The Archbishop of Canterbury in a homily on Friday 23 January 2015 at Trinity Walls Street in New York City has attacked a preaching demon he identifies as “moral claptrap.”

The Archbishop claims,

Jesus does not permit us to accept a society in which the weak are excluded (whether because of race, wealth, gender, ability, or sexuality). Nor did He permit us to turn religion into morality. The old sermons that we have heard so often in England, which I grew up with, which if you boiled them down all they effectively said was: “Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?” That is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept.

Instead the Archbishop suggests,

We are, by contrast, as Christians to be caught up in a revolution of expectation and of implementation. Were it not for the fact that He is in title Prince of Peace, and lived out his mission in service and foot-washing, ending it in crucifixion and resurrection, this would be a call to violent revolution.

I wonder if I am guilty of missing the “violent revolution” dimension of the Gospel and preaching “moral claptrap”.

What is “moral claptrap”?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “claptrap” as “words, ideas, etc., that are very foolish or stupid, pretentious nonsense.”

I wonder if it is “pretentious nonsense” to suggest that “the world would be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer.” It may be too small a a vision for the noble calling of being a follower of Christ, but it seems to me that it would not be a bad thing if the world were “a nicer place.” And there is little doubt that the world would in indeed be “a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer.”

It is possible that some presentations that purport to represent Christianity might be improved if they were seasoned with a little niceness. Simple human decency could go a long way to improve the status of the Christian faith in the eyes of the world at large.

If the video is authentic, a little more niceness would not be misplaced, in the ministry of the preacher who apparently proudly described to his congregation how he punched a child in his youth group, .

The “foolish, stupid, or pretentious nonsense” that worries me in my own preaching much more than encouraging people to be nicer, is the times I risk a form of violence that, while less overtly offensive than the punching pastor, carries equal potential for harm.

When I slip into badgering, hectoring, and pressuring the congregation in an attempt to make my point, I am punching them in the chest. If I resort to even the most subtle forms of shaming or guilt to motivate those in the pew to be better, do better, or think differently, I have resorted to “moral claptrap” in my preaching. Every time I suggest that I know better than my listeners what is good for them and how they should live their lives, I have moved into the domain of words that are “very foolish or stupid.”

I agree with Archbishop Justin Welby that it is important for preachers to think seriously about the potential impact of the words they use in their preaching. The potential for violence lurking in the dark corners of the pulpit is too real to be lightly dismissed, and will no longer be easily passed over by thoughtful churchgoers.

The word “nice” has made a curious journey to arrive at its current slightly insipid connotations. It began life in the late 13c. meaning, “foolish, stupid, or senseless,” curiously close in fact to the Archbishop’s word “claptrap.” But nice then morphed over the years “from ‘timid’ (pre-1300); to ‘fussy, fastidious’ (late 14c.); to ‘dainty, delicate’ (c.1400); to ‘precise, careful’ (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to ‘agreeable, delightful’ (1769); to ‘kind, thoughtful’ (1830).”

Preaching that encourages us to “kind” and “thoughtful” strikes me as a worthwhile goal for the preacher. So, for now I will not be unhappy if, in response to my preaching, people come away determined to live in ways that are “a little bit nicer.”