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Why I don't preach on abortion

  • 08 December 2011

Preaching is not a highly esteemed activity. When people are accused of preaching they are held to be boring, moralising and bullying. Those qualities presumably were found earlier in sermons preached in church. They may also perhaps be discerned in articles on preaching.

But the questions to which preachers are asked to respond usually have more to do with the subject matter of their sermons than of their style. I am often asked, for example, if I preach on abortion and, if not, why not. The questioners sometimes kindly supply me with the answer. If I do not preach on abortion, it is surely because I am afraid of alienating my liberal friends.

Such questions and imputed answers are quite helpful. They remind us preachers that preaching is not a solitary sin but one in which other people are complicit. They also make us reflect on which topics we choose and avoid, and on why we do so.

The questions put to preachers reflect the fact that sermons are an asymmetrical form of communication. Preachers stand in a hierarchy. They must be licensed by their churches to preach and stand in a position of power over their hearers. During the sermon preachers speak, the people listen and rarely speak back.

So people have a right to expect that the preacher will speak on what matters to them as Christians. If they notice that important matters are never mentioned they are entitled to ask why.

The answer, however, is unlikely to be as simple as that preachers are sucking up to opinionated friends. Most preachers are aware of the feelings that drive them to speak or to be silent. The desire to please or the fear of displeasing one's friends are always evident and can be set aside. As can the desire to placate one's critics. The really insidious temptations are more subtle than that.

For most preachers the choice of topic is guided by the texts of the day and by Augustine's striking throwaway line, 'After all, we would not speak to others unless it were to make them better.' In different contexts 'better' can mean better informed, better diverted, in better spirits, or living a