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Preaching without Restrictions

By Sam Keyes

Coming back to the pulpit in a different church after a long hiatus can be a surreal experience. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this boat —I serve in a “diocese” after all where the vast majority of priests are Anglicans-turned-Roman-Catholic. The laity, with rare exceptions, are not permitted to preach in the Catholic Church, so the transition from Episcopal priest to layman to Catholic transitional deacon in less than a year has been, on an experiential level, pretty abrupt. I know as well that the clergy who move from parish to parish, especially after a long stint in one place, face inevitable adjustments and moments of personal clarity or confusion.

So, take what follows here with a grain of salt. Covenant is, after all, a decidedly ecumenical place, so I don’t intend this to come across as a pro-Catholic anti-Protestant rant or apologia. My own preaching is, after all, formed by a lifetime of sermons in Baptist, Bible, Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal settings. And I continue to think (to state a commonplace) that preaching in those places just is typically better than it is in Catholic parishes, though this is not the moment to speculate about why.

I simply want to observe what is for me a striking note in the context of preaching. Sometimes people ask me if it feels different preaching as a Roman Catholic. I’ve realized that it does — way more than I expected it to. We’re not talking about the sacraments here, so we don’t need to get into all those vexed ecumenical problems about validity. There’s nothing intrinsically “invalid” or “valid” about a homily, because it’s inevitably personal, not universal; there’s no ecclesial guarantee given about grace received. Rather there’s the general burden of the preacher to preach not his own message but God’s, and the burden of the listener to hear it and act accordingly.

What feels different, then, isn’t some kind of sacramental magic or power or virtue, but my own psychological perspective. To put it bluntly, preaching has in a way legitimized my “conversion” to the Catholic Church. Preaching as a Catholic has made me aware of some limitations and difficulties that I was only inchoately aware of as an Anglican: namely, the way authority functions in the Church. As an Anglican, even as a decidedly Catholic Anglican, I found the equivocation of Anglican teaching a heavy burden. I could always try to expound the Catholic faith, but such exposition would largely rely on a combination of rhetorical charisma or argumentation to get through. It was always, in other words, one option on the table, to be taken or left at will. In school ministry — as much as I loved it, and in many ways miss it — this was all the more profound in a specifically pluralistic atmosphere where any given congregation could be made up of both the Christian faithful and various others who for whatever reason had to be there.

Anglo-Catholics sometimes look to Rome and reject what they perceive as a kind of rigidity of doctrine. I understand that. But as a preacher it feels like the greatest kind of freedom. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about offending people on occasion, or going over their heads, or under their heads, or any number of other homiletical concerns — it just means that I no longer worry about whether I really have the authority to say what I’m saying. I no longer worry that my sermons are mere personal opinion. If they are, my people would rightly reject them and report me to the bishop. When I preach, I preach with the authority of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic preacher I have this incredibly light burden (at the same time heavy and frightening, but in this one aspect amazingly easy) of not having to come up with something interesting or original to say.

I honestly never felt that as an Anglican/Episcopalian. Maybe it was a character flaw! Or maybe, as I suspect, it was simply a mark of my own core understanding of what it means to be Catholic which is, in the end, different from what Anglo-Catholics usually mean when they say they are Catholic.

I’m not sure what to do with this feeling. Again, I don’t intend to make it into a set of general observations about Anglicanism and Catholicism and authority. I suppose I’m left with a set of questions that may or may not be illuminating to others: What do we intend to do when we preach? What sets the formal limits to our authority in preaching? How do we know that our preaching is in harmony with the Church that we claim to represent?

The Rev. Sam Keyes serves as professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.


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