Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mark 1.21-28: Conveying Authority

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum were amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught (Mark 1:21-28, Epiphany 4B). They never quantify that authority, never describe exactly what Jesus had that other teachers hadn't had, but they knew authority when they heard and saw it.

Discussion continues to swirl around the concept of authority in the context of preaching. What is it? Do preachers claim it for themselves? Should preachers claim it? How should/do preachers claim it? Instead of claiming any authority, should preachers seek to be just like the hearers of their preaching? As with almost everything else in life, the seeking and shunning of authority ebbs and flows.

Two recognizable items offer a way to talk about authority as perceived, as claimed, as conferred. The first is the Geneva gown (also called a pulpit robe or preaching robe).

This garment is related to academic gowns and infers authority based on learning. Ministers who have earned a doctoral degree may put three bars on the sleeves of the gown. In its original black color, the robe represents dignity, solemnity and authority. The robe also serves to focus attention on the function and activity of the preacher rather than on his or her wardrobe choices or appearance.

A second silent conveyer of authority is the traditional pulpit. The earliest Christian churches did not have pulpits. The bishop preached from his cathedra (throne or chair) or from the altar steps. The ambo, a raised platform with steps on two sides, was developed for the reading of the gospel. The reader was accompanied by candle-bearers and book-bearers, so the steps were wide enough and the platform large enough to hold a crowd. The pulpit is a descendant of the ambo - both are raised platforms that give congregations greater ability to hear the spoken word. The implication of words spoken from a platform is that they are words worth hearing. This, combined with the assent of the hearers, confers authority on the one who is speaking.

The pulpit took an interesting "authority" turn in England, where in the eighteenth century, the preacher moved closer to heaven. The "triple-decker" pulpit has three distinct levels: the bottom level is the parish clerk's desk, the middle level is the lectern for leading the service and reading the gospel, the top level is reserved for preaching. Clearly the construction indicates that the sermon is the thing most worth hearing in the service. What sort of obligation is laid on the preacher who climbs those steps to deliver a sermon? How would it feel to be the preacher whose sermons are literally(!) put on a pedestal?
St. Stephen's Church, Fylingdales, Yorkshire, England. Built 1821.

Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, Chichester, West Sussex, England. Built 1812.

Individuals, congregations and traditions grant varying degrees of authority to preachers and preaching. Individual preachers claim or refuse authority based on individual understandings. But sometimes a custom sneaks up on us and speaks of authority whether we are aware of it or not.

Is this a gesture that indicates authority? Take a look at the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page to find out more.

For thoughts on the Deuteronomy reading for Epiphany 4B, click here.

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