Monday, February 06, 2012

The Preacher's Pride

John Mason Neale's book on Medieval Preaching (1856) begins with a scathing, and funny-if-it-weren't-so-horrible, description of preaching in the 18th century, of which this is just a token:

Persons are now living who can remember a curate hunted from a metropolitan pulpit because it was his custom to raise his eyes from his manuscript.

To hear Neale tell it, the Age of Reason was an age of deadly, dull, irreligious sermonizing -- and, surprisingly for an Anglican, he doesn't think the 17th was much better. That's right: he even picks on (gasp!) Lancelot Andrewes.

But then Neale tells an anecdote well worth remembering, especially for those of us who enjoy preaching, imagine ourselves to be good at it, and may sometimes take a bit too much joy in a well-constructed sermon that manages to edify, inspire and still please the crowd:

An anecdote, lately told in the life of a Dissenting minister, has a fair claim to the admiration of every Priest who is in earnest. There was a minister named ---, who, it appears, had obtained no small reputation among his brethren for his eloquence generally, and more particularly for the logical sequence, and most of all for the impressive conclusions, of his sermons.

On some great occasion he was appointed to preach, (it was in the open air,) and he had deeply interested his auditors through a long discourse. Just before the conclusion he was observed to hesitate, — and then, in a rambling manner, he recapitulated part of what had been already said, until he reached a very lame and impotent finale.

At the subsequent dinner, when the preacher's health was proposed, 'Brother -- ," said one of the ministers present, "we must all, I am sure, have been charmed by your discourse; but, if I may hazard the observation, I thought that, at the conclusion, you lost the thread of your argument, and hardly equalled your ordinary excellence."

"If I must tell you the reason," was the reply, "thus it was. Just as I was about to conclude, I saw a poor man running up to the place, hot and dusty, and eager to hear. ' Speak a word to him,' said Conscience. 'You will spoil your sermon if you do,' said Pride. And I did spoil it, I know ; but I may have done him good."

Sometimes, it's not about pleasing the crowd. It's about doing your real job.

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