Preachers decide time is right to cut back on tradition: A survey has found that sermons are getting briefer. Stephen Ward reports on a 'declining art'

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The Independent Online
IT IS arguable whether sermons are getting better or worse, but certainly they are getting shorter, according to a survey of clerics published yesterday.

Victorians vicars used an hourglass on the pulpit to time their oration, but according to a poll for a Christian resources exhibition to be held later this month in Esher, Surrey, one in three has detected a declining attention span in his flock, and cut the length of his sermon accordingly.

One curate from Milton Keynes, the Rev Derek Walmsley, said he had noticed members of his congregation passing holiday snaps round the pews, while Father Tom Jordan, a Catholic priest from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, had spotted somebody reading the News of the World.

The survey comes as no shock to George Target, author of a history of great sermons - Words that Shook the World (Bishopsgate Press). 'The last good sermon was probably preached by John Donne,' he opined. 'Since then there's been a steady decline.' Donne, as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, could command a congregation of 2,000 in the open air, for more than two hours.

Even Donne's closely-argued formula would probably struggle to compete with the Sunday tabloids in Leigh-on-Sea. On Christmas Day 1627, for example, he preached: 'Man is but earth; 'tis true; but earth is the centre. That man who dwells upon himself, who is always conversant in himself, rests in his true centre.'

The late 16th, to the early 18th centuries were a good time for sermons. At least 168 editions of Henry 'Silver-Tongued' Smith were published up to 1637. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote in his diary in 1739 that his regular week included eight sermons in assorted hills, bowling greens and other public places in the West Country.

In France, Bourdaloue, a contemporary of Donne, gave his name to the concealed chamberpot that women in his audience would keep under their dresses so not to miss any of his exceptionally long sermons. According to Mr Target, Charles Spurgeon, the fundamentalist Baptist preacher who opened the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1861 and spoke to packed houses, would watch the hourglass empty then turn it over and start again. Alongside his lecture notes he had accompanying diagrams for arm movements. Lord Soper, aged 91 and still putting down hecklers at Speaker's Corner today, is modest by comparison.

In the Anglican church a decline had apparently set in by the 19th century. Trollope wrote in Barchester Towers: 'No one but a preaching clergyman has the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented.' Between the wars, P G Wodehouse wrote one of his most popular short stories, The Great Sermon Handicap, around a bet on how long various vicars would go on. The winner, the Rev Francis Heppenstall, lasted 45 minutes.

Meanwhile the long sermon had apparently crossed the Atlantic, in a tradition which culminated in Martin Luther King, civil rights leader and preacher combined, and Billy Graham, still evangelising today. A by-law in New Amsterdam (modern-day New York City) in 1647 forbade 'the sale of beer or other strong liquors on Sundays before 2pm when there is no sermon. Otherwise before 4pm'.

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