This twerp doesn't know more than I do

What preachers did Captain Scott O'Grady listen to during his survival training? Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times, rejoices in the glories of bad sermons.
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The Independent Online
A bad sermon is like a bad movie. Once the quality dips below the painful, it becomes enjoyable. Barry Norman's team in the Radio Times should start to award stars in a descending (or ascending order): boring, worse, getting interesting, rather funny, convert your friends to hear this.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing one from the last category. (It ought to have had the "PG" symbol against it, too.) It was delivered by a visiting speaker from a missionary society. These are generally a mixed bag: I remember one in which the preacher threw a foam brick into the congregation, though, as with an unusual advert, I can't recall what he was selling. Anyway, this other preacher started up confidently, clearly a one-star candidate, and I assumed my usual attitude of thoughtful and supportive prayer. I was awakened, however, by this cold tingle down my spine: the words "marriage" and "broken up" had been used too close together, causing a cross-circuit in my alarm system.

"Marriage . . . broken up," said the preacher. "It wasn't really anybody's fault. But my wife disagreed about the work I do for the missionary society and left me." I glanced anxiously at the children gathered together in the front pew, just below the pulpit: but they were paying their usual attention to the sermon, so that was all right. OK, it was the family service; but this was before the Church's family report had told us that these sorts of things were to be celebrated.

"What kept me sane was walking for hours round the fields behind my house, talking to God, sometimes silently, sometimes out loud . . ." Kept him sane? This was five-star material. Had we been particularly welcoming, to invite such confidences, or was this a regular part of his missionary sales patter?

The point about bad sermons, although they're seldom as spectacular as this, is that they have shaped the Church. That's why it is looking flabby. Rather like junk food, this stuff is what most Christians grow up on. But, like a lot of junk food, it's actually quite good for you.

For a start, bad sermons encourage congregations to think for themselves: "This twerp doesn't know much more than I do." An old English teacher of mine compared the faultless poetry of T.S. Eliot with the hit-and-miss versifying of Thomas Hardy: "Eliot makes you want to read poetry, but Hardy makes you want to write it." The individualism of British religion, which has seeped into Judaism and will do the same with Islam and the others, though it has drawbacks, suits our temperament. A bad sermon reminds you that the only relationship that matters is between you and God, and, as a bonus, gives you a few spare minutes every Sunday to ponder this.

Stemming from this is the centuries-old habit of anti-clericalism. The clergy keep their place in our communities, such as it is, because we like them, or because they are kind, or maybe because we respect their experience; but never because we see them as leaders. This is tremendously healthy. No group of disciples is going to open canisters of poison gas down the Central Line on the say-so of a priest whom they all saw the previous Sunday, bumbling through an ill-prepared service with the aid of a toy giraffe.

The two other benefits from bad preaching come from the fact that, unlike a bad movie, you can't turn it off. For those who don't know it, or haven't experienced it recently, the stultifying effect which creeps over you is like being sunk up to your neck in mud. From this derives a low expectation of life, and the development of patience. Again, these are essential lessons. They were probably part of the survival training which kept Captain Scott O'Grady, the US pilot, alive after his plane crash in Bosnia. After his rescue, he said that without "God's love for me and my love for God I would never have got through it" - this after six days of eating ants and drinking rainwater out of his socks.

Imagine how poorly O'Grady would have fared if he had ever come under the influence of an eloquent and affluent American preacher, promising God's abundant riches to his hearers. The Bosnian Serbs would have picked him up as he searched for the nearest swimming pool. As it was, he hid in a bush for days, drawing strength from the hundreds of sermons he'd sat through.

He even adopted the pose perfected during his years in a pew, lying flat with his ears covered.