Controversy has engulfed the National Cathedral this past weekend since Dean Randy Hollerith invited noted Evangelical pastor and author Max Lucado to preach at the Sunday Eucharist. Touted as preaching from the Canterbury Pulpit – something akin to having a worthy national voice – the sermon was in fact recorded from Lucado’s Texas church, but the point was the same; The National Cathedral, Dean Hollerith, and Episcopal Bishop of Washington DC, Marianne Budde, lent their support and platform to amplify Lucado’s voice.
The problem is that many in the LGBTQ+ community had contacted the Dean and Bishop of Washington before Sunday, flagging up Lucado’s statements and sermons about gay persons and noting their concerns. They questioned if it was wise, and indeed hurtful, for the cathedral to be seen supporting someone whose views are so contrary to stated positions of The Episcopal Church and the cathedral – and not least, in the eyes of many, the Gospel. Indeed, TEC underwent schism in its support of the full inclusion in the sacramental life of the American LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, the National Cathedral is the resting place of Matthew Shepard – a young adult murdered in an anti-gay hate crime.
Lucado didn’t say anything anti-gay during his sermon from the National Cathedral. But the context is there – the pulpit, or ambo, as a sacred place of the proclamation of God’s word. And who stands in it, and what they say matters. This episode sent me off reflecting upon the graced responsibility and power of those who speak “in the name of God” and the propensity to slip into, wilfully or accidentally, acts of spiritual violence when preaching.
The episode at the National Cathedral was an occasion of intentional spiritual violence for many. How do we avoid such occasions? It seems to me that like Eucharistic fellowship, there must also be something like Word fellowship. What are the boundaries of this verbal sharing in God’s word? And what are the boundaries, imposed by our churches, or ourselves, on our own preaching? Who do we set free, and who do we maim and kill with our preached words?
My local Roman Catholic cathedral has a notorious pastor who almost weekly references sin, homosexuals and divorced persons in his sermons, without qualification or clarification. So often in fact it comes across as throwaway lines about throwaway people. Contrarily the Church of England parish where I serve and share the pulpit took a formal decision to be an affirming parish that accepts into its full life the LGBTQ+ community, in as much as current church law allows. Those who do not share that vision would not be welcomed to preach if it was known. I’ve never preached about gay ‘issues’ per se. In sermons I have spoken of LGBTQ+ persons frequently as welcomed, included, normal, and loved members of the church. It has been noticed, and on a few occasions it has made a concrete healing difference.
But I want to open up the question further. Preached spiritual violence is not simply about the sexual use of our bodies or whom someone loves. It can take on a myriad of forms. Nor do I want to create the impression that, or bring about a situation in which, speaking about any disagreed topic is automatically a form of spiritual violence. Rather sinning from the pulpit is about a matrix of realities and relationships, from the bishop who licenses hers or his clergy and laity to speak in the name of the church, to the quality of theological formation ministers receive, to pastoral judgement, and basic human virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and love. Those of us involved in the art of preaching need constant check-ins with our authority structures, spiritual directors, and consciences, to make sure all these elements are in order and functioning in tandem as they should, lest we become instruments of spiritual violence, and perhaps one day ourselves become the victims.