Monday, June 13, 2011

On the difference between sermons and homilies

Sunday was my first occasion to deliver the homily for a liturgical service, and the differences between this setting and previous ones in which I have preached could not have been felt more strongly. The transition from one tradition to the next has been rather smooth regarding participating in other aspects of the service, but none of those so clashed with my personality and ministerial experience of preaching the sermon in the midst of the ritual's flow. In Baptist context, a physically animated communicator is not simply welcomed, but practically required. The science and art of communication must become the focal point of the service because the preaching of the Word is the most highly valued "sacrament" in that tradition.

When I was a Baptist preacher, I was very animated. I've never stood stationary behind a pulpit in my life. I moved around, gesticulating wildly to make my point with hand motions, face expressions and body stances. My marching along the stage and around the podium has even helped me address my life-long battle with talking too fast. The steps and gestures created something of a "cadence" with which to time my syllables and avoid becoming the audio equivalent of fine print. The "auctioneer" preaching style needed to be tamed and movement helped with that.

In addition, extemporaneous anecdotes or quips were also encouraged in the Baptist preaching context. Sure preparation of a quality sermon was prudent and expected, but relating to the audience was also valued; and this is achievable through letting one's "hair down" a bit. After all, the entire service builds up to the "climax" of the compelling sermon and the responses it motivates. For this reason, I've spent approximately 18 years with that approach, developing those skills and seeking to refine THAT type of delivery. I've spoken in front of churches and classrooms, and have been confident that I'd be at ease addressing them once I get going (the butterflies before have never really fully gone away).

That confidence would flee far from me last Sunday as I prepared to deliver the sermon in a context that differs so considerably from the Baptist genre. In an Anglican service the preaching of the Word is not the chief "sacrament" that the congregation will encounter - Communion is. Thus, the service does not build up to the sermon. The sermon is part of the build up to the Eucharist. For this reason, it's inappropriate for the preacher to so deliver his message in a manner that might eclipse the importance of Communion. The same characteristics valued in a Baptist preacher are not those valued in an Anglican preacher. The sermons even differ in length and structure. Consequently, it's important that the Anglican preacher remain behind the pulpit. Mobility is not your friend. In addition, I was trained that when reading the Epistle selection in the Sunday morning service, it's inappropriate to infuse too much of one's personality into the reading because, again, that would be imposing upon the reading of God's Word the distinct skills and nuances of the reader. It's NOT all about you after all.

Therefore, I wrote my sermon to the requisite length, preparing to read it as I had the Epistle lesson at other times as well. This proved a disaster for two reasons: (1) I still did remember that I was delivering a sermon, and thus all the old instincts were right on the surface desiring expression, and (2) focusing on the new constraints created somewhat of a nervous "bind" that distracted from good oratory discipline. Thus I rattled off that sucker with the speed of a radio commercial contest disclaimer. A sermon written for a strong 15 minute duration was completed in 10 minutes. The syllables smeared together like a watercolor painting left out in the rain. The dynamic acoustics of the sanctuary ensured that elderly ears would be forced to hear several sentences at once. That puzzled look on those in the audience was not attentive interest in what was being said; it was the looking of straining to discern WHAT was being said. All of the years of preaching experience had been rendered null and void for this vestment clad "greenhorn."

The solution is not, however, to think about returning to former habits. Instead the need is to adopt new ones. The sermon must be delivered with attention to the components of good communication. The chief need for me will be to SLOW - THE HECK - DOWN. One idea presented to me might prove useful. After the sermon has been written and printed out, I can stamp around the page the image a of turtle. It's slower than a hare, but gets there nonetheless. I'll be looking for that turle stamp in a stationary shop very soon. It will need to have the desired effect by the time the next preaching opportunity arises. Years of experience delivering Baptist sermons can work against you when it's time to deliver an Anglican homily. Perhaps the turtle will help me make that transition smoothly.

1 comment:

Patricia B-W, Maine said...

Thank you for this post. I am having the opposite experience. Having grown up Catholic, I am now sometimes preaching in a Congregational setting, which is still rather formal, but the sermon is definitely expected to be the heart of worship, not that which leads to Communion.

I appreciate the wisdom I take from your experience.