“Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words”

Preachers ought not, I think, constantly to be preaching on political topics. As a student at an American University during the troubled Presidency of Richard Nixon, I recall a University chaplain who repeatedly made use of the pulpit for personal attacks upon the President. I don’t know what effect this had on the congregation in general; on me it merely created a disposition (unjustified, as it turned out) to give the President the benefit of the doubt. It also instilled in me a strong distrust of political preaching as such, and for the first ten years of my ministry I never once undertook it. When, however, I found myself in a position responsible for teaching Christian political thought, I judged that it was not possible to make the kind of separation between the classroom and the pulpit that this entailed, and must be prepared sometimes to venture further. Looking back over the last quarter-century now, I am astonished how often I have made political references, sometimes merely glancing and allusive, more rarely at the centre of a sermon. I have sometimes done it well, sometimes badly. I think I have learned the do’s and dont’s. To start with, here are three dont’s:

(i) Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands. It is more than probable that a congregation will contain some who are better informed and have better judgment than their clergy. It is ridiculous for a minister to assume the role of pundit, making pronouncements on what is really going on like a journalist with an inside source. What the preacher can do is to assist a Christian evaluation of such facts as are generally known.

(ii) Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

(iii) The preacher who expects to say something in Christ’s name about politics had better master a few basic concepts of Christian political thought. Few Christian interventions into political debate display any kind of conceptual sophistication. They sound naïve – not in the sense of being too idealistic, but simply by using words without appreciating their meaning. Every political term carries a complex freight: “rights”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”, “the state”, “law”, and so on. Such an elementary blunder as using “democratic” to mean “fair” betrays a level of incompetence that disqualifies the speaker as a guide to others. No preacher can introduce such ideas effectively without a basic sense of their relation to each other and to the Gospel: how does civil freedom relate to evangelical freedom? how do human rights relate to the righteousness of God? Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words.

With these warnings in mind, how may we preach on politics? The pulpit may only rightly be used for addressing the church’s own concerns. Those concerns are the truth of the Gospel and all that follows from it for Christian action. The justification for preaching on politics is exactly the same as that for preaching on the family or on money or on any secular concern: it assists Christians to bring an evangelical mind to bear on their responsibilities. Political deliberation is a responsibility of the members of the church inasmuch as they participate in a political society. But how one speaks will be determined by what is in view, which is to assist authentic Christian deliberation. One should not go on as though one were a statesman oneself, trying to get a certain decision taken, using every argument in its favour, good or bad, that might appeal to somebody: “the measure the government has brought forward is required by simple justice, is highly advantageous economically, and anyone who opposes it is hand in glove with right-wing extremism” etc. etc. The whole point is that the argument should be a Christian one that commends itself to any Christian conscience.

It is less important that those who hear you should concur in your conclusions than that they should respond positively to the principles from which you reason. When I address political questions I almost always adopt an exegetical form of sermon-structure, follow my text and the argument that arises from it, until it points irresistibly to some theologico-political principle. Then, in the lightest way possible, I give concreteness to the principle by showing how it bears on the public issue in question. Usually I do not bother to indicate my own view; it will be evident enough from the argument. If anyone disagrees with me, I hope that person will have been helped to articulate a more authentically Christian response, one which will take seriously the issues of principle I have raised. Everyone needs to come out with a clearer sense of what is unnegotiable for Christian conscience, and what, by contrst, is merely a matter of differing emphasis or differing interpretation of a given situation.

I do not trouble you with the useless advice that you should not be partisan. That says too much and too little. The notion that political deliberation is basically about the rival claims of competing parties is one which the church must do everything it can to challenge. Political deliberation is about understanding our situation truthfully. The whole emphasis has to fall on articulating the truths at issue. If there are no issues of truth, if it all comes down to which party will (let us say) manage the economy more skilfully, then there is no call for the church’s ministers to address the question in the first place. But if there is an issue of truth, it must be faced squarely. Truth demands partisanship; there is no impartiality between the claims of truth and error. Our success will depend on isolating the question of truth that demands our partisanship, and not confusing it with matters on which differing opinions are possible. To do this, we must avoid prejudging who is a friend of error, who a friend of truth. We must not assume that the truth is the privileged possession of one party. Truth is liberation for all, and demands repentance of all. It must be commended as available at once to the poor and to the tax collector. Its demand must not be addressed in one direction only – as though one party needed to do all the repenting, while the other could watch – and decide when they had done enough!

The authority of the prophet derives from a discernment of the concern which the Spirit lays upon the church at that moment. There is no reason to suppose that this concern will often be political, in the narrower sense of that word. (More broadly, it will always be political, since the church’s own life is the founding political reality.) But there is no reason to be alarmed if, on any occasion, the concern of the church opens into a critical perspective on secular political events. “To convince of sin, righteousness and judgment” is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), which must sometimes, surely, take the form of defining a position in relation to such evils as abortion, nuclear deterrence, unemployment, North-South inequities and so on. We would be less than faithful preachers of the Gospel if we made our minds never to venture onto such terrain. But to do it usefully we have to risk controversy. We will be of little use to the Holy Spirit if we save our denunciations for those evils on which we can be sure there will be little difference of opinion among our hearers. Controversy may be healthy or unhealthy. It will be unhealthy if we announce our conclusions and declare, “Take them or leave them!” It will be healthy if we lead the church through the task of Christian deliberation from first principles, so helping those who differ to find the Christian ground on which they stand and building up the church’s unity in the Gospel. In that way the judgment of the Spirit proves itself authentic, drawing the line between the Gospel and despair, between belief and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, and lighting the way for the confession of Christ in the centre of each new situation.

Oliver O’Donovan

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3 Responses to “Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Before his retirement, Dr O’Donovan taught ethics at New College, Edinburgh, and the University of Oxford. He is the author of the modern classic Resurrection and Moral Order. He has recently completed his three volume magnum opus Ethics as Theology.


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Perhaps it is for the church to say society must care for the poor, the sick and the elderly, but leave it to the politicians to determine how to administer the social security system, healthcare and pensions to best advance this aim.


  3. Pingback: Links Post 4/02/17 | Alastair's Adversaria

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