The Voices of a 14th and 21st century Preacher kiwiconnexion practical theology
David: Hello everyone. Welcome along to Live
On Air this evening. It’s with a lot of pleasure that I’ve got Dr Greg Morgan with us over
in Auckland. Greg is a very well known figure in Methodism in Auckland; a lay preacher of
considerable repute, I might say. Before we get into that and talking about preaching,
I wondered whether you’d like to just share a little bit about yourself and your background,
Greg? Greg: Yeah, tena koi David. So I’m a mid-50s
Methodist, but in fact I wasn’t brought up in the church. I joined the church as an adult
and was baptised as an adult, as recently as 2002. I went to university for what seems
to some people to have been a very long time. I completed a PhD in English language and
literature at Auckland University, and then began working in libraries. I qualified as
a librarian by distance once I started working in the library field. So I now work in local
government and I’m a librarian still. I manage a public library network. I’m married to Paul.
Paul has to endure many of my sermons, and is a popular figure at the churches I go to,
and many of the places I go Paul is more popular than I am, I think. He is an interesting presence
and a really supportive one. So that’s me in a nutshell.
David: Oh that’s fantastic. I’ve known Greg – well, I think probably since at least 2002,
because you were into the preaching scene pretty quickly as I recall.
Greg: Yes. So I’ve been an active lay preacher for a number of years. Oh, I suppose probably
2002/2003 – something like that. I completed the qualification in 2008, but had been – I’d
taken a number of services by that time. In fact, at its peak I used to do about 25 or
26 services a year around fulltime work. I don’t do anything like that anymore. I grew
tired of my own voice. An interesting lesson about the church is that the church talks
about balance in life, but it won’t say no. So I had to learn to say no, and there were
some really supportive people around me who advised me to learn to say no sometimes, and
so I do, but I’m still quite active as a preacher, and would I suppose preach at least once a
month on average. David: One of the really interesting things
about your life as a preacher has been that every congregation that I’ve been to that’s
had you doing the service a week or a month or something beforehand, those are services
that really stand out in people’s minds, and I’ve got to say most publically that the last
one that I saw you take at Trinity at Waiaki I thought was simply outstandingly brilliant.
It was really revolving around the idea of reciting a poem, and it was such a simple
thing in one way to do, but so deep and profound in another, that people could have sat and
listened to another hour if you like of what you were doing. It was simply fantastic. Now,
I suspect that you’ve been studying preaching from an academic perspective as well as this
practical thing. So how did you become interested in 14th Century studies and what’s that got
to do with preaching? Greg: Well, I studied Old English and Middle
English – Old Norse Philology at the university, and so came across this text of sermons from
the 14th Century and in fact translated from an Anglo-Norman work from the early 13th Century.
So from around about the time of the Fourth Lateran Council, and the sermons were written
in Anglo-Norman so that they would be accessible to lay people – really interesting to think
of that, and of course Anglo-Norman rapidly became the way not to be accessible to the
ordinary person. So they were translated into 14th Century English in early London dialect
probably, so kind of roughly the language of Chaucer]. So I got interested in
those sermons from a language point of view, and as always happens in a PhD, you know,
you reach that point where you realise that the PhD is about to become something else,
and you have to stop yourself making it the something else, because you will never come
out of it. What it started to become for me was a study
of the analogues, the sources, the Latin sources; other works that were related. So I became
interested in the context really out of which these linguistic artefacts arose. When I did
do some theology papers subsequently I thought, golly if I had my time over – oh maybe I’d
do some English and yes I’d do some history as I did at university, but I perhaps had
really found my subject in theology, and I seriously thought about completing a theology
degree, but nowadays I read theologically. I read it in theological works, and I critique
them a little in an amateurish kind of way, but I also feel that every day experiences
should inform preaching. That’s what the poetry is about. I quite often use biography in sermons
as well, and in services generally I will shape a service around a biography sometimes,
because I find that biographies really connect with congregations. A life story…
David: Sort of like Lives of the Saints Greg: Breaks through. No, no not at all; people
like Sheila Thaw (nee Hancock) – the actress who was married actor John Thaw who played Morse, for instance.
She’s written a couple of great autobiographies, and one of them in which she counters her
own prejudice against the Germans. She was evacuated as a child through the Second World
War, and realised that she was harbouring this big grudge against the German people.
So she not only encounters it, but then she counters it by going to Germany and there’s
a great story there to share with congregations which just sheds a very personal light on
how we think more inclusively. David: I think that’s a really great example.
I was thinking when I said Lives of the Saints, about your 14th Century preachers, but of
course what you do is – every service that I’ve heard you take, is actually about what
people are thinking and doing and saying and writing and creating today.
Greg: When I was doing my edition of those 14th Century sermons, it was really interesting
that some of the saint stories were re-told – some quite old stories. So the story of
Saint [7:21] which is kind of a sixth century saint story, was retold many centuries later,
and was kind of the basis of some of the thinking around purgatory and that rather repellent
theology as that was developing. Well, in the same say, you know, any story can be kind
of picked up from its social context, and with a bit of respect for that social context
can be used in another way to illume an experience and to look for connections.
I quite often think about saint stories and the great stories of the past – classics sometimes.
I tend not to use them when I’m actually preaching, because they can be quite alienating. Not
always; I use snippets sometimes. You know, I’m a great – one of my favourite quotations
is from Aristotle; poetry is truer than history. By poetry, Aristotle would have meant drama
– the drama on stage tragedy. I use that a lot, because literature will tell us under
certain sets of circumstances how people of particular types behave, and literature is
freer than history, in that it’s not wedded to particular facts.
David: So, in that sense, the life of saints, whether in our own era or in previous eras
– and by saints here I mean Christian people – that kind of telling of their story in some
ways helps to build up a hagiography, but more than a hagiography; it’s participating
in making the story our own through incorporating the stories of others.
Greg: Yes, and remembering that among the saints we could all be countered. So it’s
quite fun sometimes to have a list of some notable people and then just gradually to
bring in some characters, individuals, people could identify with. Then, if you know the
congregation quite well, you can quite easily get the congregation chipping in other names
– people they know. Hardly anybody would put their hand up and say, please enrol me in
the list of the saints. I don’t think they would do that, but – I might try it sometime
– but they will certainly give you the names of other people, or of things going on in
the life of that congregation, and I think that kind of involvement is really powerful
and should be what church is for. David: I came away from that service that
I referred to earlier thinking that is exactly what church is for, because it involved us
in so many different levels of participation. I wondered in terms of all the background
with philology and other academic studies whether you think that those studies have
helped you to broaden the base towards inclusivity. Greg: yes, I think they have. You asked one
question of me about whether I use my PhD study in my work. My immediate response was
to say, well no. That was just in my head I said no, and then over about a week I thought
about that, and I remembered the book – I haven’t looked at it for years, but C S Lewis’
The Discarded Image, where he trawls through the great literature of the Middle Ages and
the English Renaissance, and tries to build a model of how the world was in that literature,
and he looks at the kind of story that was built alongside familiar society, and the
bookishness of it, and also you remember all that stuff about kindly inclining of the natural
order of the world, and the connectedness of things. It struck me that in fact I have
something of that medieval mindset I think, about landscapes and connectedness.
When I read a biography of Tolkien or Lewis – not that I have ever in any way operated
at the level of those scholars, and I wouldn’t pretend to, of course, but I can remember
the same kind of passion which with I first encountered a book and seen the landscape.
So I think I do use my study all the time in how I think about things, and the poem
that you are talking about – the [Glenn�Colquhoun 12:23] poem, what I really wanted people to
do in that service was to think about a slightly challenging Biblical text, but to go away
with something that was indigenous – that they could use in the same way that we might
use a Biblical text, and have one as a bridge to the other, which is why I use Joy Cowley
a lot. Some of Joy Cowley’s psalms I think are so rooted in New Zealand experience – they’re
just so strongly grounded, that congregations can really connect with them.
David: I’m very interested in just about every phrase that you’ve used in those sentences
over the last few minutes because each one takes me into a different area of thought,
and if we could return to our New Zealand context in a few minutes, but I’d like to
just stick with the fact that you were interested in the worlds created by Tolkien and particularly
Lewis. I haven’t read The Discarded Image, but it sounds very similar to a myth that
he re-wrote called Till we have Faces. What I think is extremely provocative for Christians
is the idea that actually we have to, as Christ invites us, to start to build the kingdom
within us, and by that he means to build our personalities.
Until we actually have a face that is made concrete; is that similar to The Discarded
Image? We’ve got a whole lot of images from the past that we discard, but actually the
face that we make concrete is this accumulation of all the parts that’s coming to the forefront
of our own thinking, and that’s why the myth lives. I recall either Tolkien or Lewis said,
a myth is a lie breathed through silver. In other words it becomes something that’s far
more than just a passing fancy. Greg: Well, all the stories have to be peopled,
and I think that the critic – maybe it was Humphrey Carpenter – I’m not sure it was,
but the critic who recognised that Tolkien started with language, but could not just
stay with creating languages; you have to have the people who speak the language, and
you have to have the social change that is around the language. Somebody was interviewing
Tolkien, and eventually this was disclosed; the languages were his initial passion, but
you can’t have the language devoid of people. It’s an analogy for me around the Christian
story; we are invited into a story, but we have to people it with the reality that we
can really feel close to – otherwise it’s just a theory.
David: Right, and is that what you’re doing when you contextualise into New Zealand? There’s
a voice that is not just the voice of the past – the voice of the 14th Century preacher,
but there’s the voice of the 21st Century poet – Colquhoun or whoever – or the artist
– whatever. Is that what you’re doing when you preach?
Greg: Yeah, and I think Colquhoun is a particularly good example, because he of course is always
contemplating the difficulty that the doctor has an expert. If there’s one thing that has
probably harmed the appeal of the church in modern times, it’s that sense of expertise;
people are coming to be where other people are smarter, or other people have the answer,
or the preacher is going to tell them what to think. So, a poet like Colquhoun just helps
us break through that, but using another area of life – using the area of life of doctoring,
and of pastoral care really, because he’s a youth worker. That is a really helpful way
to get people to contemplate what we do Sunday by Sunday, without banging on about what we
do Sunday by Sunday; getting people to think in a bigger lens, which after all is the purpose
of faith, isn’t it; to get us to think outside ourselves and to have a really good chance
of finding a connection with others. David: In your work as a Local Government
organiser I suppose of libraries, in some ways you are curating a whole lot of experiences
that aren’t just books – that aren’t just records – that aren’t just audio-visual materials.
You’re somehow curating through the library a cultural heritage that invites people to
do exactly what the church wants people to do – to explore for themselves within that
setting who they are. Is that a fair analogy of your work?
Greg: Yes. I think of that analogy quite a lot, and I think of relevance and I think
of importance in people’s lives. So in my work context we have a phrase around Auckland’s
unique stories – the many unique stories of Tamaki Makaurau, and heritage these days thankfully
is very much in the dimension of living heritage; stories as identity that communities need
to be able to access and always be adding to, especially in a diverse community like
Auckland – just really opening up the way that stories are collected and shared. That
is what the church should be for in my view, and it’s certainly what the work of a librarian
is about; cultural artefacts take all sorts of formats, and have varying degrees of formality
about them in the formats. So yeah, I see quite a strong connection between the two
kinds of work. David: One of the notable features again,
if I could just return to your preaching, is the ability to involved children. I’ve
seen you pull out the tricks and goodness knows what – it’s sort of like Dr Morgan’s
[tricks book 19:38] or something. There’s always something new in there. Again, I would
suggest that you’ve learned a lot of this technique because of what goes on in the library
system, which is so encouraging of young people to try and get into the library to participate
in all the things that we’re talking about, and a great example from another preacher
just down the road from Pitt Street is John McDonald with his gathering of street people
and all kinds of fringe people. He gave the example at the recent School of
Theology for the Auckland Synod that he got about 400 people involved in creating and
publishing a zine. I don’t know how he got them printed or whatever, and I sort of stuck
my hand up and I said, did Greg Morgan – no, I didn’t actually say did Greg Morgan – I
said, did the Auckland Public Library look out and somehow grab the zine idea? You’ve
got hundreds, if not thousands of children participating in library programs every school
holidays. I think zines are part of it. Greg: Yeah, well actually I was one of the
people who bought a zine collection into the library, and that’s a long an interesting
story in itself. So it’s a particularly point of pride, but all across libraries every day
people are coming into non-judgemental, indoor public space. They also meet in libraries
in other places as well, because librarians are active right throughout the community.
At the moment there’s a book club which is happening in wine bars for example that’s
proving very popular with a set of people who don’t make it to the library during business
hours. Libraries are there for the whole community; non-judgemental, open where people can just
come and be indoors. You don’t have to come for a particular program, although there’s
a lot in a library that you can take part in, and that’s a particular delight.
I think that children in our churches traditionally get a bit of a rough deal when it comes to
the traditional children’s talk, and the thing that I have tried very hard to get out of
my being is that urge when things are a bit tense, to ask children lots of questions – bombard
them, and then give them the impression that they have to give the right answer, because
if they give the right answer the congregation feels relaxed, everybody nods, everybody’s
happy. What I try to do is to build an activity that the kids and the congregation – the adults
can take part in together, some as spectators, some as participants. There’s that poem of
Wordsworth’s about the father and the little boy; the father is asking the little boy why
he doesn’t want to leave a particular house, and the little boy looks up and he says, it’s
the wind – the thing that shows which direction of the wind – the wind….
David: Oh, the weathervane. Greg: The weathervane. Yeah, forgot my language;
it’s the weathervane. The little boy just picks that as an answer because he knows it
will satisfy the adult. I think that often in churches it can be a bit like that. The
kids just must feel interrogated. So today what I did was I brought in a rocket and I
put the rocket on the communion table. It happened to be sitting alongside a picture
of John Wesley. The rocket was because New Zealand is now in the Space Race, and also
of course Ascension Sunday, so why would you not have a rocket? So I didn’t labour that,
but I just popped it there and I thought, well people could think about that. So the
congregation burst out laughing. Then for the activity with the children I had a couple
of tubes of cardboard and we had a relay race around the church. So they passed the baton,
and that was a really good help to understand John 17:1-11 – the passing of the baton.
I got the congregation to watch the kids at a point the baton was passed, and the congregation
was not allowed to watch the last child complete the race; they had to watch only the baton
bit. Because they didn’t turn their gaze to look at the person who was fulfilling the
race, they didn’t see what happened. I didn’t go as far as to have the finishing lines of
the choir – I didn’t go as far as to have the choir as the kind of band of heavenly
angels, although it was very tempting, I have to tell you. So, I think that kind of participation
is so much stronger than just asking kids lots of questions.
That’s what you see in libraries; the whole make a space thing isn’t about technology
– it’s not really about robots – it’s not about any of the kind of gleaming tech. It’s
about people in a consumer society – and I say that as quite a consumer myself, but it
is people having the chance to make something – to find something out – to ask you because
you’re alongside me – how do I connect this thing together? That’s what libraries excel
at, and I think churches need to do a bit more of that, too.
David: I think that’s a fantastic message for all our preachers, whether they’re lay,
ordained or part-time pastors or fulltime or whatever – doesn’t really matter what the
category is; it’s really about how do we go about being genuinely involved with the people
that have come to gather that Sunday, and how do we enable them to participate in the
act of worship. I’d like to take a slightly different tack with this question; over a
lifetime of academic study and then more recently in this world of preaching, do you think that
your faith has changed very much, and what’s driven the changes in that time?
Greg: Yes, well as I said at the beginning, David – I wasn’t brought up in the church.
I wasn’t even brought up in a Christian household. So my mother had been Salvation Army when
she was young, but had left that church, and my father’s family were Cooneyites, and by
the time he went into the Army he was so tired of preachers plonking themselves at the family
home, and staying forever that he wrote he was an atheist in his sign-up papers, which
I don’t think Dad was. So I wasn’t brought up in a church family. When I was about six
years of age my father asked me one day what I was doing. I was sitting at the kitchen
table and I had one of those Olympic pads, with the really wide lines, and I was writing
some stuff. I can remember saying to Dad, I’m writing a hymn. He said, oh. He looked
very taken-aback; I think you should ask your mother whether you’re allowed to.
Partly, as I tell this story I think, goodness me – I sound like Blake seeing Ezekiel or
something, but also just what a strange thing; how on earth did I even think to do this?
It must have been in relation to something I had been reading I guess. As I grew up,
I just always felt that I was connected with spirituality even though I didn’t go to church.
Then when I did start going I had all of the passion and enthusiasm of the person who has
found home. So I went into Pitt Street, I was actually going to a Presbyterian church,
some timing was wrong and I ended up in the Methodist church. I sat at the back. I sat
in the corner and then I kind of moved down the church, and then became so included in
the church that it almost drove me out. So I became Chair of Parish Council, and I was
on every committee going. I was Parish Steward, and there are stresses
and strains in a community, and I realised at a certain time that if I kept up all of
that stuff, I wasn’t able to actually worship, and I needed to worship, so I pulled back
from that. Now I am in a place where I’m very grateful to the open nature of our church.
I think it is, for all the debates we have internally, I think on the whole we’re a pretty
welcoming church and a pretty tolerant one. I also preach in a really tolerant Presbyterian
congregation that I love very much, and I appreciate all of that. It gives me the freedom
in my own life to look at a whole lot of other things that I don’t really bring into my preaching.
So I’m quite interested in the older new thought churches and Unitarianism. I’m interested
in those people who have clung to spirituality even though the frameworks of faith don’t
seem to suit them. So I do quite a lot of thinking in those areas
and recently Susan and Anne and Paul and I had the opportunity to hear Mavis Staples
twice. Mavis Staples for me is just the experience of church, and I always remember in Auckland
hearing Bernice Johnston Reagon who was the lead singer of Sweet Honey in the Rock, talking
about the black church in America, and she asked us as an audience to think why would
people stay in an institution which had to some degree supported slavery.
It was because when people when to church they knew they were sane. So I continued to
be fascinated by these notions of the usefulness of church, and just to explore some of those
experiences. So yeah, my faith is taking these turns all the time but when I’m with a congregation
I think in advance of that congregation and why it’s asked me to be there, and what it
needs. So I never feel that I compromise my own interest in other things, but I’m also
there to serve the congregation, and you can do both, in my view.
David: Well, we’ve pretty well come to the end of our time for this evening, but we’ve
had a number of viewer responses to Dr Greg Morgan, and one of the questions that’s been
asked is really along the lines of back in the 14th Century how did we see this emergence
or tension if you like, between the Orthodox and the un-Orthodox? How did they deal with
religious waste, as it were, these 14th Century preachers?
Greg: Yeah, well I was thinking about this in preparation for this evening in terms of
the sermons I looked at because you can see quite a strong focus on the obligations of
priests and people in the church hierarchy. So this is an era coming out of the 13th Century
into the 14th, very concerned with heresy and orthodoxy, doing the right thing. Here
are these sermons written for ordinary people – for a lay audience, which had a very strong
focus on the shepherd doing the right thing by God’s people. So, that undermining of the
orthodoxy – very interesting, and if you think of some other works like [Langland 31:46]
and so on, just those interesting social pressures bubbling underneath, and when writers were
deciding what to focus on – what they chose to give their energy to, and certainly in
the sermons I looked at, it would sit around the obligations of the powerful.
David: Well, I think that’s a marvellous lesson from six centuries ago to be applied to church
life today. Greg, on behalf of the active audience in the studio as it were, we all
want to say thank you very much for a most stimulating session, and we look forward to
hearing your message in a variety of contexts. So once again, thank you.
Greg: Thanks everybody. Thank you very much. The Voices of a 14th and 21st century Preacher
kiwiconnextion practical theology