There have been plenty of good sermons that I have heard; plenty that expressed incisive insights and profound truths; plenty that made congregations examine themselves; plenty that sent out people with questions to answer about their own attitudes and their own lives. There have also been some very bad sermons.
It is thirty years since I heard the worst of them. A church was packed with a congregation comprised of many from the local parish and many more visitors. The preacher began as if in the middle of a conversation and continued in a series of disjointed thoughts. A colleague complained that at least if the preacher had begun with a sentence of Scripture, there might at least have been one thing to remember.
More recently, a preacher speaking on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist suggested that were John teaching now, he would not be on the banks of the Jordan river, but might be found in a coffee shop, drinking a skinny latte. It was the most absurd misrepresentation of John the Baptist I had ever heard. The colleague from thirty years ago might have suggested that here was another preacher who might usefully have shared verses of Scripture – at least they might have spoken of John as he was, and not as a middle class reinvention without the capacity to disturb or arouse hostility, as John did.
The list of bad sermons grew this weekend. Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, was always a special date in the church calendar. It marks the visit to the Temple in Jerusalem of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus when Jesus was forty days old. It is the moment that gives us the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, so beloved of those who enjoy choral evening services. Candlemas celebrations can be transcendent moments. At Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin it was the occasion for the singing of Benjamin Britten’s sublime Ceremony of Carols. Cathedrals are places to which people go for such moments.
The preacher at the Candlemas celebration spoke of Wilfred Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Owen’s telling of the story of the old man Abraham challenged by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. God intervenes and Isaac his saved. In the poem, the old man Abraham slays Isaac, and then the sons of Europe, one by one. The preacher suggested this was analogous to Brexit, the old holding onto power and sacrificing the future of the young, whereas at the Presentation of Christ, Simeon and Anna handed the future to the younger generation.
A moment that might have been sublime was reduced to the banalities of the internecine conflict that marks English politics. Had it not occurred to the preacher that Mary and Joseph would have been acutely aware of the politics of their time? Had it not occurred to the preacher that Saint Luke might have made many party political points? Brexit may be a piece of self-immolation, but on a cold February evening, cathedral worship should be something that transcends the horrible realities of life outside.