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How the Pandemic Made Me a Better Preacher; or Learning from Richard Greenham

Study. Pray. Have one point about the texts and get to it. Be winsome and authentic. Start the Creed.

By Calvin Lane

While I have no desire to add to the veritable avalanche of posts, essays, and podcasts about the Church and the pandemic, it has become clear to me that no other experience in my decade of ordained ministry has so shaped — or perhaps altered — my preaching. To be sure, the ministry of the Word — opening Scripture for God’s people in the context of worship — has always been sacred to me, an obligation embraced with humility and in the fear of the living God. One of my teachers in seminary confessed that after close to 30 years of preaching, he still trembled when entering the pulpit. I’m reminded likewise of comments about preaching made by the great Elizabethan preacher, Richard Greenham, the rector of Dry Drayton near Cambridge. Young men from the university would journey the five miles to hear Greenham preach and then effectively hang out with him afterward to talk about the homiletic art. They reported that Greenham held preaching to be the ordinary means for begetting faith; without good preaching people perish. Opening the Word, then, is an awesome responsibility, one that requires continual study, persistent prayer, and the grace of the Holy Spirit. In short, preachers bear a terrible responsibility.

To tarry with Greenham for a bit longer, he is sometimes the go-to example for historians when describing the uncanny similarity between the Tudor-Stuart stage and the popular pulpit. Greenham’s sermons were not lectures; they were performative. More like an actor than the dons down the road, Greenham knew what he wanted to say and he got to it. While he did not use notes, neither was he an “extemporary” preacher who said whatever popped into his head at the moment, a criticism just as common in the 16th century as today. One might say he “memorized his lines,” but that doesn’t quite capture his process. Rather, he explained to those young men from Cambridge that good preachers “speak that, which many years they have studied for, which earnestly they have prayed for, which by woeful experience they have bought, and by a painful life they have dearly paid for.”

This image of Greenham feels very close at hand for me, personally, and I imagine others feel likewise, after this strange year and a half. We went from recorded services done alone in the church, to outdoor services which had a different liturgical tone, to services indoors that had to be much shorter (we wanted to get people in and get them out), and now we’re still shooting for shorter services but for a wider array of reasons. To be succinct, this experience has required me to be shorter, more condensed, and direct while keeping the biblical text and the gospel of grace forefront. I have the blessing of serving alongside another priest and, prior to the pandemic, both of us had the habit of going more than 15 minutes. For some Episcopalians that’s a crime. But neither of us were stiff or stuffy and both of us regularly received comments — taken in humility — that we are above-average preachers. By comparison, most 10-minute sermons are simply not worth hearing. The plain truth is that offering a short, bad sermon is easy. Likewise, offering a long, good sermon is easy. What is truly difficult is a short, good sermon.

The pandemic forced me, like an obstinate child refusing to eat his vegetables, into accepting that obligation: the short, good sermon. Previously I did use manuscripts, but they were written in the way I speak — with ellipses and repetitions. Now, I dispense even with that. I have my one point and I get to it. My goal is to be sincere and direct with those I have the privilege to speak with, and to talk to them about that one point drawn from the biblical text. Yes, there may still be jokes and anecdotes, there may be an aside here and there, but I am eager, like Greenham, to share what has seeped into me from God’s Word and I hope and pray will seep into them. Again, I hold this ministry in humility; no preacher can speak unless God opens the lips.

Perhaps other preachers have different experiences; maybe some are doing the same thing they did prior to March 2020.  But I hope that many have undergone the same shift and offer sermons that are like Cliff bars: tight, compact, and with little filler. And then start the Creed.


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