Saturday, 19 May 2018

That Sermon

When was a sermon last discussed so avidly?

Bishop Michael Curry is known as a passionate preacher, but his preaching must have startled some of those present in St George's Chapel today. For some people, any sermon is by definition an ordeal that has to be endured when you go to church. In my book, the number one sin of preaching is to be boring. No-one could accuse today's preacher of that.

#RoyalWedding has been trending on social media all day, but I didn't expect the sermon to feature so prominently in the discussion. Many - very many - seasoned listeners to sermons loved it. There were clergy who admitted that they wished they could preach like that. "The best sermon I ever heard" someone said. But there were criticisms too. Some thought the opening was arresting, but that it lost its way half way through. Others wondered if the rhetorical manner was a bit full-on for the Windsor environment and this royal occasion ("fine for America, just not very C of E"). A few (not many) asked if it had more style than substance, whether it was sufficiently personal to the bride and groom for a wedding sermon; and whether it may have gone on a bit too long. But whatever our response, the sermon - or rather the preacher himself - carried a deep symbolism. As someone tweeted, "British establishment embraced black culture today and royalty married into it. This was passionate preaching with civil rights roots. What's not to like?"

It's easy to come to quick conclusions about what we see and hear. Who would have wanted to be in Michael Curry's shoes with the whole world looking on? I admit to feeling uncomfortable about the analysis this sermon has been subjected to so swiftly - on the very day when the nation is rejoicing with a young couple who have pledged to walk together in marriage. For it was a beautiful event. And yes, the Church of England does these things supremely well. There was so much in the service that was moving and humane, not least how Harry and Meghan have the capacity to help us be more in touch with our own humanity and the love we have to bring. That was among the gifts of the service. I think we need to take time to absorb what we have witnessed today and reflect for a while before we rush to judgment about the content. And that includes the sermon.

For I'm not yet quite sure about my own response to it. Oddly, it feels a bit complicated, as if it's I who have been put under scrutiny rather than the Bishop. Sermons can have that effect sometimes. As I watched, I wondered if I'd been preaching for too long in cathedral environments like St George's (yes, it's a royal chapel, not a cathedral, but you know what I mean). Maybe I'm too used to my own quieter register to feel at home with Bishop Curry's personal, extraverted, apparently more spontaneous, style. Perhaps it reminds me of the fervent evangelical preaching I grew up with in adolescence and once longed to emulate. If so, it's good to be questioned by today's sermon, challenged about what kind of a preacher I am, how directly I connect with the audience, whether anything I've said has lodged in the memory afterwards, whether any word of mine has ever touched lives let alone changed them.

Although Michael Curry's style is not mine, I have to say that I admire a sermon that seems to have spoken to so many people. He illustrates the power of good rhetoric to persuade hearers - persuade them that what he has to say is worth listening to, must be taken seriously and reckoned with. Here is a preacher who doesn't tickle his audience's fancy, doesn't work the crowd as an entertainer. He's serious about it as a man of conviction whose truth-seeking invites us to become truth-seekers too. I don't know how many times he used the word "love" in his sermon, but this wasn't repetition for mere effect. You felt in your bones that here was a man who utterly believed in it, believed in its power to change the world.

A cynic might say: you never know what's going on under the skin of the powerful rhetorician. It could merely be a great performance. But I've learned as a preacher that performance comes into things a great deal. Sincerity, in preaching as in everything else, is never enough. Never underestimate the importance of performance skills. And judging by what we all saw and heard, I'd say that Michael Curry was a highly practised performer who had learned how to put performance to the service of God. Preaching means taking your listeners on a journey, bringing them from where they were to an entirely new place they may never have dreamed about. That's what good performance always does whether it's music, theatre, liturgy or preaching. Performance is transformative - so long as it isn't mere performance, which it never is in the hands of its great practitioners.

I said I admired the sermon. I need to be candid. I meant that I found myself envying it. Or rather, envying the gifts and confidence of a preacher who could be so much at ease with his audience that he could preach like this in an environment that would intimidate most of us. I realised that this was what I was feeling when I came across a social media comment from a priest who wrote something like, "today's sermon sets a challenge for the rest of us preachers tomorrow morning". Yes, I thought, a lot of us will be feeling that way tonight.

But as I thought about it, I recognised what it was that I was envying. It wasn't Michael Curry's content, style, rhetorical ability, performance skills, any of the things I've mentioned already. It was simply this: that he had found his voice as a preacher. And this more than anything else is what makes the preacher convincing: that he or she is comfortable in their own homiletical skin. Earlier this week I was discussing preaching with the curate whom I mentor regularly. He asked me when I thought I had found my voice. I replied that I was still finding it and would be till I died, but maybe, after a decade or so of ordained ministry I was beginning to discover what was and wasn't authentic in my preaching. Maybe.

When I retired in 2015, I published a book of sermons called Christ in a Choppie Box. (Who reads books of sermons these days? Some people still do, amazingly.) I'd asked a professor of theology in the University who regularly attended the Cathedral to choose what she thought was "the best of me" (as Elgar wrote on the score of his Dream of Gerontius). She decided to include a lecture on preaching that I'd once given at a diocesan conference. This, she said, set out my aims as a preacher, what I thought I was doing every time I entered the pulpit. Re-reading it, I see how the quest all along has been to try to enable the word to be made flesh, incarnate it in the words of the sermon. To find our voice is to come to the point where the preacher is becoming as much the proclamation as the words he or she utters. "The medium is the message" may be a tired cliché but all the same it's a central truth of preaching.

This is what I heard today, a preacher who had found his voice and was embodying his message. So for the rest of us who find ourselves in church and cathedral pulpits from time to time, it's not about becoming more like him, tempting though it is to imitate those we admire. Rather, the challenge is to go on finding our own voice so that when we are in the pulpit, we are as authentically ourselves as it's possible to be. So if you are preaching at Pentecost, don't try to be a Michael Curry. Be yourself, the best version of yourself you can be. And what's true of preaching is true of all Christian ministry. It all comes down to our formation as ministers of God. Becoming the human beings God wants us to be - what could be more important?

Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England is published by Sacristy Press.

7 comments:

  1. It is interesting, having not heard the sermon, I was at the Cathedral for the licensing of fellow LLM's who had made it to the end of their training. A joyous occasion for them and their families, and those of us who'd trained alongside many of them, and were licensed last year. But the coverage has been hard to hear, with criticism. I intend to download the full text later today to read it for myself.

    I think that it was a great idea to invite him to preach at the Wedding, because his church is leading the way in many ways on inclusion and loving each other, which is so controversial in some quarters, but I think is a debate, which is still causing pain in the CofE.

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  2. Thank-you so much for this timely response to THE sermon - it was clever (and generous) of ++Justin to suggest PB Michael Curry. For his admirers, there was little surprise in the content of the address - in fact some of us had been playing Michael Curry bingo (https://episcopaldiocesefortworth.org/fun-with-presiding-bishop-michael-currys-preaching/) - but his delivery was so authentic, so heartfelt - an unapologetic appeal straight to the emotions. And I, for one, longed for the Anglican Communion to respond by taking The Episcopal Church in our collective arms, welcoming back to the fold, and agreeing in the name of God's love that love for one another is more important than hairsplitting differences over dogman.

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    1. Yes, yes, let's not split hairs over minor points of dogma such as whether the Bible is the word of God or whether what Jesus taught really matters, let's all just love and accept each other unconditionally and all trot happily into heaven along with the unrepentant paedophiles, mass murderers and adulterers, after all God loves everyone so why would he not welcome them into heaven too.

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  3. 'A preacher who found his voice and embodied his message.' Absolutely. It was thoroughly authentic. It was also very good, in that setting and for that congregation, that the Gospel was articulated in a way that many will have found both different and challenging.

    I am slightly nervous about all the excited and (if I'm honest) wrist-slashing talk of preachers needing to reassess the way they preach the light of Michael Curry's sermon - not least the media hype that might persuade some clergy to collude with the view that, if we all preach like that, it will make more of an impact than the way we currently preach. That sermon communicated so effectively precisely because Michael Curry was being Michael Curry - with all the cultural, historical and personal factors that have shaped his preaching. If I preached liked that, people would say I was simply acting. It would be a clear triumph of style over substance. I would fail in my fundamental responsibility to nourish the people of God on scripture, tradition and reason. There are ways of being direct, and of not being afraid to tell it how it is, and still be completely authentic. I think Bishop David Jenkins is a prime exemplar of how to be passionate and intellectually rigorous, for example.

    What was really disappointing - and thoroughly predictable, I fear - was the skittish reaction of an heir to the throne (and future titular head of the C of E) who sat there smirking throughout the sermon. Ditto many of his 'personality' friends. By contrast, the bride, her impressive mother, and her family were engaged, expectant and attentive. It tells me something very significant about the English character, and our inability to receive anything from those who are different.

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  4. Within the church I hear a lot of excitement about 'the sermon' which was impressive and inspirational. However I don't hear much acknowledgement of the fact he also made a classic error of moving from a great sermon to try to preach another one, and therefore losing the impact. He was enjoying it too much and did not want it to end, so needlessly kept going and in fact lost impact because of that.

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  5. Oh dear, Michael. Lovely thoughtful post, some strange responses!
    I didn't watch the wedding, and therefore have seen or heard very little of the sermon. I didn't notice Charles "smirking" all the way through. Maybe he tried to smile a bit? And, assuming heaven and hell exist, and are even remotely as we imagine them to be, perhaps God will see to it that heaven is not troubled by anyone who has not repented of wrong doing. Myself included. But it is not up to me, thankfully, to make that decision.

    As far as the point of the blog is concerned, I am taking the first service for many years this Sunday. Trinity Sunday. Apart from Mothering Sunday, probably the Sunday most avoided by clergy in the whole calendar. So at least I have experience. I think I would hold to what I was taught in my training, its purpose is to show God. And for anyone worrying about nerves and so on, it's so not about you! It can take a while for that to sink in. Performance? Yes. You have to get the performance values right. I realised how important that is when I sat through a funeral where the priest constantly turned up stage. Back to the audience. Never seen it before, but it looks all wrong I can tell you! I used to be a performer, a semi-professional singer. If I sang in church, how did I deal with that? Granted it's not about me, how can I justify offering less than my best to God without blowing everyone else's socks off? Part of the answer was to stop singing in church. But even so, whatever I am doing, I try to do my very best. I rehearse readings, I go through the service, I put in bookmarks, I email the churchwarden. And no, I'm not nervous, I know what I'm doing. But it has to be the best I can make it. With God's help.

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  6. Trevor Beeson (another retired Dean) wrote an interesting letter to the Times (22/V/MMXVIII) in which he expressed the view that Michael Curry's sermon was "seriously misjudged". In fact, it seemed to me to be two sermons - one on "love" and the other on "fire". Beeson went on to write that "a wedding sermon should be addressed primarily to the bride and bridegroom, who are themselves ministers of the sacrament". Martin Luther King and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were mentioned by name but I don't recall hearing the names Harry and Meghan being mentioned during the 14 minute long oration?

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