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Of Pulpits and Preaching

By Daniel Martins

In 1965, the suburban Chicago Baptist church of my childhood built a new worship space. To match the rest of the physical plant, it was rendered in the “colonial” style of architecture; and, to match the theology of their tradition, the building featured an imposing — by some lights, perhaps, massive — pulpit “center stage” on the platform, with subtle abstract carved decorations, painted white and trimmed in dark walnut. It was not only wide, but high, leaving no ambiguity about the nature of the central act performed regularly in that space.

After I was grown up and had moved away, the pastor who succeeded the one who had overseen the design of the building determined that the pulpit was too high, and had it shortened by about a foot. I was later told that his successor, who served the congregation for a long number of years, had it shortened even more. The last time I was there, for a family wedding a decade or so ago, there was just a plexiglass lectern where the pulpit had once been.

When I was in my early teens, while traveling with my family, we worshiped with some friends in their church, which had a “divided chancel” — that is, an altar/communion table where I was used to seeing a pulpit, and two pieces of furniture on either end of the platform, one a little larger and fancier than the other. Once I overcame my shock, and attended to the worship, I intuited correctly that the lesser object was for the reading of the Word of God and the greater object for the preaching of the Word of God. During my senior year in college, I began worshiping in liturgical churches where, of course, the “divided chancel” is the norm — indeed, as I learned, the historic norm.

What is interesting is that, despite the differences in their understanding of the relation between Word and Sacrament, the liturgical/sacramental and free church/evangelical traditions each have, in their own way, a high regard for the ministry of preaching. Only rarely in the “divided chancel” scheme are the lectern and pulpit of equal glory. Both in size and design, the pulpit is usually accorded a much greater weight and dignity. It is presumed that the occupant of a pulpit has special training and skill in breaking open the holy Scriptures for the edification of God’s people, and in teaching the faith, and thereby commands respect.

The dignity of the pulpit, whether it is centrally located or off to one side, reflects the importance of the preaching office in the life of the Church. In some Christian traditions, a pastoral interregnum is symbolized by the expression “vacant pulpit,” and the group of lay leaders charged with finding a new pastor is styled the “pulpit committee.” There was a time when one could readily find references to large and prominent churches as “influential pulpits” in their denomination or community or region of the country.

As I entered adulthood, pretty much along with the advent of the 1970s, two homiletical trends starting gaining traction that began to undermine the pulpit. One was rooted in the Liturgical Movement of the previous several decades, which sought to highlight the unity of the Liturgy of the Word in the celebration of the Eucharist, in a relationship of parity with the Liturgy of the Table. In the design of new churches, or the renovation of old ones, planners were encouraged to have a single piece of furniture to robustly symbolize the ministry of the Word, a pulpit/lectern combination that is sometimes styled an “ambo.” The reading of Scripture and its proclamation in the sermon are essentially different facets of the same activity, and are properly identified with a single symbolic object.

The other trend that gained a lot of energy in the 70s flows from the cultural tenor of the times, with a growing sense of informality and casualness in attire and demeanor. Preachers began eschewing the physical pulpit (or ambo) and delivering their homilies at nave level, without text or notes, standing in the aisle (and sometimes moving continuously up and down the aisle). This is a trend that has continued into the present moment, and, in some contexts, is seen as normative, de rigueur. Both preachers and parishioners have testified that it makes the preacher feel and seem more human, more connected, more “one of the people.” Congregations seem to appreciate it when they are spoken to in a manner that seems “off the cuff,” authentic, rather than artful or contrived.

Call me a contrarian, but, in my thirty-plus years of regular preaching, I have tended to preach from the pulpit (or ambo, if that’s the situation), and to work from a prepared text. (That is, on Sundays and other high occasions; a midweek liturgy with only a handful of people present calls for something less formal.) The truth of the matter is that the quality of a sermon is not determined by the style of its delivery. It’s quite possible to be lively and engaged preaching from a pulpit, using a manuscript, and it’s equally possible to be completely stultifying while preaching from the aisle, without notes. Aisle preachers, however, do seem rather more likely to succumb to rambling incoherence, not quite sure how and when to “land the plane.” (I say this from the experience of sitting in the cockpit!)

It has also been my experience, both as a sermon-hearer and as an occasional aisle preacher myself, that the practice can tend to leave one more vulnerable to the urge to indulge in grandstanding and self-approbation. Some years ago I attended a wedding, in a Roman Catholic church, where the priest presided over the whole event, including the homily, as if he were the host of a daytime television talk show with a studio audience, wandering all over the place, cordless mic in hand. I’ll grant him the presumption that it was not his intention to do so, but his behavior had the effect of making it all about him, rather than the couple exchanging vows, and still less about the glory of God.

A pulpit reminds the preacher that he or she stands in a tradition and under a discipline. I’m always grateful when I step into one of the pulpits in the Diocese of Springfield and see a brass plaque right where my text goes, quoting the Greeks who approached Philip in John 12:21 with the request, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” The pulpit is a sign, both to the congregation and the preacher, that preaching is not a free-lance endeavor. It exists within a network of accountability — accountability to the gospel, accountability to leading people to “see Jesus.” A sermon is never rightfully “a few words about what’s on my mind.” It is a weighty privilege, a joyful responsibility, worthy of the preacher’s best art and craft in the moment. The whole communion of “saints, prophets, apostles, and martyrs” is listening in to hear a word of good news.

In a similar fashion, a pulpit reminds the congregation that they are not in church to be entertained or enthralled, and that the preacher speaks with authority. In the Anglican tradition, one of the visible symbolic acts in the liturgy of ordination is when the bishop presents the new priest with a Bible, saying, “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given to you to preach the Word of God …”  That conferral of authority is a solemn moment. Those listening to a sermon owe the preacher a presumption of trust that he or she has indeed wrestled with the message, and is, in fact, delivering a “word from the Lord.” Somehow, a proper pulpit helps make that trust more credible; a plexiglass stand, not so much.

Can aisle preaching without notes be excellent? Certainly. Can pulpit preaching from a prepared text be horribly dreadful? I not only believe so, I’ve witnessed it! (I have probably also committed it.) I’m not trying to shame the practice of aisle preaching. But I am trying to encourage some restraint on iconoclastic impulses, and a recovered appreciation for the solemnity and dignity of the ministry of preaching.

Daniel Martins is the 11th Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in the Episcopal Church.


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