AFTER my very first sermon as a curate, my training incumbent made a few generous remarks, and then suggested that it did sound a little as if I was reading out my weekly essay in a tutorial. Next week, he suggested, I ought to get into the pulpit with no notes at all. Of course, it was terrifying. And I am sure I preached several howlers. But, pretty much from that second Sunday, extempore preaching has been my preferred style.
In a building as vast as St Paul’s, where one cannot easily make eye-contact with the congregation, I find it quite tricky. But I still prefer the freshness of expression that it is possible to find when you are speaking on your feet.
But, of course, extempore preaching is not about just getting into the pulpit and saying any old thing that comes to mind. It takes a great deal of preparation. And one of my methods of preparation is to turn what I want to say into some sort of narrative. Once I have thought through the content and the argument, I try to develop some story that lines up all the ideas. Once I have turned the argument into a narrative of sorts, it is much easier to remember and reproduce. Perhaps this is what others do — although I don’t think I have ever discussed it with anyone else.
But it was this technique that came to my mind the other day, when I heard of the death of the great literary critic Sir Frank Kermode. His ground-breaking book The Sense of an Ending (OUP, 1967) developed the idea that it is the end of a story that organises the whole: all parts of the narrative — the beginning and the middle — get made sense of by the way things turn out. In a sense, a narrative is a piece of backward engineering. It is interesting that Aquinas calls a thing’s purpose its “final cause”, as if something that happens at the end can be the cause of that which happens before it.
This is just how it feels in my preaching preparation. The question is: how do I get to this place, this conclusion? And then you organise the story to deliver you there. But, for Professor Kermode, it is even more than this. He suggests that we all tend to impose narrative form on our lives, giving us a strong sense of a direction through life: beginning, middle, and end.
It was, of course, Shakespeare, that genius at narrative construction, who famously expounded the idea of the seven ages of man. And now the brilliant Professor Kermode has reached his own end. How this end makes sense of his whole life is in the hands of the Almighty. May he rest in peace.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.