What If…

…a bishop or the diocesan offices sent out a note to all the parishes in the diocese on Monday morning, asking them to please send in the sermon preached at the church the previous day?

What sort of uproar would it cause among the clergy, and what do you think the bishop would learn about the quality of preaching, exegesis, and doctrine in the diocese?

15 thoughts on “What If…

  1. Caelius Spinator

    I agree with Christopher. I haven’t heard good episcopal preaching in this country.

  2. Huw Richardson

    Michelle has it dead on: after running not two parish websites, I can confirm that most clergy are totally dumbfounded at the idea. I’ve only known two clergy to preach verbatim from notes, one a very bad preacher and the other a very new one.

    Now… a podcast…

  3. Justin Lewis-Anthony

    Having sat through a number of colleagues sermons in the recent past, I made the suggestion to the officer for ministry development that the diocese run a course called “57 Varieties: heresy and how to spot it (especially when you’re preaching it)”. The course hasn’t yet taken place, mainly, I like to think, because the officer was called to higher and better things. However, I wouldn’t have any worries about my diocesan bishop judging the quality of the doctrine and delivery of the sermons: I’m in Canterbury Diocese. (+Rowan delivers a series of Holy Week lectures in the cathedral every year. He does them entirely without notes. The first year’s lectures were recorded, transcribed and turned into Tokens of Trust. There was next to no editing required. This man doesn’t think in complete sentences, or even complete paragraphs: his scale is the essay, the thesis, the book.

  4. lutherpunk

    The two worst sermons I heard last year both came from Assistants to the Bishop. Our Bishop is a fair preacher, but you really have to look the UMC to get a true preaching Bishop in the person of Willimon.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Christopher & Caelius,

    I fear you’re right… (Fr. Lewis-Anthony’s being a noted exception, of course) Actually, my last bishop and my present one are both good preachers.

    However, it makes me wonder what criteria really are being used to select our diocesans.

    On the notes issues, Michelle, you’ll note I didn’t mention notes or manuscript, I just said “send it in” Podcast or video might be preferable.

    That having been said, of the preachers who preach without notes—most shouldn’t. More often than not preaching from just an outline or with nothing is an excuse for lack of preparation. Yes, there are some who can pull it off, but not as many can as think they can.

  6. bls

    I agree, Derek – the “without notes” thing often means “winging it.” And lots of long digressions and personal anecdotes. Ugh.

    Preachers shouldn’t, probably, preach directly from the notes – but most should have them in front of them.

    The best preachers I know do this; it seems often to be a ego-thing for those who don’t – an affectation.

  7. Christopher


    At heart, what you are suggesting is a form of needed visitation.

    Perhaps you could offer us a start on some criteria that we can discuss, add to, etc.?

    It seems to me in general that our biblical and theological knowledge is at a low point, so it is specifically this quality to which I refer. Clear, simple articulation of the gospel, the core doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity, the sacraments.

    In my preaching course, we were required to preach without notes. I hated every moment. I put a lot of care into writing a sermon, and my turn of phrases are purposeful. Preaching without notes simply does not allow that poetic emphasis that some of our greatest divines placed on the sermon.

    I do know preachers who preach well without them, but they are few, and often, they don’t do so every Sunday.

    I recommend in tandem with this that a bulletin and/or podcast be sent in so that the liturgy used in each parish can be reviewed.

  8. Vicki McGrath

    I wonder if some of the recent move toward preaching without notes wasn’t an attempt toward “greater immediacy and connecting with the congregation” during preaching in a more emotive style? I put that in quotation marks because I don’t think that preaching from notes or even a typescript stands in the way of immediacy and connection, but in the minds of many parishioners the “ability to preach without notes” is very impressive.

    I personally find that for multiple Sunday services notes or a typescript are essential. I can’t retain turns of phrase or subtlety of emphasis in a clear and conscise way if I’m trying to keep the whole sermon in my head.
    Mid-week 3-5 minute homilies are another matter, but even there it’s not always easy to preach in a concise and cogent way without notes.

    I wonder, also, if in our attempts to be inclusive we have not sold ourselves short, effectively abandoning our intellectual and spiritual heritage of learned, lucid preaching that can and does touch hearts and minds both.


  9. Caelius Spinator

    No, I have not. My experience is limited to a Presiding Bishop or two, various bishops in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Perhaps not a representative sample.

  10. Tobias Haller

    Let me second the praise of Bp Curry. There are a number of others I can commend.

    As to preaching style, my homiletics professor (now Bp Alexander) insisted sermons be written, and typographically formatted for easy reading. (For which I am eternally grateful.) I almost always preach from a fully written text — typographically formatted for easy “taking the eyes off and then finding the place again” — though as a former theater guy I know how to use a written text without appearing to “read” it. (Something I wish people _wouldn’t_ do when they are reading Scripture. I mean, I don’t hink the lector wrote Hebrews, or the deacon is the evangelist Mark… but that’s another matter.)

    I do preach extempore on rare occasions — never on Sunday.

    In my diocese there is a strong preaching tradition — with a few notable preaching bishops in our history. There is also a tradition of clericus gatherings to work on sermon preparation. So I think there is, as with much else, a large dose of YMMV throughout the church.

  11. Michelle

    I may be just a lay person, but I have to say that most sermons I have heard that were read exactly as written were terrible. They may have been ok as a scholarly paper in a journal, but didn’t work as a sermon. I also sit there and wonder if it was downloaded (in whole or part).

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