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.
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.