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Learning to preach

By Rob Esdaile

Rob Esdaile is Catholic parish priest of Woking & Knaphill in Surrey and Commissioning Editor for Catholic Homilies for The Preacher

<strong>Learning to preach</strong>

There is something joyously ephemeral about the act of preaching. It is for the moment, addressing a particular congregation in a particular situation on a particular date. When it works ‘heart speaks unto heart’ (as John Henry Newman put it). There is a connection made and, if the connection is a sound one, a current flows. Long before the internet came along, preachers were broadcasting into the ether, knowing that their words would be lost with the dying echo – but with the hope that those same words might be found again in people’s hearts and in changed lives. Every homily is tomorrow’s chip-papers. The preacher’s task is to make sure that it isn’t yesterday’s chip-papers.


However, becoming a preacher is a journey – not simply a journey to professionalism – to being polished in delivery, free from debilitating attacks of nerves, astute in choice of words and images, knowing how to land our flights of rhetoric. The journey is both about finding our own voice and finding ways to let God’s voice sound through us, so that we can mediate between the inspired Word and the realities of people’s joys and sorrows.

I can look back over more than three decades of preaching ministry. So, for better or worse, can my congregation. But I need to look back further still to find the roots of it, to childhood when, unsurprisingly, I can remember scarcely a word a preacher said – another indicator of the ‘in the moment’ nature of proclamation. But I remember one young curate so painfully tongue-tied that, even as a kid, my heart went out to him. I saw then that preaching could be struggle, too, even Calvary. And I remember Fr Jim, who taped posters to the front of the altar, who told a joke I can still recall (without remembering why he told it …) and who preached using the stories of Paddington Bear and Winnie the Pooh. He first coaxed my shy nine-year-old self to read at ‘Children’s Mass’ and showed me that my amplified voice could be a resonant instrument.


The inner voice, too, played its part. Sitting on a bus leaving the Taizé Community with my new teenage friends I thought, all of a sudden, ‘God wants me to be a priest’. Another journey, this one twelve years long, led me to hear another voice, this time episcopal, praying over me. Whatever our tradition, we preachers confess that our homilising is not our initiative but rather a calling. We submit to the discernment of others and the affirmation of our community at least at the beginning – though spectacular incompetence is needed before our Licence to Thrill gets rescinded.

I was at a conference recently and turned to a fellow attendee (with whom I’d trained) to say, ‘I’ve heard more about homiletics in these three days than I learned in six years in seminary.’ All I remember in terms of our first formation for a preaching ministry is a few days working with a voice coach and a weekly ‘sermon class’, a genteel game in which we took turns gently to demolish each others’ homilies. But you only really learn to preach after ‘going live’ – and, like a rookie motorist, hope not to have too many car-crashes as you master the craft.


What we did learn in seminary was historical critical method. That’s something I’ve always found fascinating. It’s a toolbox to master and then ‘unlearn’ – not by rejecting the insights built up over generations or adopting some fundamentalist position but by the realisation that (another motoring metaphor) knowing how the car was put together is of less practical use than knowing how to drive.

We, who have the privilege of arguably understanding more about the text than its original authors, need to read it with a contemplative heart, letting it read us and challenge our presuppositions. Analysis needs must give way to synthesis – whether through Lectio Divina, Ignatian imagination or a See-Judge-Act approach. Whatever route we take, the thread running through our study is an assurance that here God speaks, here we meet the Crucified and Risen Lord, here the preacher listens with the congregation in prayer, even when in speaking mode. Perhaps the best one-liner summary of the preacher’s role is in Matthew 13.52: ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’


There are two other steps in my own learning journey as a preacher which I hold dear. The first was a remark by a mentor and friend, a wonderful priest called Peter De’Ath (who died, too young, the same weekend as Princess Diana): ‘I haven’t preached from behind the lectern for years. I found myself asking: What am I hiding from there?’ It was the last thing that I wanted to hear but it hit me in the gut, and I knew that the next Sunday I needed to emerge from behind the bullet-proof shelter of the ambo to stand vulnerable before my flock. Initially, I still had the full text in my hands; latterly I have learned to leave it in my pocket, using a type of visual memory to recall the points on the page. I discovered I could walk and talk – very useful in the churches where I’ve served, each of which has had the sanctuary modelled in the form of a ‘thrust stage’, with the congregation literally gathered around me.

The other lesson learned gradually was the need to seek out preachers who are worth listening to for their artistry as much as for their wisdom. The rolling cadences of Martin Luther King (echoed to some extent in Barak Obama’s secular oratory), the warmth of Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton’s speaking out of inner silence, the delivery of good stand-up comics, working the room… As I listen to such voices, I find myself asking what if anything I might steal, adapt and make my own. Effective preaching rests on the ability to move up and down gears between the demotic and the solemn, to read the road, to adjust to the audience.


Even – perhaps especially – after many years of preaching, watching other practitioners of the rhetorical arts is an essential help to fuel our reflections on our own efforts and keep our preaching fresh. That’s not as easy as it might seem, firstly because most ordained preachers are ‘sole-traders’ who hear our peers but rarely; secondly because the art of public speaking has been degraded in our culture. Public figures rarely seek to ‘hold an audience’ by the quality of their language and argument. Rather, political speeches are all too often reduced to a set of soundbites, appealing as much to voters’ prejudices as to their reason.

Yet, whatever the state of political debate, it’s important to remember that preaching is also a dramatic performance, both a pitching of ideas and a show which must go on, however I am feeling. I tread the boards, share what I have to share – and then retire without applause, hoping that my words may bear some fruit before becoming tomorrow’s chip papers.

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