Hear, Hear

From this report on the interview between Frank Skinner and the Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘Skinner described himself as “a tough crowd” when listening to a sermon, and said that priests don’t try hard enough to make an impact when preaching’.
I say the same all the time, including occasions during both clergy conferences I addressed last week. Preachers have no clear feedback mechanism for learning when they preach well, or poorly; and they exercise a vocation that tends to be protective of one another (at least, face to face). I know of plenty of self-protective devices clergy use to explain the appearance of congregational dissatisfaction with their preaching: ‘I’m a propehtic preacher, so it’s natural that people will be uncomfortable’, or ‘They’re comparing me to their beloved former pastor’, or ‘It’s unreasonable to expect a great sermon every week’. (And it should be said that many congregations demand so much time from clergy that they have no basis for complaining if the preacher is ill-prepared.)
Still, one wonders what would happen if sermons were regularly reviewed by a good critic (or by an itinerant representative of the diocese/synod/whatever), or if it were permissible to take preaching as a strong ingredient in such gross indicators as rise or fall in attendance. What if the church were obliged to be honest about the plain fact that some preachers are not as good at their craft as are others? And what if the church recognised that some of the most prominent characteristics in selecting for ordained ministry, and then also for determining appointments, are not co-implicated with preaching skills? What if, to be blunt, ‘preaching well’ is not the norm, but a noteworthy exception?

4 thoughts on “Hear, Hear

  1. I’ve found regularly watching videos of myself preach very helpful. Both watching such a sermonand knowing that people whose opinion I care about are watching it at a distance online has changed my preaching.

  2. Verily, Amen! Of course, that depends on a degree of self-awareness and on a capacity for self-criticism that will benefit from thinking through the scope of a sermon’s audience — and as I always remind preachers, even without electronic broadcast, one is always preaching before the assembled presence of sisters and brothers past and future, before saints and angels and all the company of heaven (as the Eucharistic prayer says). If we are undaunted to offer slapdash sermons with St Michael, the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, Francis, Catherine of Siena, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Macrina, and the evangelists, prophets, lawgivers, and the Lord himself watching, then I’m not sure one will be moved by the prospect that a web browser might be bored or misled by an online sermon.
    And now my friend, colleague, and former student Kate Blanchard says this:
    ‘[M]ost Sundays I don’t go to church because, frankly put, it bores me; I am tired and church fails to provide any compelling reason to get out of my pajamas. (Were I living in a large, cosmopolitan city where churches with high liturgy, weekly Eucharist, beautiful architecture, and trained musicians abounded, my story might be quite different.) Although I like the people at church very much and I wish to support them in their hours of need, I am still unwilling to prioritize membership.’
    Kate is no callow consumerist, looking to have her needs met, and she’s not snooty about “common people” as opposed to the glories of cosmopolitan worship (though I admit there’s a risk of reading her that way). She is, though, vividly aware that most of what many of us do on Sunday morning hardly rises above the level of the perfunctory — and that’s a real theological problem.

  3. Well, AKMA, I wish I could disagree with you, since my professional calling is training preachers who will rise above the simply mediocre. But, of course, I can’t. On the one hand, it’s a mathematical fact that roughly half of the preachers working at any one time will be below average. But let’s take no false cover in mathematics. Objectively, a lot of preaching is pretty bad.

    We who teach preaching (and our allies who also want better preaching) can do many things to raise the average level of homiletic competence. The number one thing that my pew-sitting allies can do to help me is stop shaking hands with preachers at the door and saying “nice sermon, pastor.” Because, well, no it wasn’t. If you liked the sermon well enough to remember something in particular about it, say what it was. If you took issue with a theological point, say “May I call you this week? Your sermon raised a question I’d like to ask you.” Seriously… you must begin to engage preachers about their preaching, remembering always to speak the truth in love. I judge a sermon on the number of comments I get (positive or negative) disregarding all who simply say “thank you for your message.”

    I know you’re doing your part, AKMA, to make sure that those who get to my classroom have the needed exegetical skills to develop a good sermon (without which I can’t do much to help them), but that’s also an area ripe for attention. If I ever hear another sermon explaining what sheep meant in the first century, or that the “eye of the needle” was a gate in Jerusalem, or that wedding garments were provided, or anything of the sort, it’ll be too soon.

    In short, we’re in this together, bishops and priests and deacons and laypeople, professors and students, evangelists and prophets and pastors. Preaching is simply too important to leave it to become the least-well-planned part of the liturgy.

    Of course, I could go on for much longer, but I have to get to class to teach some students to be better preachers. And then I need to get back to my writing so that it can get past just my classroom. Thanks for the prompt.

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