Monday, 19 October 2015

Christ in a Choppie Box: talking about God in North East England

When I left Durham Cathedral at the end of September, I wanted to offer its community a tangible gift to represent 12 years in that extraordinary and wonderful place. People had been kind enough to say that they had valued my preaching in the Cathedral and across the North East. So I approached our friendly local publisher Sacristy Press to see if they would be interested in producing a book of sermons preached during these past years.

Christ in a Choppie Box* is the result. I decided early on that I was by no means the best judge of quality. The decision as to which sermons deserved to see the light of day in print as opposed to those that were best forgotten needed to be made by someone else. I was very lucky to secure the help of Carol Harrison, a distinguished theologian who, for most of my time in Durham, held a Chair in the Department of Theology and Religion in Durham University. (She is now Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford.) She was a regular member of the congregation at the sung eucharist and so heard (suffered under?) many of my offerings at first hand. She trawled through the oeuvre, picked the best and edited them, introducing her anthology with an introduction of great theological insight. I was also honoured that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a colleague and friend from Coventry and Durham days, wrote a warm and generous foreword commending the book.

Who reads books of sermons nowadays? Especially when the front cover carries a 'selfie' of the preacher which looks like an act of shameless self-promotion? Well, I rather enjoy reading other people's sermons as it happens, and I suspect I am not alone. I've learned a lot from the sermons of Austin Farrer, Sydney Evans, Eric James, Martin Smith, John Habgood and Rowan Williams, to name a few who have significantly influenced my own preaching. Not to mention past masters of the art and craft of preaching such as John Donne, F. W. Robertson of Brighton, John Henry Newman, Hensley Henson, Ronald Knox and many others.

The difficulty with a book of sermons is of course that there is all the difference in the world between the 'event' of a proclamation delivered from a pulpit to a live audience, and the written text on the page. Preaching is something performed before it is something written. Every preacher knows that a sermon comes alive when he or she senses that some real encounter is taking place between the word of God and its hearers, a meeting that is potentially life-changing. The script itself has a different kind of existence, just as the musical score is not the same as the performed work that is 'made flesh' in the human voice or the instrument he or she plays. However, the written text is a genre in its own right that can stimulate reflection, aid meditation, kindle the imagination and enlarge the soul. That's what I hope for my Choppie Box.

Carol thought it was important for readers to gain some insight into what I believe about preaching, so she included a lecture I gave to clergy not long after I arrived in Durham on 'The Art of Preaching'. I ended it with my list of 'Ten Deadly Sins of Preaching' which is what I suspect people remembered long after the rest was forgotten. The risk, of course, is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I wish I could guarantee that my sermons avoid those all-too commonly committed offences against the noble vocation of preaching. Only you (if you read the book) can judge. I've also introduced each sermon with a few words indicating the setting in which it was delivered (because 'a text without a context is a pretext').

Most of the sermons were preached in Durham Cathedral, a few elsewhere. But all belong to North East England, the region that has become home and whose Christian history and spirituality have been extraordinarily formative as I have tried to establish my own Christian identity in the second half of life and find my authentic voice as a preacher. Included are a number of sermons on specifically North Eastern themes, some of the key places and people that have shaped this land of saints. And that includes the Cathedral itself, of course, the interpretation of whose mission and reason for existing is the key task of any dean.

The off-beat title has given rise to a lot of amused speculation. I ought to say (for the publisher's sake): read the book and find out for yourself what it means. But let me be kind and explain. Durham Cathedral has a beautiful Christmas Crib carved by an ex-miner who included in it several references to Durham's great mining traditions. In 'pitmatic', the language of the miners, the 'choppie box' was the trough from which the pit ponies fed underground. So it was a genuine manger, and this is how the Crib presents the infant Jesus, lying placidly in his choppie box with a pit pony standing by with the ox and the ass.

I hope you enjoy the book, whether you live in North East England or beyond. Let me know what you think via comments on this blog site. Responses to sermons are how every preacher learns. And although I have retired, I very much want to go on learning about the privileged and joyous role we preachers are fortunate enough to inhabit.

*Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England. Sacristy Press 2015, £9.99. You can order the book from the publisher at I hope you'll consider supporting Sacristy in this way if you do decide to get it.

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