Preaching at St Peter's

How often have you sat in the pew listening to sermons? Have you ever wondered how the preacher feels and how they prepared their message? We asked our placement student - Simon Cartwright – to tell us a bit about what it is like to preach at St Peter’s and to offer his reflections on a recent sermon

When I arrived at St Peter’s I knew I would be asked to preach. This was ok, as I had preached before. But then I discovered I had to use the pulpit, I have never used a pulpit before and it feels very strange standing so high up. It did not help my nerves to walk up the steps in a cassock either - I was convinced I was going to trip over!

On a more positive note, I am pleased the church now has a good P.A. system - it means I don’t have to use a ‘preaching voice’ that can sound rather confrontational. Instead, I deliberately slowed down, quietened my voice and offered spaces for reflection.

So how do you prepare a sermon? Well long before I sit down to write, I read the passages and in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘allow time to sink deeply into it, as to really hear what the passage says’. Having prayed and deliberated, I distil the passage into a single sentence to focus the direction of the sermon.

This process helps me identify the specific challenge to present and what kind of response I am expecting. The nature of the challenge really depends on the mood of the congregation, for I am convinced that preachers must tap into the feelings and needs of the congregation.

So for instance when I preached in January [2005] I was aware this time of year can be hard with cold dark nights. At the same time I was aware of uncertainty in the congregation about the future of worship at St Peter’s with the conversations commenced with St Mary’s. At the same time I recalled the recent tsunami and Rowan Williams’ comment that ‘times like this can shatter faith’.

The theme on that particular Sunday was Candlemas and this resonated throughout the service in the prayers, hymns and anthem. I particularly noted the collect, which spoke about Christ coming as a light dispelling the darkness. As I reflected on the ideas of light and dark, I turned to the bible commentaries. I know that at St Peter’s we do not like verse-by-verse analysis but I was equally keen to allow the biblical text to lie at the foundation of all I had to say.

I reckoned the readings spoke about God breaking into places of human weakness. In particular, I mused on the inter testament period - characterised as a Great Silence and that Candlemas is when we recall God’s glorious light breaking into that darkness. One commentary on the wedding at Cana (the gospel passage for the day) noted the feeling of anguish for those waiting for God to speak. We can see it in Mary’s exchange with her son and it might be why John calls this first miracle a sign revealing Christ’s glory.

As I was mulling this over I found God challenging me through St John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish Monk who wrote extensively on the spirituality of how God meets us in dark places.

So what did I actually have to say? I started with a reflection on darkness in our souls, and then how God reveals himself in the darkness, but recognising we needed to wait with him through the darkness until we ultimately see the glory of the Lord shine through. I was aware I needed to offer opportunity for a response: I felt the Eucharist signs of bread and wine reflected the scripture readings and offered this as an opportunity for people to turn to God in dark places.

I was surprised at the reaction to this sermon - several people who have never spoken to me before thanked me personally saying the sermon related to their situation and I had helped them. I hope this short article will do the same.

Simon Cartwright
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 12th March 2005