not just the choir talking about it. It was on the front pages of this morning’s newspapers. It was being discussed on the television and radio breakfast shows. It was being set up to be the topic of conversation at the tea-break for workers up and down the country. Perhaps it is only preacher envy, which leads me to wonder whether anybody has ever remembered (let alone commented upon) one of my sermons some 48 hours or more after its delivery. Nevertheless, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, “What does it matter? Christ is preached (to millions around the globe, at that!), and in that I rejoice!
So, why has Michael Curry’s sermon caused the stir it has? Was it because he preached for twice as long as he was meant to, as the Daily Mailreported this morning? I doubt it. A 14-minute sermon might be 14 minutes longer than most Brits are accustomed to listening to, but it hardly counts as long—ask my congregation at Holy Trinity what they tolerate from me! I believe Diana Evans, writing for The Guardian, is somewhat closer in her analysis, suggesting that “It was a sermon that will go down in history as a moment when the enduring seat of colonialism was brought before the Lord, and questioned in its own house.” Undoubtedly, Curry’s fiery delivery and informal demeanour were more apparent for having been unleashed in the Establishment’s own chapel. Indeed, what a damning indictment of the state of preaching in the Church of England if Curry’s sermon confounds all popular perceptions of what a sermon ought to be: short, stuffy and stiff-lipped.
So, let me ask the question again: why has Michael Curry’s sermon caused the stir it has? Unquestionably his identity as a black, Chicago-born American, who is known for speaking out on social justice issues including the campaign for ‘equal-marriage’, played a part. Indeed, I suspect that his advocacy for LGBT rights helped secular listeners feel comfortable that they could endorse the ‘love’ about which he spoke. Moreover, as I mentioned above, his delivery was also lively and engaging. Although he had a script, a preacher like me can tell, at times he also ad-libbed to good effect (also helping to explain why he overran his allotted 7 minutes). He preached from an iPad. He used his body. He modulated his voice for special emphasis. Forgive the inappropriate analogy, but it was a good ‘performance’. It was not only the words he preached, but the wayhe preached, which conveyed the message. Again, it makes me think that the caricature of Anglican sermons (heightened on grand occasions like this) is more akin to a lecture read by a knowledgeable but monotonous professor.
A factor I have not yet mentioned is rhetorical skill. I heard somebody say that they counted 68 uses of the word ‘love’. I confess, I have not checked the transcript for myself, but I can believe it. There is no doubt about his message. Love. Power. Fire. These are the words he repeats over and over again. Thus, there is little room for mistaking his theme: love is powerful, like a fire. Deliberate or otherwise, the rhetoric is simple, but profound (a laMLK himself). So, have we at last stumbled across the reason for the sermon’s success? Alas, no. It was (thankfully for the sake of hope for the Church of England), the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who hit the nail on the head, saying: “This was raw God and that’s the business.” Indeed. as the apostle Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, the secret of preaching is not the lofty words or wisdom of the preacher, but the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.
Any time preaching ‘works’, it is because the Holy Spirit has taken hold of the preacher’s words (eloquent or not) and made them more than the sum of their parts—an event of the Word of God Himself. Just as the Spirit makes bread and wine effectual signs of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, so the Spirit makes human words a participation in Christ’s very own speech wherever He is proclaimed. It is for this reason that the apostle Paul can rejoice that Christ is proclaimed, whether from ill motives or pure (Philippians 1:15). John Wesley was surely right when he claimed that God can speak through even the worst preacher in London (and Huddersfield, also, I hope). This in no way to equate Curry with the worst preacher in London(!), but rather to emphasise that when preaching ‘works’ we must give credit where credit is due: to God—a rather fitting lesson to learn again on Pentecost weekend, when the Church remembers how the Spirit came and gave Jesus’ tongue-tied disciples a voice to proclaim ‘the mighty deeds of God’.
On Saturday, God spoke through Bishop Michael Curry, and millions of people in the United Kingdom and around the world, heard Him (though, doubtless, most thought they merely heard human words). For that, I am immensely grateful. And yet, I confess to having come away from the sermon with some questions of my own. The imagery upon which Curry drew was clearly biblical, provided for him in that reading from the Song of Solomon, yet his sermon was not biblical in the sense of referring back to the text. Does that matter? I am inclined to say that this was a faithful, if rather loose, interpretation of the biblical text, which is understandable given the audience and context. Developing a similar line of thought, was this sermon an example of preaching ‘religionless Christianity’ (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase)? Curry’s use of the apparently universal word ‘love’ as his theme and his light use of explicit calls to God or Jesus spoke to people without assuming a ‘religious’ frame of reference. Again, does that matter? Perhaps. It depends what we mean by ‘love’.
For me, the biggest critique I have about Curry’s sermon is its possible Christology (i.e. what is says about who Jesus is). You see, I do not believe that ‘love’ is a word with universal meaning. I believe that when Christians use the word ‘love’, we mean something very different to what other people mean when they use the word ‘love’. That is not meant as a criticism of non-Christian understandings of love; instead, what I mean to say is that as a Christian, the word ‘love’ has no meaning or content for me outside of the person of Jesus Christ, who is, I believe, Love Incarnate (hence why it is an issue of Christology). To be sure, Curry spoke of love as something unselfish, sacrificial, kind and just, and he rightly said that this is the way of Jesus Himself. However, I would have liked Curry to go a little further still, for Jesus is not just a fine example of love in action, though He is that. No, He is simply Love. Full stop. In short, my Christological assumption is that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is not just an instance of love, but the very paradigmatic measure and definition of love.
Many will no doubt think me pedantic here. Perhaps I am being pedantic. But, to me, there is a potentially important issue at stake. God is not just, as Curry rightly said, the source of love; God is also the sustaining power of love. In other words, God is not simply love’s origin, which we then appropriate for ourselves. God is Himself love’s Power. Curry certainly gave a rousing appeal to the power oflove, but I was left asking, “But where is the Power tolove?” Curry was right. Love ispowerful. Love isa burning fire. But the power of love can only be unleashed where people receive the Power to love, which is Christ Himself through the Holy Spirit. Perhaps Curry could have been more clear here. Perhaps Curry could have been more explicit in saying that we love because God first loved us. Perhaps he could have drawn out Jesus’ words in John 15 that apart from Him, we can do nothing. Though, I acknowledge that he went over his time as it was! My fear is that people could go away thinking, “You know what, love is powerful. I need to love a little more”—ultimately, a form of love-moralism. Like I said, perhaps, I am just a pedantic preacher not wanting people to go away hearing the wrong thing.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wisely observes that what many people “mean when they say that God is love is often something quite different: they really mean ‘Love is God’. They really mean that our feelings of love, however and wherever they arise, and whatever results they produce, are to be treated with great respect.” Love is not an abstract principle or idea by which God is measured or to which God is held accountable. When Christians speak about love, they are speaking about “the living, dynamic activity of love [that] has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.” They are speaking about the eternal self-giving love of the Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which was revealed once and for all in the total event of Jesus of Nazareth. There is a subtle but crucial difference between someone who typifieslove and someone whose very life islove. Christians believe that Jesus is the latter. He does not merely give us an approximation of love in unselfish sacrifice. He Himself is, in the poetic words of Charles Wesley (much loved at weddings), Love Divine, all loves excelling. However, I suspect that had Bishop Michael Curry uttered such a bold, foolish-sounding and exclusive claim, his sermon would have met with much more scandal than its merely being 14 minutes long.