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Class in the Pulpit

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Posted by Tim Ward, 13 Aug 2020

In this extract from his chapter in 'Feed My Sheep', Tim Ward considers the impact that social class has had on evangelical preaching in the UK.

In his book A History of Preaching, the historian Edwin Charles Dargan, makes the following judgment of Anglican preaching in the nineteenth century:

Broadly speaking…there was too much stateliness, precision, carefully worked out elegance or the attempt at it. There was want of flexibility, familiarity, humanness. The discourse was too aloof from life, however high it might soar in thought and feeling.

This reality was of course due to a complex web of factors. One, however, seems significant, and remains so for us because it still holds today, at least in part. That is the fact that the ranks of Anglican clergy tend to be drawn disproportionately from those of higher social classes and those educated at a certain group of universities which are regarded as the distinguished ones – and this more so than would be true of nonconformist pastors.

This is probably less marked than it once was, especially among younger generations. But I think a good case can be made that it still often holds true, especially among those who hold positions of senior and national leadership.

It is not a surprise that in the nineteenth century a certain aloofness from the earthiness of ordinary life and an attempted stateliness of expression was the natural form of pulpit-speech for those who were naturally inclined to join the established church, rather than any dissenting body.

In the twentieth century, the two great influences on evangelical Anglican preaching have been John Stott and Dick Lucas. What both men made prominent – and this seems to be in contrast to much nineteenth-century preaching – was a commitment to that old Puritan value of plainness in preaching, showing no concern to impress with high-sounding rhetoric or displays of erudition. And what both men in their own way recovered and put into blistering practice was the need for preaching to be thoroughly expository.

The influences of these two men have been enormous and hugely for our benefit. What cannot be ignored, however, is that there are some in the British Isles who feel that evangelical Anglican preachers as a body have never entirely escaped from the judgement passed on their nineteenth-century forebears.

Some feel that the sociological and educational background of those who tend to be attracted to an established church still results in Anglican preaching often being characterised by the general communication styles of such folk: an inclination to downplay expressions of feeling and emotion; a consequent distance or aloofness from everyday life as many people experience it; a resulting tendency (among less gifted preachers, at least) to dullness rather than excitement in preaching.

Many Anglican preachers hearing or reading this will feel their hackles rising, judging that I am unfairly stereotyping them. In many cases I probably am. What I am noting, though, is that the Church of England’s unusual role as the established church of the land has resulted in the body of Anglican clergy reflecting as a whole something of the particular sociology of England. Indeed it would be surprising if that were not the case. And that in turn has had an impact on the styles of communication which those clergy find come most naturally to them. To deny this would, I think, be naive about human nature in general and English society and the history of the Church of England in particular.

Tim Ward is lecturer in homiletics at Oak Hill Theological College

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