Tony Jasper

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Preaching with Style

ONCE upon a time you would expect to hear a sermon, and of some length, if you attended a non-conformist church service.
These days it is problematic. There is increasing attention given to the visual and sacramental. The question is simple” Is there a pace and role for the sermon?”
In 1996 Methodist Colin Morris was to say in his stimulating paperback Raising the Dead that if “we want to hang on to the Church, we must keep at the business of preaching.” The opposite view has gained ground. It has for some time.
Twenty years previous The Expository Times in May 1977 printed  an article on ‘Preaching Today.’  
The second paragraph, and six lines into the feature, put it succinctly “ We live in age when preaching is out of favour.” Yet there is hope for those who would join the Morris team. 
The comparative demise of the sermon has many reasons. The ET paper – no author named, perhaps though the editor, our revered Methodist C.S. Rodd,
Kicked off by saying social psychology has shown  that a lecture addressed to an audience is not the best method changing behaviour.”  Group discussion was advocated. 
My copy was written before finding and reading the material but we converge in suggesting the sermon is the victim of greater stress on the sacramental. The sermon is removed from its once central and pivotal moment of the service. The sermon becomes merely one element, for all is moving toward the bread and wine and sharing around the table, after endless sentences are said.  (This is of course somewhat irrelevant where a country chapel may have one communion service a quarter, if fortunate). 
Years gone by, in most of Methodist practice, outside of the deliberations of its high church’ wing, the sermon could reign supreme. Should there be an  ‘S’ on the plan it would signify an addendum, namely that after the service there would Holy Communion for those who wished to stay.
Further, lay and ordained preachers have doubted the‘ sermon’ itself. In more stark  and obvious terms  (to a congregation),  preachers have deserted the strong visual image of  the  pulpit  that gives emphasis to the importance of preaching the Word. Instead all is proclaimed from the non-descript, but the useful   innocuous looking reading desk that otherwise serves as the base for the steward to regale everyone with an assortment of jumbled notices.
The move partly stems from the belief  of  preachers that  they should be more near the people, although in some churches it makes little difference , pulpit or reading desk, - the people are far away beneath the gallery, and liable to complain that they cannot hear. But, yes, it can make sense not to use the pulpit, especially if it towers above a small gathering...This writer recalls how he was asked which place he preferred. The steward was asked for the Chapel’s preference, but the response was one that said it was my choice. Noting the likely attendance of a dozen or so in a building holding five hundred I decided it would be the reading desk. To which came the response “Well, I put the water in the pulpit!” 
And yes, there is a place for the talk, the chat style. So to there is that other choice. where the brave preacher discards pulpit and reading desk and simply stands centrally either with notes or without. There may some physical movement, and usually after a pause. Observation ‘live’ and from past ‘television’ teaches me that in this Colin Morris is the ‘star’ and perhaps, apart from his high intellect, I suspect he has formidable memory retention powers. And does one preach with everything written down, does the preacher read off   their notes? – many do. Should one risk all?  
 One other reason is submitted for the comparative demise in the importance of the sermon. It takes the form of a` question: how much time should be given to its construction and content?. The place and role of the sermon has to be questioned in the context of whether the sermon takes up too much space in the overall planning of a minister’s time, while for lay people it can be a lengthy exercise to be added on to a busy working week. Gone are the days when the preacher knew the congregation came to hear and learn (Well, mostly, alas), My own service preparation, including sermon writing, can take up to nine hours. Often the sermon is for a Saturday night, and my prayer is to finish before Match of the Day, unless   I know Arsenal have been beaten by at least five goals!
In times past it was a commonplace to see books about or consisting of sermons preached, and for many aspiring preacher stuck on a Saturday night with thoughts and words absent there could be a reaching for one of those worthy volumes of sermons preached. Epworth publishing in 1963, listed 14 titles in their catalogue. 
The instant necessary remedy lay in thumbing the way through those printed in The Expository Times,. 
These days an on-line search yields sermons preached by someone, usually American, on any passage that is given in the lectionary for a particular Sunday.
Most of them seem very long. Occasionally the thought occurs “Was that actually preached?” Perhaps though it suggests that in the US at least the sermon is central in Protestant worship.
In times past sermons were lengthy, even from the ‘locals’ as I can recall forty minutes or more
Apart from anything else books of sermons suggest various style possibilities away from the three part sermon beloved by college tutors. They also stress individuality of the preacher. Naturally we can reach back to John Wesley’s 44 Sermons, and learn of  the influences that shaped John Wesley as a preacher by reading William Graham’s Sent by my Lord, on you I Call


In times past who could not but marvel at the poetic and rhythmic nature of sermons by the Scottish preacher Peter Marshall and recorded in the book Mr. Jones, Meet The Master Peter Davies). He left his homeland at the age of 25. and before his mid-forties  had become Chaplain of the United States Senate. He had a unique method of indicating emphasis and intonation. His sermons were laid out in poetic form, and they possessed intriguing rhythmic feel, Millions took in Marshall the preacher in the film made about his life, A Man Called Preacher.
So to during this time of the early 1950s Methodists could read the no nonsense sharp style of Dr Sangster. It is said numerous young men out of college affected to have his style.  Some copied his vocal inflections, others his mannerisms There is the story of the great man on holiday in Torquay and attending one of the resorts churches. To his incredulity he heard one of his sermons preached with the minister even leaving in the family stories! There appears no record as to what the two men said to each other at the conclusion of the service. Westminster Sermons Volumes 1  and 2 – At Morning Worship are two books of his sermons. 
In an extraordinary time span Charles Smyth in his book The Art of Preaching (SPCK. 1963) produces a practical survey of preaching in the Church of England between 749 and 1939! That in itself suggests the sermon has not been rated and found in the same way as it has in Methodist and nonconformist circles. In the latter terms there would be at least 21 volumes.  Smyth does refer to non-Anglican preachers, not least Charles H Spurgeon, and with particular reference to the 
Baptist preacher’s sermon ‘I have sinned.’ Now there is a house and chapel filler if ever there was one! As it happened Spurgeon ploughed his way through the Bible. This is what another great pulpit name, Dr Campbell Morgan’ calls the method  “of getting a concatenation of passages, because of some relationship.’ So there!
Horton Davies in his book Varieties of English Preaching  1900-1960 (SCM 1963) mentions Sangster, and other such preachers as J.H. Jowett, H.L. Manning,  ‘Dick Sheppard,” and J.S. Stewart. Should Davies have motored into the next decade of the Sixties he would have found much to excite. 
In the 1960s London could offer on a Sunday a pretty powerful set of preachers, whether of a somewhat liberal stance or a variety of conservative evangelicalism. And people in their hundreds went to hear them. 
You could gain the social dimension of the gospel by hearing Lord Soper at Kingsway, but in this instance it should be stressed the sacramental side of the famous man.  He kept alive the regular saying of the Sunday service of Morning Prayer.  Aflame with Faith is one book of Donald Soper sermons.  In the sleeve note they are describe a “vigorous’ and “clear-sighted.”
Almost diametrically opposite in style and tenor you could hear Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, in London. It was a reasonable  assumption  that  if you came back several years later the great expositor might still be pondering the first chapter of say 1 Corinthians. His attention to detail formidable, his delivery often akin to a forensic doctor, matter-of-fact, but on occasions the Welshness, the passion, would reveal itself. It felt as though he loved every word of Scripture, and probably did. Bloomsbury Baptist offered the thrill of another Welshman, Howard Williams, but somehow he never got the big crowds he deserved, although he would take off on the road and rail and excite rally gatherings, as once he did in Cornwall, that land where many people still value the preacher and talk of who is coming to preach rather than conduct worship. Hinde St offered the warm and effective Arnold Cooper and sometimes there was not a seat in the house should arrival be after 6. 15. Just up the road the Anglicans offered the formidable John Stott and down at the Westminster Central Hall, once the place of the renowned W.E. Sangster, there was Derek Greeves with his friendly style and topical allusions. Greeves took you along in a conversation and if one of the hallmarks of the Lord’s ministry lay in telling stories, then Greeves was par-excellence of that school. At the City Temple, for one year of the decade,  a Methodist occupied the pulpit – Leslie Weatherhead.  He had begun his work at that place in 1936. Previously he had exercised ministry at the mighty church of the North, Brunswick Methodist, Leeds. So to at the City Temple   it was essential to be there at very least thirty minutes before 6. 30 if a seat was for the taking, and the front rows would support his following among women, due perhaps to his melodious voice or the boyish looks and charm. Of course he did have a specialised ministry that broadly took in, to use one of his book titles, Psychology, Religion, and Healing. His sermon repertoire was varied, as shown in his book of sermons That Immortal Sea. Another sermon book Over His Own Signature is a study Of Christ’s pictures of Himself . Davies sees him as  an apologist of great  ability and a superb  literary craftsman. Weatherhead, quoted by Morris in the fore-mentioned book, said that the aim of a sermon  is to make God real and to change the lives of men and women by the power of Christ. Morris himself tells the reader of his book that the “lasting impression the preacher should leave with the congregations mind is not that it ahs been shown a great demonstration of the preacher’s art but that it has been shown a great God.” 
All this said and done, the role, importance, and interest of the sermon seems to be undergoing fresh life, to which I shout a “Hallelujah!”. Not least has this been shown by recent Recorder correspondence that has skirted around the subject of the preacher, and the place of sermon within present worship.  At the same time different genres of worship form have led to fresh consideration of the sermon place and possibly different application techniques for those areas. This is reflected in some recent books focus on preaching and the jazz service, or the preacher and drama, or preaching as spiritual direction, Invariably over time the male input has gobbled up practical considerations of questions surrounding preaching and the sermon, but now, as part two will show (July) women are rising to the fore, and contributing   stimulating texts.
This feature first appeared in The Methodist Recorder, May 23. 2014.