20 December 2018
What’s The Message?
By Richard Pooley
Will you be going to church this Christmas? A carol service, Midnight Mass or a celebration on Christmas Day itself? I will be, even though I’m an atheist. I was baptised in a Hampshire church and used to trudge to and from the same church every Sunday during term-time at my preparatory school. I was confirmed at the altar of one of the greatest churches in the land but such grandeur did nothing to stop me losing what little faith I had in the existence of God by the time I was out of my teens.
So, why go to church at Christmas? Because it’s the only opportunity that I have all year to sing out loud and be confident that my tuneless efforts will be drowned out by others around me. Because I can be part of a joyful event shared with complete strangers. Above all, though, because I want to hear the sermon.
Most Christmases I am disappointed. The vicar has a full church, probably for the only time in the year. Yet he or she fails to take this opportunity to nudge the lapsed believers into coming back to God. The sermon fails to inspire. It does not make us question our current orthodoxy. It has no message which disturbs our intellectual torpor. It’s the same at weddings and funerals. It’s the same with the Today programme’s Thought for the Day.
A Jewish funeral I attended for a great man* on Monday was an exception to my usual experience at religious occasions; the woman rabbi’s short and simple eulogy certainly carried a message for those of us he left behind: love of family and adopted country will get you through the bleakest times.
I have a professional interest to declare: for much of my professional life I have trained and coached businesspeople to become better public speakers. But only twice have I tried to help priests to deliver better sermons.
The first was with five Church of England vicars in a church in Frome, Somerset. My wife ran the choir in our nearby village church and I would occasionally go along to give her moral support. And to see if the vicar’s sermon kept the attention of the congregation of six or seven elderly stalwarts. It seldom did. So, I offered my services to the local diocese. I had some success. By the end of the session I could hear all of them from the back of the church. They found it easier to find and use a single Biblical story to illustrate the point they were trying to make (as, of course their Faith’s founder had done). They accepted that nobody would be listening to them after minute ten, however powerful their oratory. But not one would accept that their most important task was to find a pithy message which would resonate with their congregation. They wanted to win the intellectual argument (with whom? themselves?), not work on the emotions of their listeners. During my final feedback session, one of the vicars nodded vigorously, giving me hope that I was getting through. When I finished, he looked at me with a kind smile: “Richard. Wise words. I am sure your business clients find what you say helpful. But you have to understand. When I am in the pulpit, God is speaking through me. Even you cannot tell God what he should say.”
The second time was in 2013. A Latvian business client, a devout Roman Catholic, had persuaded the Archbishop of Riga that his priests badly needed to give more powerful sermons and that I was the one to get them to do so. As Edgars put it to me: “The priests in church. No one listens to them. Probably not even God.” I told him that I would need the priests to practice their sermons in English. Wouldn’t this be a problem, seeing as they sermonised in Latvian and their Cardinal spoke to them in Latin? No, they all spoke adequate English, he assured me. I didn’t tell him I was an atheist.
So, there I was outside a vast church in Riga at 8.45 a.m. on a Wednesday in mid-November. But it was the wrong church. My Russian-speaking taxi driver, grumpy at finding he was not getting a fat fare to take me to the airport, had dropped me off at the Russian Orthodox version. Not that I realised at first. I walked in through the porch and wondered if Latvian Roman Catholicism had absorbed some aspects of the Orthodox faith during the centuries of Tsarist rule. Why otherwise would there be an icon of Christ at the entrance. After five minutes of questioning to which the answer was always “yes”, I realised I was in the wrong place. Five minutes later I had met Edgars at the right one, 200 metres down the same street.
I had been told to expect ten priests, some of whom were seminarians. The building was dark and bare inside, apart from one corridor lined with photos of the visit of Pope John-Paul II. We arrived at the training room. It was like an old-fashioned school room, filled with men in black habits. One young priest was tapping the digitally-interactive whiteboard. It was refusing to interact with his digit and looked more speckled cream than white. Another whiteboard had a notice in Latin which I guessed asked any user to leave it wiped after finishing with it. A young priest at the back of the room was getting the tripod of his video camera to swivel easily. And the room was filling fast with yet more black habits and nervous faces. A list of participants was put in front of Edgars and me. 22 people were coming, including the head of the seminary, a US-born-and-raised Latvian. Two stolid, unsmiling old priests scowled at the back throughout the day. I learned later that one of them had manned the cathedral in Riga’s Old Town in Soviet times along with the present cardinal. It had been an official monument then and the two men had been its guardians, showing tourists around. If those tourists happened to stop and chat for a long time, so be it. This was how the faithful continued to give confession and receive absolution – quietly, in public. And if some of those same tourists happened to murmur quietly from their “guide books”, so be it. They said their prayers and softly sang their hymns in public. But no Mass could be said or communion bread and wine consumed. The two priests had never given sermons; they hadn’t needed to.
We started off. “Making the Word of God live in people’s hearts” was an encouraging answer to my “What are you attempting to achieve when you speak to people?” but not one I was used to from my business participants. I had guessed correctly that if I used more Latinate English I would be understood more easily or, indeed, comprehended with elevated facility. I had rewritten my handout to take in examples from Jesus, who must have learned a thing or two about rhetoric from Aristotle and Socrates. Or maybe it was God-given. He was certainly big on antithesis and tricolons.
A high point for all was when I made them do a memory test. I asked them to be ready to listen to something and have a piece of paper and pen in front of them but not write anything down until I said so. As I always do, I said the words listen, paper, pen and write five times during my instructions. I then read out a list of twenty words. Seventeen have been the same words ever since a colleague and I devised this test on a flight to Finland in the early 1980s. Listen, paper, pen and write are among them, as is sex. Three words – the third, sixth and nineteenth – are changed each time and are ones particularly relevant to the group being taught. I had chosen church (3), God (6) and Devil (19) for the priests. I and my colleagues have done this test with over a hundred thousand people around the world and are still using it. It illustrates the notorious and unbending audience attention curve: we remember stuff told to us at the beginning and at the end, and anything of particular relevance to us. And little else. The average Brit, we have found, remembers 6.8 words out of twenty immediately after the list is read out. A couple of hours later, he or she will, at best, remember five: most often sex, table (1), the special third and nineteenth words and money (20). The least remembered? The fifth word, paper, despite it being repeated five times before the test. I will leave you to guess the reasons. The Latvian priests were delighted that nearly all remembered sex but deeply troubled that Devil easily outscored God.
I managed to get some of them, mostly young seminarians, to give me the first minute of a sermon. I filmed all of them. One, a thin shy one, began talking about lepers. He stopped after 20 seconds, saying he had forgotten what he was going to say. Everyone laughed. He was close to tears. The cocky young man who had set up the camera at the beginning of the day was particularly scornful. He had had no trouble booming out his 1-minute’s worth. Sure enough, he had put the 20-second attempt on You Tube within 24 hours.
I finished with an impromptu sermon of my own. The shy one had asked me whether I had ever got nervous giving speeches. I smiled and paused before asking them if they had noticed how I often spoke with my eyes closed or even with just the whites of my eyes showing. They politely said they had not seen me do either, which could have been true. I believe I do these things much less often these days. I told them that one of the nicknames given to me by the children I had taught in Botswana as an 18-year old was white-eye because of this unfortunate tic. I had been painfully shy and awkward for most of my childhood and early adult life. Girls lived in another world (this got a laugh). But I had forced myself to learn how to speak confidently in public. And success at this had bred self-confidence which, in turn, had led to success in general. There was a long silence after I had finished. I don’t know where this confession came from. Perhaps it was simply because they were priests and that is what one does with them. But I am glad I did. The shy one was the first to break the silence. He thanked me, his voice stronger than it had been all day. Everyone else clapped.
Back at home in France eight days later I emailed Edgars and other Latvian clients. The roof of a supermarket in Riga had collapsed and crushed to death fifty-four people and injured hundreds more. Had Edgars and the others been affected? I expressed my deepest sympathy. Edgars replied by telephone but only on the Monday following this awful event. He wanted to thank me for my concern. But even more he wanted to thank me for the training. The shy seminarian had been told to give his first sermon, in the cathedral in Riga’s Old Town, four days after the supermarket roof collapse. He had spent all Saturday preparing, day and night. He had stood on the altar steps and after a long pause, ensuring that all in the packed cathedral were listening, he asked the question he knew all were asking themselves: “Why has God allowed this to happen?” There was no need to say what this was. All knew. He spoke for no more than five minutes. He told one story. He finished with a message.
What was the story and the message? I don’t know. Edgars could hardly speak through his tears as he recounted this on the phone. It’s not necessary to know. The shy young priest had given comfort. He had spoken from the heart to the heart. Will I hear anything like it in a church in the next week? I doubt it. But one can but hope.
*Sir Jack Zunz, the man who led the team which built the Sydney Opera House.