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If you sin, can you preach?

Proclaiming the Word, no matter whatThe fact that some clergy are implicated in wrong-doing should not deter preachers from proclaiming the Word of God clearly, David Gaffney holds. Sermons have always been delivered by sinners to sinners.


Clergy in Southern Italy and neighbouring parts have appeared in court charged with the embezzlement of huge sums of money. If these clerics are found guilty, does it mean that all church personnel in the region have to fall silent about the sin of embezzlement? Or should the sin of these clergy rather not spur their colleagues into preaching louder than ever?

They could warn: “Corruption in public life is everywhere. Financial greed has become a plague, making inroads even among those appointed to be guardians of morality. Nobody seems immune. Our weakness as a civic community has been shown up – and the fact that we are a sinful church community also, priests and people alike. We must buckle down to the task of eradicating dishonesty in public life; we are all in this together”.

In some areas of life, it was always acceptable for preachers to go on warning about a moral disorder even when this disorder showed itself in the priests themselves. This was the case with alcoholism.

Not so with violence, however. In many people’s eyes, when there are clerics who are implicated in violent crime, the entire body of clergy loses its credibility when it preaches on this subject. In Rwanda, for instance, priests are on trial for aiding and abetting genocide. (These constitute only a small number, it should be noted, and there have been other Rwandan priests who have suffered death rather than betray their flocks.) Even here, however, I believe that a preacher can stand up and say: “Our people have been divided by murderous hatred. Even some of the ordained advocates of peace and love are accused of getting caught up in the hatred. But every single citizen and Christian has a duty to calm the rage, to lay down the weapons – before the conflagration engulfs us all”.

Another extreme situation is the sexual abuse of children by clergy. Only a tiny percentage of the total population of priests have been guilty of this, and it is certainly incumbent on priests everywhere to preach ardently against all crime against children. It has been estimated that one Irish child in four has been sexually molested. (People still seem unaware that the “One In Four” organization in Britain and Ireland takes its name from this survey-finding. However, further studies are needed to confirm this figure, remembering that definitions of molestation can be very loose.) In other words, child-abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the population at large.

We would have wished that clergy everywhere were able to preach “from a clean sheet”, that some of them had not (to put it at its mildest) “dirtied their bib”. But maybe we had got into the habit of speaking about a “sinful church” without ever really thinking that this sinfulness could show itself in our clergy.

‘If you sin, can you preach?’ was my initial question. Some may still be convinced that the answer is no, believing that those who preach and fail to follow through on their words are hypocrites. But as the gospel – and, indeed, our own experience – tells us, no-one is without sin but Jesus.

So if freedom from sin is a precondition of preaching then none shall preach! St Paul knew this better than most when he spoke of himself as the least worthy to preach of Christ since he had persecuted His followers and he was all too aware of his own weaknesses even after his conversion. But this did not stop him preaching the truth of Christ crucified and risen and the implications of this for those who wanted to follow Jesus. Furthermore he asserted that it was in our very weakness that God’s strength was manifest.

If you sin, can you preach? I say yes, like St Paul, believing that the power of the Word comes from God, and is spoken through His all-too-sinful but struggling faithful.