THE familiar remark at the church door, “Nice sermon, Vicar,” has a long pedigree. The Elizabethan clergyman George Gifford observed in 1584 that parishioners “will say peradventure . . . it was a good Sermon, I woulde wee coulde follow it”. Then as now, giving a sermon is one thing; the reception of it is quite another.
Historians and literary scholars of early modern England have tended to think that sermons, in some sense, really mattered, even if mining them for evidence that preachers felt their seed was falling on stony ground. The field abounds in studies of sermons and sermonisers. The much more difficult topic of what it was like to hear a sermon — either to digest it inwardly or to refuse to swallow it — has rarely been the focus of scholarly study. That is because finding the evidence that allows a historian to enter the mind-set of those on the receiving end of the Word preached in early modern England is monumentally difficult to find.
Arnold Hunt takes on this nearly impossible task in this impressive and meticulously researched book, and opens up the world not only of the preachers — we know a great deal about them — but those preached to: the silent, but far from passive, partner, who is essential if the part played by preaching in the life of the Church is to be understood in any kind of rounded way.
Hunt has produced a “reception” history of early modern preaching through an exhaustive exploration of published sermons and “how to” literature (not only “how to” give a sermon, but also “how to” hear a sermon), as well as manuscript sermon notes of both preachers and congregants.
One of the most striking things that he relates is the privileging of hearing over reading, of the ear over the eye. A further even more remarkable hierarchy is examined of privileging the Word preached over the Bible heard in church. To many godly clergy, the sermon quite literally trumped listening to the Bible read aloud as part of corporate worship. This was carried to such an extent, Hunt claims, that some puritan clergy doubted if deaf people could be saved because they could not “hear” the preacher.
This is a remarkable development in the Reformation idea of sola scriptura, and illustrates the staying power of the concept of the priest or minister as mediator between God and the people, whether Catholic or Protestant — whether at the altar or in the pulpit.
The Art of Hearing is not for the faint-hearted. It is beautifully written, with some wonderfully observed allusions to contemporary culture and church life which will resonate with readers, but there are not many concessions to anyone not steeped in the scholarship of the 16th- and 17th-century Church of England. I also have a small quibble about the thin index and the absence of a bibliography.
That said, this is indeed an important book for scholars, and will greatly reward the generalists, preachers and the preached to alike, who take it on.
Canon Judith Maltby is Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford.