Wednesday 14 October 2015

Ascribe unto the Lord

Is there any hope of rescuing one element of Anglican Patrimony - the Ascription at the end of a sermon? Always, as I remember sermons from my youth, the preacher ended by ascribing the glory to God  This was also how that great master preacher, Austin Farrer, would end his sermon, and often it would take up the theme of what he had been preaching. So for example in the last of a series of sermons preached in Pusey House in 1963, a sermon on Sanctification, he concluded: "This is the will of God. Your sanctification. And why is it his will? That he may enrich you with the glory of his works, the truth of his love, and the vision of  his countenance, both here and in that heaven which beholds him face to face; where to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, three Persons in one God, is worthily ascribed what is most justly due, all might, dominion, majesty and power, through ages everlasting." Not just an ending, a poetic peroration.

When a sermon ended like that, the congregation could respond with a heartfelt "Amen".

Today, the ascription is almost always missing; but often the preacher himself ends his sermon simply by saying "Amen". Now that is just extraordinary. "Amen" signifies agreement. Does the preacher expect the congregation to join him in saying "Amen"? Surely not; And if the preacher believes what he has preached, he has no need to say "Amen".That is the response to something, particularly a prayer, which another has uttered.

During eight years at St Stephen's House I tried to teach something of the art of preaching - homiletics to give it an unnecessarily pompous name. In particular I explained how best to end a sermon. I think my words went unheeded, for I still hear former students at the conclusion of a sermon just saying "Amen" - as an indication that, there you are, take it or leave it, I'm done.

Where Farrer does not give an ascription he often ends with words of  Our Lord, which again can properly evoke an "Amen" - in the sermon before the one already quoted he concludes, "He said unto them, All power is given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore make disciples of all nations; Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world".

I think in many printed sermons the ascription does not appear, simply because everyone would have know it ended with the preacher saying something like "To the One Wise God, Living and Eternal, be all praise and glory, now and for ever". Certainly he would not have wanted anyone saying "Amen" to his own words. Newman often has something of Our Lord's at the end of his sermons; for instance, "Christ says for us continually, 'Father, forgive them' for they know not what they do'". Once again, a congregation might properly respond 'Amen' to that. (This from sermon XVII on Subjects of the Day, 1853).

I have a few sermons on my shelves; so J B Lightfoot in 1872 had as a final sentence on 'The triumph of failure' "Trust God,who is One, and not the world because it is many. Then your triumph is assured. 'This, this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith'   In similar vein G R Prynne in St Peter's Plymouth in 1876: "Blessed Jesus, let thy words come with power to our hearts. Give us grace to do what thou dost command, and then command what thou wilt".

So, dear preachers, do be careful what you say "Amen" to - for it is probably just an opinion of your own. It really does matter how you end your sermon. Safest and best of all, ascribe the Glory to God - then your poor hearers will at least know that you have finished (even if your sermon might have ended some time earlier).

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