This December, many church leaders will find themselves with the opportunity to speak with their communities about the General Election. For some, this will be expected, and congregations will be looking for guidance. For others, this will be a step into new territory, and may face hostility from congregations who feel politics and the pulpit simply don’t go together. For all of us, this election presents new challenges, divisions and discussions.
In the run up to Christmas – not the church’s quiet time of year – how do we go about this in a way that is faithful to the gospel?
From personal lessons learned as I preach politics in the pulpit month by month, I have gathered here some thoughts on how we might approach this opportunity.
We should preach on the election because it is one of the ways we can shape our public life so that it more closely reflects heaven on earth.
The kingdom of God we proclaim in Advent and beyond is political as well as spiritual. The arrival of a ‘prince of peace’ in the midst of roman rule began a movement of change. Our scriptures were written in political times – different political times to ours – but if we miss that cultural context we miss out on some of the richness of scriptures for our times too.
The major political upheaval of this last few years and the years to come expose the complex pastoral and spiritual issues this nation faces now. But the richness of the scriptural picture of God’s kingdom within the politics of its time can offer tools to hear God speak into our situation now.
Preaching with a political persuasion
How did you vote in 2016? How will you vote on 12 December? How do you feel about the political situation now?
Whilst it might seem obvious, it is worth naming your own stance, and not presuming that your opinion is the norm where you are. In listening to sermons, we open ourselves up to hearing God speak to us, and that means the preacher has a significant spiritual power. Pushing our political agenda through with divine ratification can leave people feeling spiritually manipulated for political reasons. Naming it to ourselves gives us something to check our sermon preparation against as we go along. If you are running for, or occupy already, a party political office, I’d go as far as naming that explicitly, so people don’t feel hoodwinked.
Preaching with our power
Naming our obvious bias also helps us to start thinking about our unconscious bias. Who do we represent? What does your ethnicity, age, gender, class, accent, educational background, vocabulary and location suggest about you (which may or may not be accurate)? I am a female, white millennial, and I’ve lived in the UK all my life. I’m registered to vote at a home address, and if I needed to take proof of ID I could, easily.
Certain things give us social power, but also a significant set of blind spots: I miss conversations around power and poverty, ethnicity and literacy because they haven’t applied to me. If I say ‘we’, who’s included in that? British citizens? Tax payers? If I’m then also saying these things in a clerical outfit or a suit – perhaps from a literal pulpit ‘nine feet above contradiction’, or from a stage, this sets me up as the person with authority, and the congregation as more passive receivers.
Whatever ‘we’ preach about neutrally is never neutral. Preaching about politics sounds different depending on the social power we occupy, and this applies to the election too.
Preaching with other people’s voices
As the UK church, we tend to be better at selecting both our politicians and our preachers on the intersections of power: educated, white, male, middle class, able-bodied. This means there are voices who are absent from our churches’ preaching life. Listening to these voices and enabling them to be heard from the pulpit should be a key part of our preaching.
Do we use illustrations of people who look and sound like us? Who has the agency in a film clip, image, or story we are telling? Do these power dynamics need to be exposed or does the illustration become untenable? Could you go one further and preach a dialogue sermon, rather than a monologue? Could you Invite others to share the ‘pulpit’ with you?
Preaching on politics is preaching on power, so how we hold and share power in our actions during the service will communicate as much as what we say in our content.
Preaching with our community
The preacher’s tasks is not only to speak out of the text, but to ‘exegete’ the community. This is much harder as a visiting preacher, but some research tools might help:
- Look on the church’s website, to get a sense of the demographic and how the church understands themselves
- Use the Church Urban Fund’s poverty map index. It shows the relative deprivation of a parish, bit is also useful to the area. This might give you a sense of what the underlying social concerns may be. You can find this here.
- Find out how the area voted in the last elections here.
- You can also find out how people voted by denomination allegiance here.
On top of all this information, we should use our own empathy. A wise man once told me to imagine a selection of people from my congregation were around the table with me when I was preparing my sermon, and to think how they would hear the things I said in my sermon. How might the things you say be heard? Often we avoid preaching on politics for fear of offending. Go gently and bravely into coffee after the service. The Holy Spirit who is at work in your sermon is just as at work here too.
Preaching the text
If your church is a lectionary church, then the next couple of weeks will include some apocalyptic passages that might fit the mood of politics rather well! What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord? The inbreaking of God’s future, either in the Advent texts or the Christmas story pick up on key political themes: census taking, political laden titles for Christ…
You might have a preferred commentary or exegetical style, I try to use a few when preaching on politics:
- What the text says: Seek the original culture of the text, i.e. the social and historical setting it was written into, the concerns of that early Christian community, etc.
- What the text does: Look at the text in its original narration: is it a gospel, or a letter? Who is talking? Who is silenced? What is the character development here? What is this text trying to do? Are we also doing what the text wants us to do, as well as saying what the text says?
- What the text has been said to have said: how has this text been used by the church or by other powers over the past 2000 years? Has it been used to prop up certain power dynamics? Are all the commentaries on your shelf written by western scholars or by certain theological traditions? Reading people who disagree with you, challenge you, or who are just different to you, can help bring fresh insight into the text, and show us what the key issues are at play within it. We’re also then modelling a better practice – it’s as much what we do as what we say.
The style of sermon you offer will be the conclusion of that work that has come before and your own personal voice: from three points beginning with P to a narrative style of sermon that tells the story of someone from the passage. I try to always ensure that both what is good and bad in our world to find their links to what is good and bad in our Scripture.
For any style there is also the tone in which you deliver it. Even if you have little control about what you wear or where you stand, you can craft how you deliver as well as what you deliver from body language, expression, pace and tone of voice. I keep to my notes very carefully, so I don’t accidentally say something I don’t intend to. It also helps if people want copies afterwards. Transparency and accountability is especially important on controversial issues!
We preach, in the end, ‘Christ crucified’ (1 Cor 1:23). The gospel is about far more than our political situation and our congregation’s lives will contain other, deeper, pastoral conversations than this election and our future with the EU. But going with the grain of scripture will offer up more about salvation that what can be achieved – or not – by a general election and the consequential political decisions.
This offers a perspective that goes beyond our human imperfections. It allows us to hope for more and to love our enemies as well as our neighbours.
God chose to enter the world in the incarnation, and so God’s plan of salvation includes the here and now as well as the not yet fully realised kingdom of heaven. God’s salvation plan will transform everything and we are invited to join in. This gives us hope when politics feels hopeless, inspiration what politics seems pointless, and grace to keep partnering with God in recognising the world to himself, even when it feels like everything is going wrong. This is what we proclaim in the pulpit: it’s political, but it is also about far, far more than our politics.
You can find our General Election resources, including briefings and videos, here.