Aside from Meghan Markle’s dress, perhaps the most talked about feature of Saturday’s Royal Wedding was the sermon by Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in the US. Curry was a rather sensitive choice as preacher, since he leads the church which, because of its change in its understanding of marriage, is held responsible for tearing apart the Anglican Communion. But as a black American Episcopalian leader, he was something of a natural choice.
If you are a preacher, then I would encourage you to pause every time you hear someone speaking effectively, and spend some time reflecting on what worked well and what you can learn—whether the speaker is a preacher, a politician, or a stand-up comic. We are in the business of communications, and we should take every skill captive in the task we have of communicating Christ. So what can we learn from the impact of Michael Curry? For me, there are three (or perhaps four) things to consider immediately.
The first thing to notice is his use of rhetoric devices, though in quite a natural and conversational way. If you have a moment (or rather, 13 minutes and 47 seconds), then listen again, with pen and paper, and make a note of the rhetorical devices you notice (or you can read the transcript).
The most obvious is repetition of key words and phrases, and the organising of ideas into threes.
There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in love to show us the way to live.
The best example of this is where he use repetition added to rhyme, and then threw in variation in the third repetition:
There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it – it actually feels right.
This also illustrates a feature of good rhetoric—summing up the message in a memory saying or apothegm. Jesus does it repeatedly in his teaching as recorded by the evangelists—think of ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will worry about itself. Sufficient to each day is each day’s evil’ (Matt 6.34, my translation) which sums up several paragraphs about not worrying. Curry offers a brilliant and memorable paraphrase of Jesus’ teaching: ‘Love God. Love your neighbors. And while you’re at it, love yourself.’ Do you, as a preacher, spend time working out memorable summaries of your message to include in your sermons?
Another notable feature, often characteristic of black preaching, is setting up expectations (in this case, of repetition in threes) and then breaking your own rules and expectations—also very obvious in the preaching of Martin Luther King. In the second half of the sermon, Curry introduces a series of scenarios where we are invited to ‘Imagine where love is the way…’ He repeats this five times, interjections a mini-exposition, ‘When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive’, and then repeats the phrase in abbreviated form a further seven times. The effect is very powerful for the hearer, as he piles on example after example after example after example…
The relation of this repetition to the whole sermon is also important to notice. The first part of the sermon is quite deliberative, including content from different quotations, and giving us quite a lot to think about. But once Curry has won us over, and established himself as credible to the listener, then we get much less content and much more emotional appeal. He is going what Ron Boyd-Macmillan (in his book Explosive Preaching) calls ‘moving through the gears’, a feature of rhetoric down the centuries. The three elements of rhetoric in the classical context (according to Aristotle) are logos, ethos and pathos. Logos is about rational content, and appeals to the mind. Ethos is about the credibility of the speaker, and establishes rapport between speaker and hearer. Finally, pathos is about emotional appeal and connection, where the speaker seeks to motivate the hearer or appeal to the imagination. Curry is very clearly moving through these three stages in his sermon—but in the addendum on fire returns to logos, which is why that section felt odd and (I would argue) should have been dropped.
Within this movement, we can see two further rhetorical distinctives. The first is that he carefully speaks in incomplete sentences, which is true to conversation rather than a scripted speech or sermon—’A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world.’ Along with that, he includes all the way through what appear to be improvisations, where he seems to be thinking aloud, or making it up on the spot. At times perhaps he was: ‘Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—and with this I will sit down, we gotta get you all married—’. But at other times I think the ‘spontaneities’ were planned and rehearsed.
He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He didn’t… he wasn’t getting anything out of it.
Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.
If you can include apparent spontaneity in your scripted speech, then you will engage people in a conversation, rather than making them feel subject to a lecture.
And of course Curry made classic use of inclusio—ending at the same point he started, but returning to the quotation of Martin Luther King.
Aside from the rhetoric, there is another cluster of issues worth noting for any preacher. The first part of this is what I would call his choreography. It is easier to make use of choreography, or movement, when you are not tied to a lecture. More expositional parts of a sermon (the logos) can be delivered from behind a lectern—but to tell stories you can express your emotional connection by coming out from behind the lectern, leaving your notes behind, and actually closing the physical distance with your audience as you close the emotional distance. But Curry was tied to the lectern (though he didn’t appear to refer much to his notes on his iPad)—and yet look at how animated he was! He made the maximum use of gestures, bodily movement and physical expression—and did all this without knocking over the candles!
This related closely to the sense you had of his passion and belief in what he was saying. Phillips Brookes (the author of O Little Town of Bethlehem) described preaching as ‘Truth expressed through personality’, and Curry offered plenty of personality in the truth claims that he made. Michael Sadgrove, former Dean of Durham Cathedral, offers a very interesting reflection on this:
I said I admired the sermon. I need to be candid. I meant that I found myself envying it. Or rather, envying the gifts and confidence of a preacher who could be so much at ease with his audience that he could preach like this in an environment that would intimidate most of us. I realised that this was what I was feeling when I came across a social media comment from a priest who wrote something like, “today’s sermon sets a challenge for the rest of us preachers tomorrow morning”. Yes, I thought, a lot of us will be feeling that way tonight.
But as I thought about it, I recognised what it was that I was envying. It wasn’t Michael Curry’s content, style, rhetorical ability, performance skills, any of the things I’ve mentioned already. It was simply this: that he had found his voice as a preacher. And this more than anything else is what makes the preacher convincing: that he or she is comfortable in their own homiletical skin. Earlier this week I was discussing preaching with the curate whom I mentor regularly. He asked me when I thought I had found my voice. I replied that I was still finding it and would be till I died, but maybe, after a decade or so of ordained ministry I was beginning to discover what was and wasn’t authentic in my preaching. Maybe.
There are many things to learn from Curry’s rhetorical flair, and the skills of other speakers. But when we learn from them, we have to make them our own, so that the passion we express is our passion, and not some technique we have learned from another. Our preaching voice might not be the same as our voice in other contexts—there is a mistaken quest for ‘authenticity’ which fails to recognise the unique context of preaching. Our preaching voice must be our preaching voice—but it must be our preaching voice.
Did I have any reservations about the sermon? Yes: three. The first was that the final two minutes on ‘fire’ added too many new ideas, returned to logos after he had reached a pathos climax, and simply wasn’t needed. He should have dropped it and stopped at 11 minutes (he claimed this morning on the radio that he was aiming for six or seven minutes!). Secondly, I think the widespread comment on Curry’s effective rhetoric shows both the power and the danger of well-delivered preaching: good delivery should really make the one delivering invisible, so that it is the message which is remembered. Perhaps the occasion made it inevitable, but the contrast between Curry’s passionate engagement and the rather sombre mood of the Dean and the slight nervousness of the Archbishop made us focus on the person of the preacher rather than the content of the message.
And a question remains about the content. Gavin Ashendenthough appreciating the rhetorical skill, criticised the sermon as a misleading marketing of ‘Christianity lite’, though Adrian Hilton disagrees, and cites a wonderful parody of John 2 to make his point.
Jesus, what a missed opportunity. This so-called messiah trundles down to a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and what does he do? A conjuring trick with grapes! Honestly, this pathetic so-called prophet has a captive audience of hundreds just ripe to hear the gospel, and he gives them instead gallons upon gallons of of wine and a distorted messianic message. What kind of inebriating witness is that? He never mentioned sin or repentance once; never mentioned the reality of hell or the need for salvation. “My hour has not yet come,” he bleated. What a feeble excuse is that for not denouncing adultery, drunkenness, greed or gays. And don’t give me all this ‘It revealed his glory’ tosh: it was just messianic mush; it might have convinced a few disciples, but what about the hundreds of lost souls who needed to be convicted of their sin and fall on their knees in repentance and receive him as their personal Lord and Saviour?
But there is a difference. Jesus didn’t need to spell out the message on every occasion, because he was the message, and it would have been enough for him simply to say ‘Follow me’. We are not Jesus, so we do not have that option. I think that the major task of preaching is to close the gap between the word and the world, to communicate what Scripture is saying to people who live in a different culture and context, and who might not have the first clue what Scripture means for them or how it speaks to their situation. I am not sure Curry closed the gap so much as dragged Scripture into contemporary culture, and with that ran the risk of making people think that Scripture was simply confirming what they already knew.
Yes, love between two people can be powerful—so much so, that passionate affairs can destroy promises made to another. It can indeed be be the centre of our world, to the exclusion of other. Curry clearly pointed to a different kind of love, expressed in the death of Jesus, but in doing so he articulated an ‘exemplary’ understanding of atonement. Jesus offered us a good example, which any of us could follow if we chose, and so any of us can effect redemption for ourselves, for our relationships and for our world. Jesus was not unique, it appears, other than in the quality of his example. Ashenden perhaps goes too far in quoting Richard Niebuhr’s critique of liberal theology—but it is worth thinking about:
A God without wrath who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.
Or, as a commentator on Hilton’s blog expressed it: