Whenever you preach in the University there is history underneath. Each college is proud of their past famous students and because of my interest in preaching I am always particularly keen to remember great preachers. It twangs my historical antennae.
At Gonville and Caius, Bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) stands out as one of the 'greats'. Its extraordinary to think that in the era of Shakespeare, Milton and Bacon this man was deservedly rated in the top rank of communication. With grandeur of diction and style, with effortless inclusion of multiple classical quotations, he is marked by many elements of great preaching. As one writer puts it: He had a very definite message to deliver, without which the most eloquent preacher will be futile; and there was a spirit of piety about him which gives his sermons an unction, a sweetness, and a tenderness which commend them to the heart as well as to the head.
I have now reconnected with some of my library that I left here in storage before embarking on my US adventure. It contains many old books which I found in my favourite used-book shop in Saffron Walden - a town south of Cambridge. (Someone mentioned that a large number of clergymen have retired to this town which probably explains the large theological section in this shop, as well as the cheap prices). So, I have been re-reading both Taylor's biography (which claims he is England's Chrysostom!) and an old copy of his most famous spiritual writings: The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying.
Much strikes me. There's the wonder that at a golden time for English literature God raised up Jeremy Taylor. His preaching would not communicate well today (well, of course, he wouldn't preach like that!) but was profoundly effective in the seventeenth century. How God sends powerful preachers appropriately into changing cultures! But, also, he demonstrates a spiritual seriousness far removed from the froth of some contemporary spirituality. He believed: 'Theology is rather a Divine life than a Divine knowledge' and you can particularly see this devotional concern in his prayers. Who today could imagine publishing helps for 'holy dying'?
Re-connecting, even briefly, with Jeremy Taylor challenges me yet again to remember the crowd of witnesses around me as I prepare a fresh sermon in 2013. So humbling! Actually, that crowd is true for all Christian living and dying, isn't it?