When the preacher speaks of matters that concern perfection, it leaves him cold; when he tells stories of those who have stood out for their zeal for righteousness, his mind begins to wander. If a sermon starts off on the subject of continence, his head begins to nod; if it goes on to speak of sanctity, he falls asleep. But if the preacher speaks about the forgiveness of sins, then your humble Christian wakes up. This is talk about his own condition; he knows it from the tone. His heart rejoices; he opens his mouth; he waves his hands; he heaps praise on the sermon: for this is on a theme that concerns him.
-Jacob of Sarug, late 500s, quoted by Peter Brown, ‘The Decline of the Empire of God’, in Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman, p. 41.
In 789, Charlemagne issued a General Admonition to the Frankish domains concerning a variety of aspects of church life and canon law. This text sets out the official, governmental impetus behind the Carolingian Renaissance. Driving this renaissance was a desire to see reform in the kingdom whereby people would live Christianly and virtuously, united in peace under the king.
Although this desire seems lost to the sands of time about a hundred years later, when Notker’s Life of Charlemagne portrays the king’s primary interest in church reform as being liturgical and conduct being tied primarily not to morality but to official church discipline, one of the core elements of Charlemagne’s proposed reform is preaching:
61. To all. Before all else, that the catholic faith is to be diligently taught and preached to all the people by the bishops and priests, because this is the first commandment of the Lord God almighty in the law: ‘Hear, O Israel, that the Lord your God is one God. And that He is to be loved with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength’ [Mark 12. 29-30: cf. Deut. 6. 4-5] (trans. P D King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p. 214)
In the final chapter (ch. 82) of the General Admonition, Charlemagne provides the content of the catholic faith which is to be preached, which is essentially an expanded creed with moral instruction. The text ends:
… let us prepare ourselves withall our heart in knowledge of the truth, that we may be able to resist those who oppose the truth and that, by the gift of divine grace, the word of God may flourish and become general spread, to the benefit of God’s holy church and the salvation of our souls and the praise and glory of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Peace to those who preach, grace to those who obey, glory to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, 220)
I am fully aware that there is much debate about reform in the Middle Ages and what it means, but it strikes me that the preaching of the catholic faith and the word of God has always been central to the activity of reforming the church. In the Carolingian world, even if St Boniface (d. 754, saint of the week here) may have exaggerated or misconstrued things in some of his letters from the years prior to Charlemagne, Christianity did not always go very deep. Rosamond McKitterick writes:
In a society half barbarous, with pagan customs still happily observed (especially among the country folk), with only a veneer of Christianity, and largely isolated pockets of scholarship, every reiteration of the urgency of being educated in the Christian faith, of inculcating and absorbing the wisdom of the church fathers, assumes an enormous importance. (The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895, 8)
To jump ahead four hundred years, preaching was central to the mission of the Dominicans and Franciscans at a time when lay knowledge of the faith all claimed to know was at an alarming low and when the powerful trod upon the weak and ecclesiastics were becoming great men of the world. The Gospel was taken by the friars from the pulpits to the streets.
In the Reformation, preaching again took centre stage. The sermon, ever an aspect of the Mass, was lifted back to a place of prominence, and the Scriptures were opened up yet again to a biblically illiterate laity. In England, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer integrated preaching into the daily office as well as lengthening the lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer. Many of the Reformed rebuilt their churches with pulpits at the centre and would have preaching events every morning before the faithful went to work.
In the 1700s, the Wesley brothers, like the mediaeval friars, once again took the Gospel from the pulpits to the crowds, and pioneered open-air preaching to the working classes, revitalising the life of the Church of England while at the same time starting the Methodist movement.
Today, if we wish to see the church change itself and the world, preaching will still be central. Preachers will set forth the Gospel from their pulpits, from their podcasts, from their YouTube channels. Open-air? Not so sure. But what I do know is that powerful preaching can transform the faithful who can transform the world. Let us all pray for our ministers as they take in hand that task each Sunday morning.