Well, Bishop Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding has certainly been provoking some reaction. If a measure of a sermon’s success is its ability to get attention and a response, job done! The reaction appears to fall into 4 main categories
1. Those who think it was a wonder sermon, full of passion, hope and something of the Gospel coming through on a public stage
2. Those who think it was inappropriate, too theatrical and apparently too long (a shock to reformed expository preachers given it came in at all of 13 minutes).
3. Those who felt it was a missed gospel opportunity, could have said more and in fact said things that were in error and misleading.
4. Those who just want everyone to enjoy the fact that it was a lovely wedding sermon. Those who critique and analyse a wedding sermon, especially theologically have a problem with themselves, need to lighten up and get out a bit more..
With point 4 in mind, I want to step gently into this minefield and suggest that yes, even though it was a wedding sermon, indeed maybe most of all because it was a wedding sermon, it is absolutely right and proper for people to be reacting to it, thinking about it, engaging with it and evaluating it.
First of all, even though it was a wedding sermon, reaction is appropriate because it was more than a wedding sermon. It was a public sermon broadcast to millions. Now, part of the “don’t criticise” response seems to be tied up with a belief that the Church of England is essentially an establishment instrument and so has a duty to lift the national mood. I want to suggest that even if you see a place for an establishment church, that should never be its job. The point of having a national church is not for it to be the state’s instrument but so that the state recognises that it must bow to a higher throne.
Now, because the sermon was a public sermon, it meant that lots of people were watching and listening. They were over-hearing something. This meant that people with no faith, different faiths and little/fragile faith were listening. What were they hearing. Was it helpful to them? Also, it was heard in a context. The Presiding Bishop had been very publicly and warmly endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This suggests that who he is, what he believes and what he preaches tells us a little bit more about what Justin Welby thinks, values and prioritises. For our Anglican brothers and sisters, and for those of us who care about what happens in the Anglican Communion, there is the small matter of the controversy and division in that church and the split between the US Episcopalian church and much of the rest of the Anglican Communion. People were naturally watching to see what he had to say.
The Sermon also matters, specifically because it was a wedding sermon. Jesus once went to a wedding and did a miracle turning water into wine. The best man comment was that Jesus had done something unique, normally the cheap wine gets served when everyone is already somewhere between tipsy and drunk because they wont notice its taste so much. Jesus, the best man comments, has served the best wine last. There’s something deeply contrary to that spirit in a view that says weddings and funerals are sentimental affairs, people aren’t really listening too much to the words, so your job as the preacher is simply to be short and sentimental too. It feels like we are saying “They won’t notice, serve up the cheap stuff.”
No, you have been asked to come and speak God’s word, to bring Biblical truth at a very crucial point in their life. In this particular case, the preacher had been flown in at great expense from the States. He owed (and here you get a bit of a feeling for where my assessment is going) a lot more than to simply turn up and pull out of his pocket a fairly generic speech unrelated to their specific circumstances and show off your oratory skills. On a pastoral level. On a pastoral level, here you have a young couple who:
– Each of them has a very publicly known past. He has had a string of lovers and failed relationships. She has been divorced. So, there’s all the potential anxiety about past baggage.
– They come from broken and complicated families. Their parents were separated, his mum died tragically.
– Their roles in life are changing and uncertain. He is the 2nd son of the heir to the throne but he is also now a long way removed from the line of succession. She is choosing to give up her successful career.
I would suggest that:
1. Yes, a sermon about love and hope is relevant to their circumstances.
2. That, pastorally -even if it means dropping down the rhetorical flourishes a bit and even speaking (shock horror) a little longer, that you as the wedding preacher have a responsibility to apply your sermon practically -just as you would on a Sunday.
3. That, it is possible to do all of that sensitively. I’ve heard it done frequently by loving pastors.
Wedding sermons matter and that’s why it is worthwhile taking time to look at this one.
Now, I’m planning to pick up on the content of the sermon in a couple of posts. As I mentioned above this was divisive and fascinatingly it seems to have divided opinion among evangelicals. I think there are a few reasons for this:
– The sermon certainly contained gospel words, phrases and themes and many people picked up on these positive things.
– Others picked up on what it did not say -and where those words and phrases could have gone further. Now, the argument is that you cannot say everything but I think the challenge here is covered b, some of the other words and phrases in the sermon that jarred -and perhaps gave the context to interpreting the positive words and phrases.
One last comment. Remember, we hear things in context. The preacher came with a background. Some people will not have delved into that. They just heard the words on the day. Others know something of the church politics and the preacher’s theological position. They have seen how those words and phrases take on a meaning within that theological tradition which causes concern. That’s where the challenge comes from.
I will pick up on the content in a bit more detail in the next couple of posts.