Apologies for length. I will never know if you skim read, read just a paragraph or skip it entirely 😉
The missal has this to say explaining the role of the “homily”: “Through the readings, God has spoken to his people of redemption and salvation, and nourished their spirit with his word. Christ is present among the faithful in his word. The homily helps those present understand and reflect upon what they have heard.” (32). We are given no advice on how to discern the validity and “truth” of the homily, presumably we are left to trust blindly to the authority of the (ordained, male) priest. Nor is there any mention of the priest’s responsibility to preach ethically nor any ideas on how to ensure that this happens.
As a listener, I can remember slowly realising that the sermons I had taken as unquestionably truth were performed by biased, limited humans who might have thought they were acting responsibly in what they told us to believe, but did this without any respect for the critical abilities or experiences of the listener and with some fairly glaring gaps in their point of view. I realised this as an adult and as a slow process of disillusionment. By this time I had already heard many things passionately decried from the pulpit- contraception, homosexuality (on the bright side that was where I found out what homosexuality even was) and even feminism.
As a preacher myself, a bootleg-preacher who has no license (or possibility of being licensed) from the church magisterium I wonder then why should people trust what I say? Related to this is a question to myself- how dare I express and opinion and how do I keep myself honest? Part of my answer is that I truly believe that I am preaching not for personal gain, or to big-note myself (to the tiny handful of people who receive my words) but because the female, feminist, lesbian, single-mother, vegan point of view is part of the much wider and more diverse kindom of God and is a piece that has been hidden from sight and silenced from being heard. Therefore I speak not only myself but a silenced fragment of the Word of God.
So “God told me to” I say, and yet this as a claim must always be suspect. Much as I am suspicious of the authority of the clergy, so anyone ought to be extremely suspicious of my authority too- perhaps the more so if you only have my word for it. Within the messiness of that awareness I always preach carefully, self-consciously trying to remember that no one OWES me their trust and belief and that they will listen politely and then decide and possibly disagree with me. This is one safety catch to my preaching.
But then recently I had an experience where an academic article I wrote (nothing to do with theology) was rejected by the peer reviewers and one of their criticisms was that I had not established the VALIDITY of my research enough. This criticism has led me into a lot of reading and thinking about validity- what is it and how do we establish it? To problematize this further, there is no established blueprint for validity and even things that get taken for granted as the “gold standard” (scientific method) contain flaws and impossibilities. For an interesting view of some research that has claimed to “prove” things while in fact being full of flaws, read Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young. This book rang true with me- many things that are accepted as “fact” seem built on a foundation of sand- but then where is the rock on which I can pitch my building (clever people will tell me the rock is God or Christ but that is a glib non-answer really).
How do I “keep myself honest” to do what I way I am doing, say what I claim I will say and show my working out enough so people can follow me (or spot where they diverge). How might I do it in research brings me back to the question of how do I do it as a preacher (blogger, speaker). I have some thoughts on this- mainly sourced from reading things written by Patti Lather, also Jill Green, as well as a lecture I recently attended by Yarrow Andrew. I have not given links to their work but all are possible to “google scholar”. Even though all three are academic writers/speakers my thoughts here will remain more about my faith life rather than becoming academic in nature.
One of the first things that springs up whenever people consider qualitative research methods and especially the place of feminist thinking is the idea of reflexivity. Reflexivity means having some idea of who I am, what experiences have formed me to be this way and what gaps there may be in my knowledge and experience. In other words it involves identifying my bias and my point of view. For feminists reflexivity means both explaining how our experiences (of exclusion and discrimination) have led us to challenge what we are “supposed to” think and how we are “supposed to” account for it- so that our experiences become an impetus for questioning and breaking the rules (both the clearly stated and the taken-for-granted ones). We might find that the rules don’t “work” for us, or function only to keep reproducing the status quo and leave power imbalances intact. Then I as a preacher use my knowledge of who I am and what sort of people I might (partially) speak for to argue for my right and need to speak.
The other function of “reflexivity” is to call to account the speakers and preachers who have defined “truth” for us and told us what to believe. So for example when the preacher told me that women feeling erotic love for other women was “sinful”, I could have asked him how he would know this (I was about eight and he was beyond question). He was a man with a public commitment to be “celibate” therefore not to be in intimate relations with a woman himself. He had lived for many years with other celibate men (although it is probable that some of the domestics who looked after him and certainly some if not all of his secretaries were female). Nothing about his standpoint means he is necessarily “wrong” it just means he would have had very little empathy for what it was like growing up as a female who was female-centred in her unspeakable desires, who was sent to an all girls’ school etc. He was speaking to me from a very, very distant point from my experience across a whole host of assumptions that came out of his own limited perspective and which I was expected to take-on wholesale.
At the time I did take them on, because I didn’t have the years under my belt to know that anything I could feel, imagine or experience had any sort of meaning. Life was confusing and I experienced myself as a misfit and a hated mistake. This of course was not the preacher’s intent and I would not have seen any part of how depressed and self-hating I was to have stemmed from what I heard at church. If I was older and more opinionated/feminist I would have had questions about how he knew what he “knew” and where such thinking came from. He would have had answers for all my questions of course but I could question the answers and keep questioning or at least work out of a hermeneutic of suspicion- which we know to switch on as soon as someone is claiming to speak “absolute truth” and not showing reflexivity about their own possible failures to “know” or “understand”.
In addition to reflexivity, Green talks about “catalytic validity”, that is, being aware what it is we want to change through our research. For the preacher there can be no clear “catalytic validity” because it would be unethical to tell people how to live or specifically what to do (in the past some preachers have told people how to vote but tempting though that is- that is an abuse of the power to preach). So as a preacher instead my “catalytic validity” is the desire to be moving in my own life toward the kindom of God- so I am preaching to myself, I am trying to shift my own self into better praxis and healthier relationships. In that sense preaching must be a giant (but honest) thinking aloud exercise where I am showing my own faith journey and allowing anyone who listens/reads me to walk it with me. They get to choose their own role on my journey, they could be observers, participants, co-walkers, respectful disagree-ers or disbelievers or attempt to change my direction. People sometimes shift between different roles in engaging with my faith journey but just as I do not get to define their journey, so they may speak back by sharing their own but they don’t get to take my journey from me and forcibly change my direction or derail me.
I wanted to say a lot more about triangulation (not letting one person being your only source for what to believe) and how also some of ideas around how concepts of “validity” are problematic, fragmented and don’t always perfectly come out but I am aware that this is already an overly long piece of writing.
If you wish to- share in the comments what sort of things a preacher may say, do or be that make you more likely to trust their preaching (or mistrust it) and also how you bring your own hermeneutic of suspicion into how you engage with someone’s preaching.
In addition for anyone who preaches, I would like to know (if you can simply reduce it for us) how you make sure you are saying things that are right, valid and helpful for others; also do you undermine your own authoritative voice in any way to assist people to remember to listen critically and with discernment?
But perhaps you will feel this conversation would go better over a bottle of scotch and several hours…