‘He didn’t preach from the heart… it’s not the same unless they preach from the heart!’ I can still remember the critique offered by my grandmother on the Sunday that we’d returned from church, having witnessed, in her opinion, the performance of a second-rate minister. He was exposed as such by the fact that he’d dared to use notes for his sermon. From time to time, this critique comes back to haunt me, as most Sundays I step into the pulpit with a fully script in my hand.
I was reminded of my grandmother’s views this morning, reading and watching the reports of Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday at the Labour Party Conference. What Ed said has now been overshadowed by what he didn’t say, as it’s emerged that his attempts to impress again with the party piece of speaking without notes backfired on him when he forgot whole sections of the speech which addressed issues such as the economy and immigration.
It’s an astonishing error to make on such an occasion, which surely raises the question of why he put himself under the pressure of learning such a lot of lines for a major set-piece event. What do we learn about someone when they speak without notes? Does it really prove they have more passion, or just that they have a good memory? It could be argued that on some occasions, a memorised speech allows for a conversational style, which seems to have been the effect Miliband was aiming for yesterday. But the impression we’ve been left with is a disastrous attempt to put presentational gimmicks ahead of content and substance.
I still detect in some churches a preference for preaching which is extemporaneous. Sometimes, it seems to me that this is a viewpoint underpinned by anti-intellectualism, the suspicion that too many hours of research and reflection may end up taking off an edge of passion and zeal. But surely what matters most is effective preparation, weighing and sifting ideas, so that we speak a word which is thoughtful and truly can rise to the occasion. And whether or not what is delivered is done so with or without notes is surely of secondary importance.
But am I missing a point? Are there moments when a script diminishes a sermon? All views welcome…