Thursday, May 24, 2018

About That Wedding Sermon

Some 27 or 28 years ago, I attended an Easter Mass at which the preacher began by walking down the church's main aisle pushing a shopping cart with the figures (from the Christmas crib set) of the three wise men. At the pulpit he took them out and began his homily which was structured around telling them the rest of the story, what had happened after they had returned home from Bethlehem. The preacher was a very talented and creative priest, and his performance was superb. To this day, I (and others who were present) can remember it. At the time, I thought it was a very good homily. It probably was. But I honestly don't really remember any of the content. It was the entertaining gimmick that made it memorable, and it is that (not the substance of his message) that we all remember. The obvious lessons I took from that (and other similar experiences) were that a cleverly creative and entertaining homily by a talented preacher will likely be very well received, but that what will be remembered will likely be how clever and entertaining he was - in other words, the preacher not the message

It is less than a week now since the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, delivered his now famous address at Britain's royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. He and his talk have been widely praised and perhaps as widely criticized  On the merits, I probably come down somewhere in the middle, there being in my opinion both much to praise in his talk and some things not to praise.

I am no expert on wedding homilies. Other than the (utterly unmemorable) ones I myself have delivered, I have had occasion to listen to very few. From what I have heard, however, from what I have been told by other preachers, my sense is that many wedding homilies try to be highly personal, displaying the preacher's personal knowledge of the couple, perhaps with stories gleaned from conversations at the rehearsal dinner the night before. Compared to that approach, Bishop Curry's sermon was certainly a more traditonal sermon with a real religious message, in fact a good and serious message (even if a bit belabored in its length). Whether it qualified as an effective message about the meaning of Christian marriage or just some generic form of comfortable Christianity can continue to be debated; but it was, as I heard it, a Christian message, however obscured that might now be by the preacher's style and all the responses, which have focused almost entirely on him and his impact on his audience. 

Certainly that suggests the one critique that is easiest to make - that this controversy itself suggests that the sermon has been received primarily as a performance and is being evaluated accordingly. It is primarily the performance (and the preacher himself) that is being either praised or criticized. How many times in the last week have I heard or read that the Bishop's preaching style was so different from what would be more typical at such a formal occasion? That has been said in praise, as well as a critique.  How many times in the last week have I heard or read impressions of its impact both on the congregation in Saint George's and on its world-wide audience. The question of whether the style was appropriate to the occasion is not an illegitimate one, although one has to assume that the royal family's decision to invite him was not made in ignorance of his preaching style. And, if his hearers were reacting (whether positively or negatively) primarily to the preacher himself and less (if at all) to his religious message, that may well be his fault for having preached the way he did. But it may also as much reflect a widespread ignorance of and discomfort with specifically Christian and even more generically religious language and ideas on the part of not a few of those listening - both within the Chapel and beyond its walls.

This highlights an important point about such sermons - that they could actually become evangelizing moments, but are not very likely to do so. That can happen only if the the Christian story (whether the Christian story about marriage specifically or the more general Christian story) is presented attractively, but also clearly - in other words, if the message overwhelms the experience rather than being overwhelmed itself by the aesthetics of the preaching experience. That, it seems to me, was what the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, tried to do at the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His talk was much, much shorter, much less a display of the preacher's virtuosity and more about something the hearers probably needed to hear - an authentic proclamation of a Christian message about marriage in the modern world. He spoke of bride and groom "making a new life together so that life can flow through them to the future."  (There was no Teilhard de Chardin in his homily, but he did begin with words from Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast day it happened to be - "Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.") 

William being destined in due time to become king, his wedding was, of course, a much more formal, official state occasion, a factor which should also to be considered before admitting any gratuitous criticism of his younger brother's obviously much less formal event!

Most of us will never preach at a royal wedding or any other occasion with a worldwide audience. But many of us do preach on occasions which bring in many somewhat uninterested or incomprehending listeners. Weddings and funerals, for sure, but also Christmas and Easter. That is why I have always disliked Christmas Eve "Children"s" or "Family" Christmas pageant-Masses, which increasingly seem to me to be such a lost opportunity. Such celebrations are filled with visitors who may be there only for that one occasion. But, instead of hearing an attractive, if challenging, adult message about the meaning of the Christmas story, they are as likely to see and hear confirmed what they already suspect - namely that religion is kid-stuff, possibly very good for children but of little relevance to actual adult life.

But, back to the wedding! In my opinion the only seriously problematic thing about Bishop Curry's talk was its length. If his homily had been, say, half the length it turned out to be, my guess is that reactions would have been different. Like most preachers, he could probably have said most of what he needed to say in half the time anyway! And he would more likely have held his hearers attention, thereby avoiding the appearance of discomfort in the congregation. While practically everyone in the world now knows that he preached about "love," maybe more people might remember his serious and challenging message about love if the homily had been short enough to hold their attention. (I suppose he understood he was going on too long. Hence his presumably humorous aside to the wedding couple that he knew he had to end so that they could get married. That could have been a nice touch - but only if he had actually stopped at that point!)

All in all, I think some of the praise has been excessive - and some of it apparently a somewhat mean-spirited way of mocking the royal family. The criticism, I think, has also been somewhat excessive (except on the issue of length). Some of it too has been somewhat mean-spirited, as if any deviation from some supposedly set pattern of formality were ipso facto offensive. 

A couple of years form now, will anyone remember Bishop Curry's message about love? Or, as happened with that Easter Magi homily, will the preacher himself and the responses he generated be what will be remembered instead?

The message I take away from all this is that it is always problematic when anyone (especially a preacher) draws too much attention to himself - especially when the event is really so obviously meant to be not about you at all!

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