What did you come out to see?

This is an expansion of some quick thoughts I shared on Facebook last night in response to some of the criticisms I’ve seen of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon. I write both as someone who has given my fair share of feedback and criticism over the years, and as someone who has received plenty of feedback as a pastor and preacher. 

What was God saying to us?

I stick to the view that sermons are best heard with a posture if being ready to hear the Holy Spirit speak to us. That doesn’t mean we don’t discern or that we can’t assess but I can’t help thinking that our rush to critique Justin Welby’s sermon reflects a cultural tendency to listen to sermons to quickly critique rather than first hear what God is saying to us. 

On most occasions when someone comes and criticises my preaching, there is plenty of fair comment. I may not have got a theological point exactly right, I may have put too much emphasis here or there, I may have slipped into eisegesis (imposing my own opinions on the text) affecting my exegesis (seeing what the text actually says), preached for too long, lacked enough passion etc.  Some of those criticisms will be about specific failings on the day and some will reflect longer standing limitations.  I can do something about exegetical mistakes and timing, I can do very little if you just happen to find my voice boring!

I do need to hear the feedback at some point and so does any pastor or preacher. However, the desire of every preacher at that point is that first of all, you will take time to consider where God may be speaking to you. We don’t want the sermon to become some kind of test of technical ability or springboard for philosophical discussion. We believe that when we open and expound Scripture that the Holy Spirit is at work. We pray that our hearers will be open to this. Incidentally, sometimes the speediest and harshest criticism tells us more about where Gods has been challenging the listener than anything else.

In terms of the Archbishop’s sermon, I hope that as believers, we were encouraged again to be reminded that we have resurrection hope.  I hope too that we were challenged not to cling on to worldly power and control, however small amount we have and cling to Christ alone. It is you and I, not just Kings and Queens who say with Charles Wesley “Till we cast our crowns before thee.”

What was happening and what were the preacher’s priorities?

I think a lot of people got hooked on the “it’s 4 billion people” and forgot the “it’s a funeral bit’. A pastor speaking at a funeral is first and foremost a pastor. This is important because I think we can overlook the challenge Archbishop Welby had. In effect, there at least four five different audiences and we might think of them sitting as concentric rings.

The inner circle was the immediate family, friends, staff etc that knew her Majesty well. This will have included incidentally, many who served in the Church of England. The Queen had a church family as well as a flesh and blood family. The circles overlap of course, some in the other circles would also have counted themselves among her friends and spiritual family.

The next circle out was those in the abbey who had come as guests and dignitaries, the great and the good. These included celebrities and powerful world leaders.  They were there to pay their respects, some out of deep respect and affection, others because it was their duty to be there and still others who needed or wanted to be seen to be there.  Incidentally, it is not unusual at a funeral, wedding or many another event to have a similar circle of onlookers even if you are not likely to be preaching to the President of the United States.

However, there were others looking on from two outer circles. It was not just about the people in the room, there were many watching on via TV and social media.  This has perhaps been more of an experience for pastors since the pandemic but not on the scale we saw on Monday. There was a circle looking on which was representative of the UK population, a nation mourning a dearly loved head of state who was in effect a mother figure to the country. 

Finally, there was the wider world looking on. Some have suggested that the audience was up to 4 billion.  I suspect that’s an over estimate, especially in terms of how many will have watched the whole thing rather than clips and snippets or having it on in the background. 

The point is this. Whenever you or I preach, or indeed speak in any capacity, there is often more than one audience. Often what we have to do is to determine which audience we will prioritise whilst allowing others to overhear.  Justin Welby could have chosen to prioritise any of those four audiences. If he had prioritised the world leaders looking on or the wider TV audience around the world, then he will have in effect asked the friends and family to be the backdrop to a political rally or a TV broadcast.  Instead what I think happened was that we were invited from the outside to watch and observe a genuine funeral service.  He prioritised those sat right in front of him. That doesn’t mean he didn’t say anything to other audiences or ignore them. However, the expectation for those was that they should listen in.

I’ve often been critical of the Archbishop that at times he seems to have forgotten that he is first and foremost a pastor, not a political leader. I believe that at the funeral, he spoke first and foremost as a pastor and that gave a good foundation for him to say other things.

It should be the case that when we are invited to overhear, then we can trace back implicitly what we need to hear. If I preach to a congregation and primarily am teaching believers then my desire is also that unbelievers visiting can overhear and trace back the Gospel application to their own lives.

What would you or I have done?

It’s worth remembering that when we critique an Archbishop’s sermon at a wedding or a funeral, then people are able to ask “but would you have done it any differently?”  Whilst few of us are likely to preach at such high profile occasions, most preachers have spoken at funerals and/or weddings at some point. 

Not only can people ask “what would you have done?” They can check it out for themselves.  Brothers, I’ve spoken at and been at enough weddings, funerals, baby dedications and even baptisms to have an idea of the answer. The reality is that if we are honest, then most of us would have done very little different, if anything at all. You might have made a little bit more mention of something the person had said about Jesus, you might have drawn out a slightly different aspect of the readings given. However, I think that all of us would have recognised that we could not say everything about the Gospel in a 5-10 minute address on an occasion when people weren’t actually mindful to sit and listen for a long time to us.  We would have sought to bring the Gospel and placed the emphasis on an application of it pertinent to the occasion. Incidentally, in my experience, nine times out of ten, that means we would have placed the emphasis on the hope of resurrection.

My friend Steve Kneale has written about the sermon. I had a few clues from comments he made that the article was coming and I was intrigued as to what he was going to say.  Steve is openly republican with little time for pomp and ceremony, he’s also about as un-Anglican as you can get and he’s very direct. So, I expected him to pen a strongly worded criticism.  I’m sure he has criticisms of the sermon (as a mentor said to me after first hearing me preach “It wasn’t perfect – and that’s good news!”). However, Steve wrote:

I was encouraged, for example, that we were pointed to the fact that Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ He noted that the disciples were not told ‘how to follow, but who to follow’. The Queen’s example we were instructed to consider was about ‘who she followed’. All of that was encouraging. Clearly Jesus was being shown to at least have something to do with matters. We were, encouragingly, reminded that Jesus came ‘to serve, not to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many.’


I hope that if given the opportunity to preach at a funeral then those are the things that would come through.

What have we been doing?

As I mentioned above, I think that we got a little caught up in those big numbers of potential viewers.   And with those numbers we treated Justin more like the star centre forward. The language was about whether or not he would “smash it” and “knock it out of the park.”  Some of the comments beforehand suggested that people didn’t expect him to and even that they were almost waiting for and willing him to fail. All the weight of expectation was on him, instead of with our brother looking to Christ and to the Spirit.

So if our expectation was that this was some great golden opportunity then that must mean we also expected people to be curious and to be coming to have s look at what British Christians were making of it all. So what will they have found if they came. We may think we could have done a better job than the Archbishop but did we?

I know my blog got some extra traffic these last few days. What have people found as they came to our blogs and social media. Would they have found the gospel there? Now, look, I don’t expect every Christian blogger to be purely putting up little e-tracts and nor do I expect us to feel compelled to write evangelistically for every topical event.  On my own blog I do try to write about a range of things because part of my aim is to model thinking Christianly about everything from the life of the local church through to geo-political stuff. 

However, if you are on social media or write blogs, it is important to remember that if you are a pastor, elder or other leader in the church that you cannot simply treat those places as somewhere to go and put on a different persona.  You don’t stop speaking as a pastor. 

Most importantly, we are meant to worship and witness with the whole of our lives. So, my hope is that God is glorified and the Gospel shines forth on our blogs and in our tweets just as much as it does in our sermons. Brothers and sisters, before we are quick to challenge what the Archbishop said in his sermon, we may do well to look at the content and tone of what we’ve been saying.

Finally, I’ve seen some fantastic messages to the effect that if people found the funeral helpful they should try church on Sunday. Will we be ready for them and what will they find if they get there?

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