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Hallo again to all.

Every week many of us sit in our parish churches and listen to a sermon. It may be a quick five-minute homily, preached informally in the nave. Or it may be 25 minutes, and a more formal sermon from a pulpit 'six feet above contradiction'. It could be read word by word from a manuscript or 'made up on the spot'. It could be spellbinding or utterly boring. In more cases than not, it was probably the work of hours of thought, prayer, and study. No matter whether the final result is turgid or entrancing, we in the pews are a captive audience -- whether or not we are captivated.

Is there any occasion now that is so exclusively 'voice dependent' as listening to a sermon? Of course there is the radio, but one may work, cook, garden, play, and even pray with a speaker prattling in the background. But during a sermon, there we are, obediently in our pews, face forward, and cannot do much other than listen quietly*.

Once upon a time sermons were much much longer. In the 18th and 19th centuries, an hour was probably the average. We squirm at the very thought, but our ancestors had one advantage over us: they were listening to sermons delivered when the spoken word was an art form. Elocution, oratory, and rhetoric were held in high regard. Theological students were taught articulation, declamation, and gesture. The voice was considered an instrument to be practised and played: pitch, metre, timing were all tools for the preacher.

Of course there are the caricatures that no doubt reflected some degree of reality: the parsonical voice, prissy and thin. Or the hell-fire and brimstone shouts of the revivalists. But disregarding the extremes, we suspect that in earlier times, sermon delivery was more interesting and more filled with the colour of sound than we can realise. In our age where listening to the spoken word is so rare, shouldn't we do better at capitivating our hearers through words? No Powerpoints. No overhead projectors. No screens. Just words. Vox et praetaeria nihil indeed.

What training did those of you in Holy Orders receive with regard to ? Good? Indifferent? Does it matter? Do current students get training as good as yours? Should they? Do share something of that with us in a letter, if you would.

As the blessed George Herbert wrote: 'Auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart deep.' The people in the pews are listening.

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 18 July 2004

*There are of course the time-honoured perusals of the prayer book or hymnal in a desperate attempt to amuse oneself through a sermon in which the preacher is making a particularly bad job of it. The Table of Kindred and Affinity was propbably read more during bad sermons than at any other time.

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