By Rev. Canon Keith Nethery
A while back, on what I’m told is a dying model of the information highway – Facebook – I found part one of a multi-part article on preaching written by a bi-vocational Episcopal priest in Texas.
While those much younger than I have tossed away Facebook as out of date, slow and cumbersome, it still whets my appetite with a little of this and some of that from here and there. For me, the only serious downfall is that I can never remember to mark where I found things, so I can go back for updates and new contributions. Thus my apologies that I can give you little information about this writer and will confine my comments to the introductory portion of the article, which is all I am likely to be able to read.
He started by comparing preaching to the technical precision of figure skating. Immediately, I knew I would disagree with the article. His premise, in a nutshell, was that preaching should be honed with much repetition of the basic skills, constant review of the technical aspects of creating a homily and a focus on excellence in the final product.
He invites the reader to journey with him through the multiple parts of his presentation. Part one involves studying the words in a lengthy series of homilies, with a focus on crafting concise presentations, unobstructed by the use of frivolous words or phrases.
He takes a look at the good words that he uses and is pleased with the frequency of words that would point to key elements that should be part of preaching. All the while talking about the beauty of figure skating and how the hard, technical work, enables the beauty of the finished project in a competition.
So, back to my previous life as a sportscaster.
I’m not sure they even use these in figure skating competitions anymore, however I was subjected to covering one or two “compulsory figures” portions of a skating event. This is the technical side, where skaters have to perfectly recreate specific figures. No music, no interpretation, no freedom of expression. There was never a line up to get into this portion of the event. It was a certain cure of insomnia.
To be honest, I’ve heard a few sermons straight from this competition: technically perfect, crafted exactly as they were taught, following the progression of creation without variance. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open.
I’m not so much trying to criticize the author, rather I want to disagree at the foundational level of his premise. Creativity cannot be regimented! Technical skills may be a part of perfection, but when it comes to creativity, they are the smaller portion.
For me, preaching is story telling. That means when I preach, I want to take the story that I have to share, and make sure that I communicate it in a manner that will enthuse the listeners to understand that story and dwell with it until they can make it their own.
Sure, I work at speaking clearly. Yes, I spend time in researching and assembling the elements of this story. But if I present it like compulsory figures, with a wooden understanding, I’ve lost before I’ve started.
I’ve been at top class world figure skating events. After the free skate, after the performers have laid their passion on the line, bared their souls in interpretation, 99 per cent of the people in attendance don’t have a hot clue as to who won, from a technical perspective.
The judges render their decision, and the winner might be crowned because of perfectly performed triple and quad jumps and any number of things.
Those like me, who have little knowledge of that technical expertise, will usually be disappointed because we want the winner to be the one who moved us, who amazed us. We loved the one that jigged and jived to a lively interpretation of funky music, that made our spirits soar with sheer beauty. The fact they missed the take-off of a jump by an inch, or failed to rotate properly before landing, is of little interest to anyone but the purists.
I think preaching is the same way. We need to have skills and hone the skills, but the skills are not the focus. Method is part of the process, not the end goal.
Preaching is successful when you can engage people in a way that will draw them into the deepness and richness of the meaning of the story. Whether I use a word too often, get a bit off track, skip a step or any other technical malfunction – that is irrelevant if there is success if communicating the story one to another.
Rev. Canon Keith Nethery is the rector at St. James’ Westminster, London.