In reading Stephen Cottrell’s challenging book, On Priesthood, I discovered that the subtitle, Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards is taken from the Church of England’s ordination rite. The metaphors of messenger, sentinel and steward go back to Cranmer’s original ordination service of 1550; while servant and shepherd were added in 1980.
I confess that of the five titles I was struck most by the freshness of the term ‘messenger’. My normal practice has been to speak of the ‘preacher’. But on reflection, that is a very ‘churchy’ term. What is more, the word ‘messenger’ gets to the heart of what preaching is all about: it is about delivering a message from God. Indeed, in the New Testament the word for a ‘preacher’ is a ‘herald’ (kerux), and a herald is essentially a messenger. For in the words of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington:
In the ancient world was like a ‘town crier’. His role was simply that of an announcer… The basic task of the herald was to publicly announce something to people who had not yet heard the news.
I then reflected on the term ‘message’. My normal practice has been to speak of the ‘sermon’; while others speak of the ‘homily’ or the ‘address’. But the drawback of words like ‘sermon’, ‘homily’’, and ‘address’ is that they too are very ‘churchy’. By contrast the word ‘message’ is simpler and much more to the point. And then I remembered that the NRSV uses the term ‘message’ for Paul’s preaching: so we read of “the message (literally, word, logos) of the cross” in 1 Cor 1.18; and “the message (‘word’) of reconciliation” in 2 Cor 5.19). While in 2 Tim 4.2 Paul tells Timothy to “proclaim (the Greek verb kerusso may also be translated as ‘announce’ or ‘declare’) the message (‘word’)”.
The more I think about the terms ‘messenger’ and ‘message’ the more I like them, and as a result I read with interest what Stephen Cottrell had to say about this metaphor. “The job of a messenger is to deliver a message! you have not written the message. You have just received it…. You just need to pass it on.” For Cottrell the message of the Christian faith in a nutshell is “the invitation to enjoy the fullness of life with God… This fullness of life has been secured for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; through him we have peace with God and access to God”. I loved the way in which Cottrell, himself a very able preacher, spells out the good news of the Gospel. Indeed, for Cottrell preaching is fulfilling Paul’s commission to Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4.5).
Cottrell goes on to emphasise that “priests need to embody and demonstrate the words they proclaim” (see 2 Cor 3.1-3). He adds: “The priest’s life of gentleness, forbearance, humility, and a readiness to forgive others because they know how much they need to be forgiven themselves, will speak of the Gospel”. Wow! Would that were true of every preacher!
I loved too the almost lyrical way in which Cottrell expands on the messengers’ task. “We do not need to be coercive or manipulative or judgemental. We just need to say what the gospel is for us and what it means in our lives. We need to declare its wonderful availability. We need to sing of its tremendous beauty. We need to explain its veracity and its uncomfortable challenges. We need to commend its efficacy. It works. At first that is all you need to say: I received the message and it has made this difference in my life.” Much as I believe in expounding the Scripture, I warm to this emphasis on what I would describe as personal ‘testimony’.
“Preaching”, says Cottrell, “is a crucial part of ordained ministry”. In that context he makes three important statements.
First, “preachers must have confidence in the power of the spoken word”. He encourages to “Look at a stand-up comic. People pay good money to listen to them speak for two hours or more… They have learned a trade that used to be ours: to speak winningly.”
Secondly, preachers need to work at their preaching skills – “this means mastering all the tricks of the oratorical trade”.
Thirdly, “preaching and all communication of the gospel message is essentially a spiritual discipline”. Cottrell quotes Lancelot Andrewes, a one-time Bishop of Winchester who helped to translate the Authorised Version of the Bible: “Let the preacher labour to be heard intelligently, willingly and obediently. And let him not doubt that he will accomplish this rather by the piety of his prayers than by his eloquence of speech… And approaching God with devotion, let him first raise to him a thirsting heart before he speaks of him with his tongue; that he may speak what he hath been taught and pour out what hath been poured in.”
Although there is nothing new about what Stephen Cottrell has to say about preaching, nonetheless, as one who has been a preacher for some 60 years, I was greatly encouraged by how ministers can live out their call to be ‘messengers’ of the Gospel.