Sermons in Stones (Shakespeare: As You Like It)

A friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor in America, was asked recently if he would let his name go forward in the election for the bishop of their local Synod (that is, the diocese). He did so, and was surprised to find himself at number 3 in the first stage of voting. Then, to the annoyance of his supporters, he withdrew.

‘I’m 62 years old,’ he explained, ‘and at my time of life you don’t want to take a downward step in your career. You see, I preach to 21,000 folk every Sunday and if I were a bishop, I’d only preach to 100.’ He has between 1,500 and 2,000 in his church every week and the sermon goes out by subscriber cable TV throughout the State to the rest.

I have heard him preach on several occasions and I wish I had a tenth of his gift, not least in story telling. This is at the heart of his technique, and three times I have had him over to give workshops to clergy here. For it is a valuable (and biblical) technique and it is our loss that so often we neglect it. After all, it was the teaching method favoured by Jesus himself.

When I was archdeacon, preaching at a different church on most Sundays, I found I could preach the same sermon several weeks on the trot. It would gradually get better, but then eventually it would worsen, and I knew it was time to prepare another. My long-suffering wife would sometimes ask, en route to that week’s venue, which one it was going to be. ‘Well, I know that one by heart,’ she would say, ‘so if you forget your stories or lose your voice, just give me the nod and I’ll carry on for you.’

Six of the best

But we did have the opportunity to hear other preachers, albeit limited, and so I asked her the other day who were her top ten. Ten was perhaps too much to expect, but she didn’t hesitate with six. The Dean of Wakefield, George Nairn-Briggs topped the list, closely followed by the Bishop of Sheffield, Jack Nicholls. Then came Archbishop John Habgood, John Taylor the former Bishop of St Albans for Old Testament teaching, and Jeremy Haselock, formerly of Boxgrove and now Canon at Norwich. ‘And of course Tim Gill,’ she added. Tim is our own Vicar at St Luke’s, York. I thought that one name was notable by its absence, but modesty forbad me to say anything.

So do they have anything in common? Certainly all have something worth saying and each possesses a good measure of warmth in his delivery. John Habgood in particular will sometimes pause for a moment after making a point and smile, almost as if to say, ‘Are you with me? Do you see what I am getting at?’

Humour too is often there, and there is nothing wrong with that so long as it is an illustration of a teaching point and not a substitute for it. Tim Gill often makes his congregation laugh, but his sermons are thought-provoking and, the great requirement, thoroughly orthodox in their content.

Jack Nicholls is the supreme storyteller, and when he preached at one induction the clergy were all saying afterwards, with an enthusiasm not often found after an episcopal utterance, ‘I’m going to use those stories myself.’ And why not? After all, I don’t suppose the parables of Jesus only had one airing. If a story told by one preacher communicates, why not use it again oneself? And again. And again. Thank you for that one, Jack.

For communication is what it is about, and we have all heard preachers who make you want to reach for the mute button. In a parish where I was Vicar an induction loop was introduced and I was surprised afterwards how many told me they found it helpful. As one elderly lady said, ‘I’ve never been able to hear the sermon before and now I can just switch off my hearing aid when you’re boring.’

Form and content

And in one inner city London parish many years ago, where the Vicar was very learned and even more aristocratic, one parishioner said to me, ‘Of course we don’t understand a word he says but he does have ever such a posh accent.’ And I swear I once heard a preacher tell his country congregation, ‘Of course, we all know about the Arminian controversies in the 16th century.’ Or was it that Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets?

Perhaps in no age before this have people been so assailed by communication – newspapers, television, now the Internet. We cannot avoid it, and because this is so, there is for the preacher the necessity to be as equally professional as others engaged in communicating a message.

When I began to broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day and then Thought for the Day, I found I was learning techniques from young producers that I ought to have been given years before at theological college. How to catch the audience’s attention in the first couple of sentences, how to hold on to it for 2½ minutes, how to keep to the point and not confuse it with diversions, how to rearrange a sentence to give it more bite.

Pictures in the mind

‘Don’t forget that radio is more visual than television,’ said one producer, ‘because you have to create the pictures in the listeners’ minds.’ Another told me that he believed that no one could listen to one speaker for more than three minutes at the outside without losing concentration. And he was with Radio 3.

When the present crisis in the Church of England, in finance as well as in Sunday attendance and the consequent reduction in clergy numbers, is set alongside the need for a greater professionalism in communicating skills, it is clear that new thought must be given both to who preaches as well as to how better to preach.

Right as it may be that clergy need courses in counselling, training in relationship skills or in how to cope in an increasingly violent society, and the rest (and there is a need for all that), the question must be asked if there is not too often the assumption that all that is needed for adequate communication of the message we are there to promote is a pulpit and either a microphone or a loud voice.

That has never been true, and today it could not be less true.