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Hallo again to all.

'Well', the priest whispered to me as we jostled along in a large crowd just leaving the service of consecration of a bishop, 'there's no doubt that, in general, we preach people out of church'.

'My Second Sermon', John Everett MillaisWe had been discussing sotto voce the rather poor quality of the sermon during the liturgy, noting that such a thing is far more common than not in Anglican churches*. Actually, we had been discussing the boring and lifeless sermon we had heard. We opined that a bad sermon might actually be better than a boring sermon. 'It's rather like indifference being the opposite of love, not hate', I added somewhat obscurely, thinking that a bad sermon might at least have something approaching actual content and emotion in it.

So, people, why have we come to such a state in our dear old Ecclesia Anglicana? Now — as we prepare to massively generalise — we realise there are the occasional exceptions from usually-more-ordinary preachers, and welcome to them! And there are a few, er, rock stars in the Anglican homiletic universe. But these are not normal.

Of course we're not suggesting that the majority of sermons before World War II, to pick a somewhat arbitrary date, were brilliant. There are enough parodies of bad sermons in eighteenth-century novels and amongst nineteenth-century curates — and think of the Beyond the Fringe skit of an 20th-centry CofE sermon — to assure us that wretched sermons are no respecter of centuries.

But. But. There were forces operating in earlier times (that would be before, say, 1960 — to pick another somewhat arbitrary date) that made the general run of bad sermons less than it is now. In no particular order (and now we're off on the 'massively generalising' bit) consider this:

• Memorisation, rhetoric, and oratory were still common in general education. Pick any schoolbook from the 1920s, open an etiquette book from the 1940s, listen to the dialogue and diction found in a classic Hollywood movie from the 1930s and all will suggest a world that is now gone. In that world, speaking, word choice, and diction mattered.

• Listening was a skill honed from childhood. Stories read by mothers at bedtime, radio programmes where attention was required, a world in which reading was still a primary leisure activity. This gave the average pew-sittter in, say, 1952 a very different framework in which a sermon was heard.

• Theological colleges were far more likely to insist on reasonable training in speech and homiletics. Those things, for the most part, have gone missing now.

• A greater general Biblical literacy that wouldn't allow a preacher to get away with preaching utter twaddle from the pulpit.

This melange of factors produced, we're betting, a level of sermon that was higher than we find now.

But there are aspects of our time that we think would be advantageous for sermons:

• Listening  to the spoken word — sans Powerpoints or soundtrack** — for 20 minutes is an unusual activity for most people. Because of this, if a preacher can arrest the congregation's attention in the first sentence or two, the sheer novelty of captivating words can captivate.

• Ordinary vocabulary and syntax is normal in preaching. Whilst this can be dull, it also allows a preacher to use clear, sharp words in arresting and tight sentences. In earlier times, there would have been a considerable difference between pulpit oratory and common speech and very few preachers dared to break that convention.

• As preachers are no longer expected to orate for an hour or more, as was once common, the narrative arc of a sermon is shorter. One can charge straightaway into substance and not be expected to drone on with a 20-minute preamble.

• Since few homiletic conventions still hold — there is, we suspect, little 'dividing' of the text any longer — a preacher can have recourse to a more imaginative structure for a sermon.

• Finally, since interesting and compelling voices are rare, doing anything in a beguiling tone of voice, varying rhythm, and clear enunciation will go a long way. The human voice is an extraordinary instrument and preachers should make the best use of it. Why should a voice in the pulpit sound the same way it does ordering at a restaurant, only louder?

It was common in earlier centuries for sermons to be collected in volumes and actually read. Good sermons would be discussed amongst friends and shared with others. Sometimes a sermon would be borrowed to be copied out by a parishioner. We don't ever expect to return to those days, but have you ever sent a link to a brilliant sermon you wanted to share with a friend? Have you ever found a YouTube video of a sermon compelling enough to think it should go viral? If so, tell us. Or send us the link.

We're listening.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

20 January 2013

*In this essay, we're considering sermons within an Anglican context and, more or less, in a first-world Anglican context. That may be narrow-minded, but it's the only context in which we can reliably assert any experience.

**Yes, yes we know some parishes make use of these things. But that isn't the point. A bad sermon with Powerpoints is even worse.

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