Susie and I drove to Glasgow ten days ago, to Bishopbriggs to be precise, in a City Car Club car. Possibly in contravention of current lockdown restrictions here in Edinburgh. We went there in order to take two big cardboard trays of biblical commentaries, about a hundred books, to the nearest collection point for BookAid. Which is a charity which collects theological and other books, either for re-sale or for onward shipment to students in the Third World. It feels like the end of an era. From Wycliffe Hall days I always felt that building a library of commentaries was an important part of ordained ministry. And an essential tool in preparing sermons. But now that I’m not doing much preaching, and now that I prepare sermons rather differently, it just seemed like a waste of half a bookcase. And Susie wanted the space for all her clarinet music and paraphernalia.
Mark Ashton, one-time Vicar of the Round Church, Cambridge, once said that he had attended a couple of thousand church services before making a personal commitment. When I became a Christian in my mid thirties, at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, Oxford, it was largely through the preaching of Colin Bennetts, the then Rector. Colin was, to use an expression that I would not have known at the time. a ‘sane evangelical’. He had recently come to St Andrew’s after a spell as Chaplain at Jesus College, Oxford; and he preached on Sunday mornings by taking the lectionary readings [it was the era of Series Three morphing into the ASB], by seeking to explain them in their context, and then by suggesting ways in which the passages might speak to us today. There was usually a point in the sermon when he would say: “So what might this passage say to us today …”. It sounds basic. But for me it was very effective. One day Susie and I were having lunch with a school-friend, Ian Maclean, who in those days taught French literature at the Queen’s College and who had appeared unexpectedly in the congregation. “What I can’t stand about Colin”, he said to me, “is that each week his sermon is aimed directly at me.” “No, I don’t think so”, I told him; “I think it is me that Colin is getting at.”
Colin became a good friend to Susie and to me, and it was largely at his prompting that I found myself a candidate for ordination training. After surviving the selection process with some difficulty, I trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. By that time we were worshipping on Sundays at the parish church in Woodstock where we lived. The Rector in Woodstock was Edward Gregory Ambrose Wilford Page-Turner. He was tall and good-looking with silver hair, and much loved by some of the women in the parish. But preaching was not one of his gifts. So it was staff at Wycliffe, like Geoffrey Shaw and Gordon Ogilvie and David Wenham, who modelled for me expository preaching, using the pulpit to preach the Word of God, and praying for the Spirit to work among those in the pews.
It was doing my time at Wycliffe that I encountered Proclamation Trust, led by Dick Lucas and David Jackman, and Evangelical Ministry Assembly [EMA]. I signed up a couple of times for EMA, at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and sat through some classic expositions by Dick and others. One of the highlights was hearing John Stott expounding the Book of Acts. [Much of the stuff later appeared in his volume in The Bible Speaks Today: Acts. It’s a very good book, but the danger [temptation] is to skimp on sermon preparation and just to read the stuff out !] But Philip Jensen, the more strident of the two Australian brothers, [Peter had been a curate briefly at St Andrew’s] could make me very cross. And I think I dimly perceived that ‘Death by over-exposition’, a detailed and seemingly interminable examination of each word in the text, was a sort of predecessor of ‘Death by Powerpoint’ a few years later.
For complicated reasons when I was ordained in 1988 we came north to Scotland. I came to Edinburgh to be a curate at St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, out towards the airport. The Rector, Dennis Lennon, was the best preacher I ever heard. By a country mile. He was certainly a biblical preacher. But not an expositor in the EMA sense. His own model as a student had been Martyn Lloyd-Jones, ‘The Doctor’, the celebrated Welsh preacher at Westminster Chapel. But Dennis’s preaching had been influenced by years with OMF in Thailand and South East Asia, bringing the gospel to peoples of a very different language and culture. He then trained at Oak Hill and did a curacy at the Round Church in Cambridge. He read widely, and had a particular affection for the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar. Other influences included the theologians Karl Barth, Tom Torrance, and Austin Farrer, and George Herbert, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Ted Hughes among the poets.
Dennis had a gift for opening up new perspectives on Scripture [“How long do you have to look at a bush in the desert to see that it is burning, but not being consumed ?’] This was the beginning of a [long] evening service sermon, which later reappeared in [I think] The Eyes of the Heart. The message was on the importance of looking hard at things. I remember his preaching three weeks running, to the consternation of the congregation, on the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, because he wasn’t sure if he was getting it right. The last time I heard him preach was in Lyon in 2001. A few weeks after the bombing of The Twin Towers in New York he preached, memorably, on the story in Matthew 7 of The Two Houses, one built on the rock and the other on the sand. From the outside, there is no discernible difference – until the storms blow and troubles come.
Colin and Dennis were the best two preachers I have heard, and certainly had the most influence on my life. After you get ordained there is of course less opportunity to hear other people preach. Richard Holloway, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Edinburgh, was always stimulating. And often controversial. He came once to Duns and told the congregation: “Here are some words I found recently on a fridge door in New York … I get most of my theology from fridge doors nowadays”. I think as a more-or-less conservative evangelical, I was a bit disapproving ! In the same sermon he told the congregation, “I’m going to quote some well-know lines from Philip Larkin [‘They f— you up, your parents …], … and I’ll bowdlerise them in case there are any reporters from the Daily Mail here”. The congregation loved it. And loved him. [And there was a reporter there.]
Geoffrey Rowell, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Europe, was a different kind of bishop; he was a Tractarian Anglo-Catholic, most at home in an Oxford senior common room. He was also a different kind of preacher. My feeling was that his sermons, like some Orthodox theology, circled elegantly round a point that was never quite reached or articulated. More positively, on different occasions Peter Neilson, from the Church if Scotland, and David Smith, from ICC, Glasgow, came to preach for us in Lyon. And both were excellent.
Through connections with ICC, Richard Mayabi, then the priest of St Jerome’s Anglican Church in Kibera, in Nairobi, came to preach for us. He worked at that time in one of the biggest slums in Africa, and caught our imagination in Lyon as he spoke of a church community that was thriving in very difficult circumstances.
Here in retirement in Edinburgh we worship, when we are not elsewhere, in our local presbyterian church, in the Church of Scotland. Jared Hay, the previous minister, was an excellent preacher. And a very capable exponent of PowerPoint. [He also enlivened a sermon series on Revelation by dressing up as different characters in the story on successive Sundays.] Sadly his successor, though good with people and with children, seems to have little interest in engaging with scripture. I suppose I could have offered him my old commentaries. But I don’t know if he would have had much use for them.