I’ve been enjoying reading the great English novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) these days. In the middle of the 19th century, he wrote six novels about the imaginary Victorian parish of Barchester. Collectively, they were known as The Chronicles of Barsetshire. The story centers around church vanity, intrigue and church politics, and I find myself laughing out loud over Trollope’s descriptions of church folk. It sounds so very current.
Right now I am reading Barchester Towers, the second and third books in the series. Trollope interjects his observations into the story regularly, sort of an aside to us the reader. He seems to miss no opportunity to express his disdain for preaching. It would be more accurate to observe that Trollope, joining all humanity, has real disdain for bad preaching.
In an early scene, Trollope is describing the cathedral at Barchester. The new bishop is sitting in his carved oak-wood throne with its “grotesque pinnacles” ascending half-way up to the cathedral ceiling, the wood polished, dusted and looking very smart for the new bishop. Then Trollope confesses, “Ah! How often sitting in the cathedral, in happy early days, on those lowly benches in front of the altar, have I whiled away the tedium of a sermon in considering how best I might thread my way up amidst those wooden towers, and climb safely to the topmost pinnacle!”
Who hasn’t sat in church, absolutely bored to death, looking at some architectural feature of the church and daydreaming about being elsewhere?
But Trollope is just getting warmed up. A few pages later he writes, “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. We desire to leave the house of God without anxious longing for escape …”
Trollope notes in the Church of England the younger clergymen could not perform certain tasks in worship. They could not offer absolution and if no higher order of clergy were present to offer it, the congregation would depart having self-administered it. Trollope thought this practice should maybe be extended to preaching, so that younger, more boring preachers couldn’t gain the pulpit, the result being that “clergymen who could not preach would be a blessing …”
I love preaching. I pray I’ve preached at least a few sermons that would have kept Mr. Trollope’s interest. But every preacher knows he or she has preached some pretty awful sermons, too. We want to do better but don’t always rise to the occasion.
A parishioner sent me a meme last week to the effect there is a very fine line between a long sermon and a hostage situation. That could have been written by Trollope, whose gentle and not-so-gentle observations on preaching are both quite funny and hit a little too close to home.