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Hallo again to all.

Sometimes when reading about long-dead clergy (one of our favourite pastimes) we see someone described as 'a magnetic preacher' or 'a preacher who drew great crowds wherever he went'. We've come across many stories, mostly from long-ago centuries, of preachers that people would travel many miles to hear, and whose preaching was so spellbinding that crowds of the faithful would stand for hours to listen. We've often wondered what it would be like to be so transformed by a sermon that we would lose track of time and place and be drawn into the preacher's world.

Fire and brimstoneNames from the past like George Whitefield, John Henry Newman, Charles Spurgeon, John Knox, Thomas Talmadge, or Phillips Brooks come quickly to mind. Few of the timeless legends are Anglican; preaching that draws a crowd seems to be more common in other denominations. We've noticed that it is more common for churches formed around spellbinding preachers to focus their publicity on those preachers than on the works or teachings of the church. For example, Korea's Yoido Full Gospel Church, one of the largest in the world, focuses its online presence on the men who founded it. By contrast, Anglican church websites more commonly show pictures of the building or of groups of happy church members or of church events. It is rare to see the publicity for an Anglican congregation focus on the preacher. It should come as no surprise to learn that Anglican theological schools and seminaries worldwide do not put much effort into training students to preach.

When we Anglicans think about great preaching we tend to focus on the words, on the message, on the semantic content. Almost every week we send or receive email exclaiming 'Read this: it's a great sermon' to which is attached the text of a sermon preached somewhere recently. We are privileged to know a number of people who can write and deliver world-class sermons that are just as powerful when you read them online later in the week, and many of our friends attend churches blessed with superior sermons. Our library contains various books of sermons written by famous preachers of the past, which we occasionally read. Good writing stands the test of time.

In recent months we've come to realize that there is another kind of great preaching, and that is great delivery. In our travels we always look for an Anglican church near where we are staying, and attend worship services there. Last year, far from home, we stumbled across a small rural church whose priest delivered sermons as though she was directly channeling the Holy Spirit. It was astonishing. It was like nothing we had ever experienced before. We've now heard her preach four times, and in every case we are quite certain that we would have stood in the cold for hours to experience it. But we didn't have to: there were comfortable pews, more empty than not in this struggling parish.

The Holy SpiritToday we spoke with her for a while at coffee hour after the service, and we discovered that when she is not preaching she is a completely ordinary person (save perhaps for the extraordinary kindness in her eyes), whose talk about the weather or the bishop or church building maintenance is just like everyone else who talks about those things. But when she steps to the pulpit and begins to preach, something transcendent happens. We don't think she has any idea what it is or how it works, and we don't think that she is entirely aware of its happening. But somehow she opens her voice to the Holy Spirit, and the soft fire carries the words and meaning directly into the hearts of the congregation.

We spent some time today at coffee hour encouraging parish members to talk to us about their priest. They all agreed that she was a great preacher, but (as we suspect that most of them have rarely attended Anglican churches other than their own) they didn't seem to have a basis for saying 'better' or 'best'. After a few sentences telling how much they loved her preaching and her ministry, each of them immediately switched the conversation to worrying about how they could afford to keep her on after the 2-year diocesan subsidy expires. 'We are such a small parish. We could never raise the money to pay her*.' If it hadn't been chilly and if they had owned more clothing, we think that perhaps some rending of garments would have then taken place.

We've asked for a recording of today's sermon, which we'll listen to next week to determine whether this possession can be captured or whether it must be experienced in person. We suspect the latter. We are now absolutely convinced that the legendary preachers of past centuries had a combination of inspired sermon writing skills and Inspired delivery while possessed by the Holy Spirit. We feel honoured to have experienced it in the present day.

See you next week.

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6 May 2012

*Even though we aren't going to tell you where this church is or who this priest is (because it doesn't matter) the observant reader will note that this quote makes it very unlikely that we are referring to a country with an established church.

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