September 2018

Babbling brooks

If I am going to be honest, I will have to say that I have long had issues about sermons. I suppose that during my lifetime, I will have heard hundreds of them, from a sedentary or standing position, and have become increasingly uneasy about their purpose or effect. If you are going to be honest, how many sermons do you remember long after the time you have left the church? And if you do remember any of them, what is the reason for it? From my teaching days, I certainly recall that the sermons that the boys and girls most relished were the truly dreadful ones. And there were quite a few of them. 

There was always in my mind a certain irony about using sermons in a place dedicated to teaching and learning. Occasionally we would have school inspectors descending upon us whose job was gauge the effectiveness of the teaching and learning in the school, and I think it was only a matter of excessive politeness on their behalf when they attended Sunday chapel services and experienced a chapel sermon that, when told that this was an example of teaching, they did not roll about the floor laughing.

Again, if I am going to be honest, I do value sermon-preparation time. I tend to look at the gospel reading for the coming Sunday on a Tuesday morning and wait for a particular phrase to lodge itself in my mind. Then for the next few days, during dog walks, I let the ideas that phrase engenders develop. I find it a useful exercise in clarifying my own ideas.

But why inflict that on others?

I think at the heart of my problems with sermons lies in their very contradictory nature. The word ‘sermon’ comes from the Latin word ‘sermo’ which means ‘conversation’. If you don’t like that, you can always call it a homily, but that word comes from the Greek ‘homilia’ which also means ‘conversation’. Whichever way you take it, there is the presumption of a degree of give and take. 

Centuries ago, especially before the bible was available in the English language, there might have been the need of someone learned to explain it to the the people - although the numbers of learned clergy in those days was sadly very small - but that is obviously no longer the case. Discussion is a far more effective way of helping people develop and crystallise their ideas than lecturing. Certainly, one of the things I always look forward to here are the meetings of our Book Club where everyone is equal and everyone has views to offer and share. 

Now I cannot claim to any similarities between me and Margaret Thatcher, but she famously preferred people to come to her with solutions rather than problems, and I am much happier in the same way. So I am going to suggest a solution rather than just moan. (People will, incidentally, find me infinitely more receptive if they adopt the same approach.) When I see a bible reading coming up that will really lend itself to discussion rather than monologue, I might - with the agreement of the relevant churchwardens and with proper notice - have a strictly limited period for having a discussion about the reading and the issues it raises so that everyone can join in and share. I would be really interested to hear your reaction to that idea. (I go on the principle that silence means consent.)