godslot on preaching

Newspapers are full of stories about morality and have hardly anything about philosophy of the mind. So it was odd to discover last month that a meeting on the philosophy of the mind was about twice as well attended as a contest for Preacher of the Year. I paid close attention to both, because I was chairing one and judging the other. What struck me most was the that audience for the preaching contest had to be roused between each sermon to stand and sing a hymn; the audience for a debate on consciousness broke off for fifteen minutes to cool their fevered imaginations in the pub across the road. They needed no rousing.

The obvious explanation for this disparity in enthusiasm is that one display took place at eleven in the morning, and the other at seven, after a long hard day; but it was the evening audience which was more attentive. Another possibility is that the people attending the meeting on consciousness believed that what they were hearing was important and might be true, and these are neither of them qualities one naturally associates with sermons. But this turns out to be just as odd when you think about it, for why on earth should anyone come to listen to sermons if they did not believe in their importance and truth?

Obviously the greater part of the population thinks sermons are boring and ridiculous. But the majority might be mistaken; and even if it is not, there are all sorts of hobbyish interests which draw devoted followers debates about consciousness being one obvious example. What is oddest is that in my very limited experience of talking in churches I won't call what I do 'preaching' the  audience does usually come there expecting to be bored. One answer might be to charge admission. The whole trick to writing for newspapers is to remember that someone, somewhere, thinks your labours were worth 45p, and is owed value for money. It is very noticeable that the  two preachers who came top among almost all the judges were a Seventh Day Adventist and a Rabbi, both men whose salaries are paid by their congregations.

The Anglican who came highest on my score sheet had, his wife told me later, a regular congregation of about 35. There's no shame in that. Small congregations are a product of the parish structure of the Church of England, and its superabundance of church buildings, as much as they are of the merits of individual priests. He did in fact have something to say; and he said it clearly and forcefully. But it was of interest only to other educated and committed Anglicans. Everyone in the room was preaching to the converted that's where the money is but he was preaching to the interested, which is a riskier proposition. It means that people might think bout what you say.

Of course there is something strange about the idea of a competition for preachers in the first place, not because it is competitive, but because it must judge the sizzle rather than the steak. What distinguishes preaching from ordinary rhetoric, or advertising, is that it is supposed  to be about truth. A good sermon does not merely instruct and entertain the congregation: it edifies them too. But to take this stipulation too seriously means that you have to judge the orthodoxy of what is being said; and if you do that you run into ecumenical trouble. The College of Preachers, a Christian organisation, pulled out of its sponsorship of the Preacher of the year, which is now solely sponsored by the Times, in protest against having Jewish  competitors. This looks narrow-minded, and perhaps it is. But it also preserves an important distinction between sermons and secular speech.

A general competition for preachers becomes simply an rhetoric. It need not matter if the winner has nothing to say, providing he says it with sufficient conviction. The final anecdote of the winners' sermon made this point nicely, if unintentionally: it was about the keeper of a railway bridge in the USA, whose son fell into the machinery that raised and lowered the bridge as an express train was approaching. To save the passengers, he lowered the bridge anyway, grinding his son into the gears. It was passionately told, gripping, memorable, disgusting, and possibly even true. But as a justification of God, it is not to be taken seriously.

The Calvinist might reply that God needs no justification to human beings, but that is difficult to maintain in a competition where a Rabbi comes second, for if Judaism has one message for the Gentile world, that must be that man has a right and a duty to demand that God justify himself to us. The great discovery of the Old Testament is that Job will get an answer, and that it will satisfy him even if he can't understand it.

So where are all the preachers today, who can combine passion with real argument? Clearly they are not entering the Times's competition. In fact, one of the most impressive candidates was fined last week for entering a pulpit which shows that someone cares what he said. Next year, my candidate for preacher of the year is Peter Tatchell.

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