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This page last updated 29 July 2004
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Letters to AO

EVERY WEEK WE PUBLISH a selection of letters we receive in response to something you've read at Anglicans Online. Stop by and have a look at what other AO readers are thinking.

Alas, we cannot publish every letter we receive. And we won't publish letters that are anonymous, hateful, illiterate, or otherwise in our judgment do not benefit the readers of Anglicans Online. We usually do not publish letters written in response to other letters.

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Letters from 18 to 25 July 2004

We had numerous responses to our front-page letter of 18 July about sermons, voice. clarity, and the like. Thanks to all who wrote about their own experiences in voice training, homiletics, preaching, and the like. We include a large selection below, as we found them most interesting. We hope our readers will, too.

If you'd like to write a letter of your own, click here.

Screaming at waterfalls

IN MY VISIT TO OUR CHURCH IN BRAZIL in 1987 on the 60th anniversary of Japanese Christian Missions in Brazil (begun by Anglicans from Japan in 1927), I met a Priest from the Diocese of Kobe, Japan, Father Andrew Tsuneo Matsuo, who was serving in the Japanese Brazilian congregation at St. John's Church, Sao Paulo.

Ten days ago, on Sunday, July 11, 2004, my wife and I went to St. Timothy's Church, Sakomachi, Tokushima (Diocese of Kobe) and met Father Matsuo, again. The purpose of our quick ten-day trip from Seattle to Japan was to attend the Memorial Service when the cremated remains of my wife's mother, Sarah Hatsue Furumoto, were committed in the church's common grave. My wife's mother at age 94, had died 35 days before, on June 6, but the earliest we could be with the family was on this occasion. (My wife's father, the Rev. Paul Masao Furumoto, died eleven years ago when we were serving in Okinawa, so we were able to attend his funeral in the Cathedral in Kobe.) Keiko's father and mother had served for 40 years in Tokushima. Father Matsuo conducted the committal, and the Eucharist preceding it.

Father Matsuo had a powerful, booming, resonating voice, one that I did not remember hearing during my visit to Brazil 17 years before. During a reception in the parish hall after the Church Service and the Committal at the Cemetery, I asked him about it. He replied that he prepared himself under training to be able to be heard without benefit of voice amplification, as speakers had done in time-honoured fashion in ages past. He said he put himself in the hands of a voice trainer who took him to a waterfall, where he screamed until his voice literally cracked. After his voice returned, he was directed to scream until it cracked the second time. Then after his voice returned, his trainer helped him to mould his voice in a period of of an additional two weeks so he could speak again, but with much louder sounds consonant with Japanese phraseology and meaningful expression.

I had heard visiting evangelists from Japan with loud voices before, but had not heard about this kind of special voice development, but the characteristic timbre and tone were identical.

The Reverend Timothy Makoto Nakayama
St Mark's Cathedral
Seattle, Washington, USA
23 July 2004

Writing cleanly

I WAS FORTUNATE TO HAVE CAREFUL and excellent tutelage in preaching, receiving private help from fine preachers at St Mark's Cathedral in Seattle, and excellent courses from excellent professors at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California (class of 1991).

I was taught careful diction, projection and word emphasis, uses of silence and eye contact. I learned to preach in conversation with the congregation. I was taught to write clean sermons: sermons with no extraneous words, phrases, or unnecessary material. (It was sometimes very hard to give up my favorite artistic devices!) I was taught to edit, edit, edit, then edit again! I learned that my sermon should actually have a point, which then can be illustrated with stories or other material. I learned how to build a sermon so that people want to hear the next piece and will follow eagerly. I learned to take time and use care to interpret scripture in terms of our life today, making every effort not to distort or otherwise abuse the spirit of the Gospel. I am always grateful that I had good critics and helpers and wonderful preaching opportunities early on.

I preach from a full script, except at weddings and funerals, which is rare today. I find that I can offer a much fuller, less superficial sermon if I don't have to worry about remembering it. I can also then practice it and fully exploit a lively intelligent presentation. I want to offer people challenging, moving, and thought-provoking sermons that helps them to think and live more and more deeply into their life with God.

The Reverend Betsy Seeger
Rector, St Peter's Episcopal Church
Seattle, Washington, USA

Only clergy need speak clearly?

YOUR INTERESTING FRONT PAGE asks about the adequacy of training in preaching. I am a layman, recently completed a four-year theology degree and have gone on to doctoral studies. But in my college, courses in preaching and homiletics were available only to candidates taking ordination training!

Brian McKinlay
St Philip's, O'Connor
19 July 2004

Three breaths for the Trinity

I AM A PRIEST OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND, Diocese in Europe, serving in Vienna, Austria as curate. Four years ago I had the privilege of a year's training at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. (My previous training was by correspondence through St John's College, Nottingham.)

At Wycliffe Hall, preaching was really important! We had two or three -- depending of the timetable -- classes related to sermons and preaching every week. We also had voice lessons with a voice teacher, who taught only that. She was well known for her advice, 'Before you start, take three deep breaths, one for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Spirit!'

Aileen Hackl
Christ Church, Vienna (Diocese in Europe)
19 July 2004

'All better sermons hurt a little to give'

OVER THE YEARS I'VE BEEN TOLD -- especially as a recent arrival in a congregation -- 'The problem with you is that I don't get a chance to read the bulletin'. That's meant as a compliment, that my preaching holds the hearer's attention well enough that independent amusement is seldom necessary.

Even so, the far more consistent message of recent years is that sermons ought not to go over ten minutes, that twenty is intolerable and inexcusable, and that five would be ideal. I can't imagine what I would hear if I were not a pretty good preacher. Last week a parishioner volunteered that she's sick of hearing about the Bible and Christian faith; she wants book reviews, thoughts about movies, opinions about local politics, and 'things that might be interesting to us who really come for the social life and not for religious reasons'.

Few people in the pews realize how spiritually exhausting preaching is. Most think of it as public speaking, not realizing that it is a public exposé of the most intimate details of the preacher's soul. My great disappointment in Episcopal seminaries in the USA is that they too often hire professors of homiletics who have never really preached. They give sermons, true enough; often excellent, and are highly skilled and artistic in sermon construction. But unless they've gone through the effort to dredge the bottom for the sixth consecutive week of preaching on empty, they are not ready to prepare their students for the spiritual exercise which preaching is.

I remain committed to the sermon, often delivered informally from the aisle, but well constructed, thoughtful, grand in scale but accessible in language and imagery. All my better sermons hurt a little to give, and all reveal something of myself, even if not explicitly nor so that anyone could tell I was talking about myself. Paul suggested that preaching was part of the foolishness by which God was introducing true wisdom to the world, entrusting eternal truth to the safety of clay pots like me. In spite of all the temptations to turn preaching into little more than a thought for the day, it feels faithful and true to keep at the work so long as the church continues to have faith in the liturgical life we have inherited.

The Reverend Randal Gardner
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
Mercer Island, Washington, USA
20 July 2004

'As the poor will always be with us...'

I AM A GRADUATE STUDENT in New Testament and Preaching and look forward to a career as a professor of Homiletics as well as Scripture. As a result, I have been struggling for some time with the topic, but have come to no good solutions to what I see as a serious problem.

Just as the poor will always be with us, so too poor preachers will always be with us. As Cicero and other classical rhetoricians taught, ability in public speaking is a blend of individual talent, training, and practice. There will always be people possessing a true vocation to serve God's people who will have received the short end of the stick when it comes to homiletical talent. My job -- our job as the Church -- is to do what we can in the areas of training and practice.

First, seminaries need to nurture practices that lead seminarians into a mature spirituality rooted in the biblical text and in the orthodox teachings of the Fathers. These should not be restricted to the preaching classes, either. All too often, preaching courses attempt to teach -- or worse, have to teach -- basic skills in reading the Bible, then constructive theology, then the elements of liturgy, and only then get to preaching itself and the arts of public proclamation. Folks, that's not fair -- it's not fair to students and it surely isn't fair to future parishioners. Students should already know how to read, ponder, and think theologically about the Scriptures and their intersection with our world before they get to the preaching courses. All of the introductory courses ought to work towards this goal.

Second, we need to teach seminarians how to communicate clearly. A costly three year (or longer) theological education is a waste if at the end our students are unable to articulate in a clear and compelling fashion not only what they have learned, but how they are able discern God at work in the world as a result. And many of our former students and current priests can neither write nor speak half as well as they ought.

While preaching as Christian rhetoric has been widely disparaged in past decades, suffering under a two-pronged attack from Neo-Orthodox Word alone theologies and Pietist aw shucks, folks, I'm just speaking the word God put in my heart today approaches, this is what we need to recapture. Preaching faculties should be able to assume that they are teaching students who already know the basics of Christian doctrine and who are competent readers of the biblical text. Our task should be to focus on teaching students how to communicate what they already know and live. Instead of perpetuating sound bites and bullet points, we need to teach seminarians how to construct and present sound exhortations about what God is doing in the incarnate body of Christ that is the Church. Only then will our students be able to move, instruct, and delight as they ought.

As you hint in your editorial, it surely would be nice if students were taught classical rhetoric and persuasive speaking. I can tell you for my part that I would love to teach them that. Instead, given the curricula at most seminaries around America, that option isn't available. I have to teach 'intro to everything' before I can even get there.

Here's praying for change,

Derek Olsen
St Bede's Episcopal Church
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
20 July 2004

Link to 'The Story' (and don't swallow your consonants)

I AM A PRIEST OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH in the USA serving the Church in the Province of South Africa as Canon Precentor at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town. Most folks have considered my preaching as good, strong and challenging. I was awarded a prize for extemporaneous preaching at General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York.

At GTS I took two courses on preaching. I also was trained a bit in voice for reading, officiating, and preaching. GTS's current preaching professor, the Reverend Mitties DeChamplain, is exceptional in that she is a priest trained in theatre and communication theory and practice. I was also a high school and college actor and received much help in elocution and communication.

Preaching as I now do in a vast Cathedral, where my American accent can be a hindrance to someone listening and where a number of parishioners are slightly hearing impaired, I have developed an even keener sense of elocution, SLOWING DOWN AND NOT SWALLOWING MY CONSONANTS, ESPECIALLY AT THE END OF WORDS.

Although we live in a less word-oriented age, I would say that people will still sit to listen to good stories. I see the role of the preacher as to take the biblical stories and our human stories (past and present) and link to THE STORY, which is God's dream for us.

Father Walter Brownridge
Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr
Cape Town, Western Province, SOUTH AFRICA
20 July 2004

Taking your body seriously

I AM A FAIRLY NEW PRIEST (ordained in 2003) and couldn't agree with you more. Good sermons are not just about the content, but also the form -- elocution, pitch, etc.

I am so grateful that while at seminary (Seabury Western in the Chicago area), our preaching professor had an acting coach come to work with us on body issues, pitch, deliver etc. No, we're not acting or performing, but as a musician and performer, the benefits of good public speaking and good body awareness are absolutely essential. Too many clergy over look this.

If we really give our heart to incarnation, then what is demanded of us is that presiders must take their bodies seriously. That means always being aware of where it is and how our voice is pitched and what effect it has. I'm really fortunate to have two very talented colleagues who are aware of such things and are willing to give feedback to help me develop my preaching voice and presiding body.

Thank you again for your article this week and every week!

George Anne Boyle
St Thomas Episcopal Church
Medina, Washington, USA
21 July 2004

Training before a call

I WAS A SPEECH AND THEATRE major in graduate school and subsequently taught speech, and oral interpretation of literature in local colleges. Although that was years before I was able to fathom a priestly call, it certainly helped prepare me for preaching!

The Reverend Bindy Snyder
Calvary in Osceola, Arkansas; and St. Stephen's in Blytheville
Memphis, Tennessee, USA
24 July 2004

'Complete microphone dependence'

I RECEIVED SOME MINIMAL TRAINING in elocution and declamation in seminary, but not much. In homiletics class we preached for each other and students also preached regularly to the whole seminary--students and faculty. But the ensuing critiques were more focused on the content rather than the use of the voice.

The greatest help I personally received for my voice came from my experience in singing in choirs and glee clubs, particularly during the three years in college that I sang in a very good parish choir whose repertory was almost exclusively chant. I found the attention given there to diction and musical phrasing helped me a lot with speaking and projection of the voice as well.

One thing I have found among many of the younger generation of clergy is complete microphone dependence. Most have no understanding of how to make themselves heard in a room. I completely agree that more attention to oratorical, rhetorical and elocution skills is sorely needed.

The Reverend James N. Lodwick
South Bend, Indiana, USA
19 July 2004

'A story in search of a sermon'

PETER GOMES WAS MY HOMILETICS PROFESSOR at Harvard Divinity School. He was a great taskmaster. We learned to preach a minimum of 10 minutes without notes. Before going up (if you have been in Memorial Church at Harvard, it is definitely up) to preach you handed him a note with the main point of your sermon. He would judge you on how well it moved towards the point, how you worked from the text assigned, whether your stories 'fit' or not. My favorite comment he made of one preacher was 'that anecdote you used seems like a story in search of a sermon'. I think I received the best possible training.

The Reverend Ann Fontaine
Lander, Wyoming, USA
20 July 2004

Heard in Royal Albert Hall

I JOINED THE CHURCH ARMY (UK) IN 1976 and started the three-year training course at the Training College. Almost straightaway we received a term's training from a professional teacher in public speaking: voice projection, clarity, expression were all a part of the course. Near the end of the three years, there were two things essential to being commissioned as an Officer in the Church Army and then Admitted to the Office of Evangelist. One was that sufficient theological and personal development had taken place in the individual and the other was to pass the English Speaking Board examination. If you failed you couldn't continue.

I have often thought that other theological colleges would do well to include the voice test/examination in their syllabus. Church Army had got it right: the voice is the single most important form of communication, whether outdoor evangelism or leading a service in a large church with a congregation of 5, 50, or 500. We can preach the most profound of insights into the human or divine, but without hearers being able to hear, all is lost.

There is nothing quite so irritating as being in a church and not being able to hear the preacher because of their style (or lack of it) in voice production. I always remember our voice trainer at Church Army College saying that the voice could be heard in the Royal Albert Hall with no electronic help, provided it was directed in the right direction and spoken with clarity and clearness. Mind you, I've never had the opportunity to put that theory to the test! I am, of course in favour of microphones and amplifiers but I've always felt that they are to assist the human voice to be heard clearly rather than taking it over.

The Reverend Lindsay Dew
United Benefice of Thornhill and Whitley Lower
Thornhill, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. UNITED KINGDOM
20 July 2004

'The wisdom of Sydney's decision'

A LINK ON YOUR NEWS CENTRE PAGE directed me to a report of falling church attendance among Anglicans in Australia. This revealed that since 1991 only two dioceses, Sydney and Canberra, have increased attendance while all others have gone down. The Sydney archdiocese is routinely condemned by the liberals, but their evangelistic, mission-minded programme seems to be reaching people, while liberal dioceses are ageing and dying.

I note also from your links that Sydney archdiocese was attacked for asking would-be clergy about any sexual misconduct or proclivities toward pornography and other deviant behaviour. In the light of the child sex scandal engulfing Adelaide archdiocese and its former archbishop, I think the wisdom of Sydney's decision should be recognised and praised.

Harold Niemeyer
St Matthew's Church
19 July 2004

Earlier letters

We launched our 'Letters to AO' section on 11 May 2003. All of our letters are in our archives.


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