There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling audiences to sit silent, and be tormented. 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. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture–room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge’s charge need be listened to per force by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town–councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.
With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood texts, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades if we neglect to comply with the injunctions he has given us! Yes, my too self–confident juvenile friend, I do believe in those mysteries, which are so common in your mouth; I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation. The bible is good, the prayer–book is good, nay, you yourself would be acceptable, if you would read to me some portion of those time–honoured discourses which our great divines have elaborated in the full maturity of their powers. But you must excuse me, my insufficient young lecturer, if I yawn over your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawlings and denouncings, your humming and hawing, your oh–ing and ah–ing, your black gloves and your white handkerchief. To me, it all means nothing; and hours are too precious to be so wasted—if one could only avoid it.
And here I must make a protest against the pretence, so often put forward by the working clergy, that they are overburdened by the multitude of sermons to be preached. We are all too fond of our own voices, and a preacher is encouraged in the vanity of making his heard by the privilege of a compelled audience. His sermon is the pleasant morsel of his life, his delicious moment of self–exaltation. ‘I have preached nine sermons this week, four the week before. I have preached twenty–three sermons this month. It is really too much.’ ‘Too much for the strength of any one.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered meekly, ‘indeed it is; I am beginning to feel it painfully.’ ‘Would,’ said I, ‘you could feel it—would that you could be made to feel it.’ But he never guessed that my heart was wrung for the poor listeners.
Before the liturgical reforms, I think it was customary that only the parish priest preached at Mass; the curates seldom, if ever. It is my earnest belief that bad preaching is one of the chief causes of lapsation; unprepared texts, mindless drivel about love…… It really is highly unfair to our people to make them, a captive audience, listen to what we have to say if we have hardly given it any consideration ourselves. An MP (member of parliament) once spoke to us when I was in the seminary, and he commented that if he had the chance of speaking to several hundred people once a week for ten minutes, he would be able to do all sorts of things. But so many priests simply throw the opportunity away.
Now I know I'm laying myself open to being accused of being the worst of these, but I think I can honestly say that in my two decades or so of preaching, I could count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when I have not prepared my words—and those because I was taken unawares.
I suspect that if we were to actually abolish the requirement for homilies at most Sunday Masses, we actually might do more good than harm. But if we could be assured of good homilies, then of course preaching is a most useful tool.