Learning to preach from Graham Norton

Posted on December 19, 2007

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The preacher left me cold, although I could tell the, mostly elderly, people around me were enjoying it. I began to analyse what was going on. He was an able preacher, in a style I recognised, the message carried by good-humoured anecdotes. Then it struck me—it was like listening to Ned Sherrin (a comedian and raconteur who formed his style in the 1960s, although he was active in broadcasting until his death in October).

I pursued the thought: the preachers we admired fifteen years ago when I was at college could be compared to Ben Elton doing stand-up—the style was loud, brash, fast, and political, just like ‘motormouth’ had been.

So, I have a prescription for good preaching (in Britain) today: be like Graham Norton.

This is only half a joke. Preachers need to communicate in a culturally-aware and up-to-date way. If we sound like we’re two generations out of touch, then we reinforce the stereotype that church, and with it Christ, is irrelevant to modern life. What comedians witness to is the sense that cultural models of good communication change very rapidly. (I could write something very pretentious about hypermodernity here, but actually I think this happens from time to time in every culture—look at the shifts in poetic diction from Pope to Byron, or the development of dramatic voice during Shakespeare’s lifetime. If I were better educated, I’m sure I could find some examples from non-English speaking cultures…)

Norton, & with him other mainstream current comedians, cultivates a style that is self-deprecating and self-mocking (Sherrin exuded quiet confidence; Elton in-your-face brashness). The humour comes much less from stand-alone jokes as from comic themes that are developed and continuously re-appear later in the discourse; there is an assumption of cultural literacy, which allows allusive references or un-narrated visuals to become a part of the humour.

A homiletic style modelled on Graham Norton (or Jonathan Ross, or Ricky Gervais, or Linda Smith, or Sean Lock, who all exhibit the same style, more-or-less) would be relaxed and understated, refusing to take itself seriously, it would build in moments of mockery of its own shortcomings and mistakes. Illustrations would be themes developed early in the sermon and referred to several times in the course of the development. There would be an identification with the hearers by means of an easy assumption of shared cultural reference frames.

And in five years time it will be completely out of date.

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