THE heated argument about which of our political leaders should
be entitled to take part in April's tele-vised General Election
debates assumes that being given such a public platform is
automatically an advantage.
It may, indeed, serve the interests of democracy, but few of us
expect to be impressed and dazzled by the eloquence of our party
leaders. Compilers of dictionaries of quotations can rest easy, and
a comparison with Winston Churchill, the 50th anniversary of whose
death we mark this month, is not worth making. Recent decades have
given us little to compare with "This is not the end. It is not
even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the
beginning." Or, "Never. . . was so much owed by so many to so
Rhetoric currently fares better on the other side of the
Atlantic. Barak Obama's way with words catapulted him to the
presidency. Criticism of the President today is often based on the
charge that, having delivered a brilliant speech on a difficult
topic, he thinks he's solved the problem. And, compared with
Abraham Lincoln, even President Obama's oratory falls flat.
Rhetoric originated as a civic art in Ancient Greece, and was
seen as essential to the flourishing of democracy. In medieval
times, it was taught in universities as part of the
trivium (with grammar and logic). After the American and
French Revolutions, exponents of the new Republics looked back to
Cicero for rhetorical inspiration. The subject survived on the
classical syllabus of English public schools, but it is little
taught today. It certainly doesn't appear on the National
Curriculum, presumably on the erroneous logic that we advance the
cause of the ordinary, poor, and disadvantaged by depriving them of
the tools of the rich and powerful.
If political rhetoric lies in dishonour today, politicians are
largely to blame: for using it too little, or too much; for
neglecting the power of well-chosen words to inspire us; or for
inspiring us with words not matched by deeds. The language of our
politics is typically either dull or deceitful.
Within the Church, we rightly distrust any victory of style over
substance, but every preacher needs to be a wordsmith. St Augustine
addressed the importance of rhetoric for the Christian preacher in
the fourth volume of On Christian Doctrine. Our liturgies
put words into our mouths, week by week, well composed or not.
I've been jolted into thinking about the part played by rhetoric
in all of this by a recent book by Mark Forsyth, The Elements
of Eloquence (Icon Books, 2013). It's about turns of phrase;
about the clever devices that do so much to contribute to good
prose style. Forsyth's book is crammed with examples, with the
Bible second only to Shakespeare for quantity. St Paul emerges as
an artful writer, not least in his love of lists, whether
straightforward, as with the "works of the flesh" and the "fruits
of the Spirit" (Galatians 5), or in some more particular guise,
perhaps as anadiplosis, where the end of one line is taken
up by the beginning of the next (Romans 5.3-5), or as
epistrophe, where every sentence or line ends with the
same word or phrase (1 Corinthians.13.11).
CHRISTIANS will find no better demonstration of the value and
legitimacy of rhetoric than from the lips of the Incarnate Word.
Just to scratch the surface of the Gospels, we find the
hyperbole of the speck and the plank, and (like a
hyperbole taken even further) the adynaton of the camel
and needle (a comparison made with an impossibility).
Jesus understood the power of threefold repetition (or
tricolon), as in "eat, drink, and be merry," and the
elegance of the chiasmus, with its symmetric reversal:
"The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath," and
"Judge not, that ye be not judged". Today, the repetition of a word
for emphasis (epizeuxis) may have become a hackneyed
formula, beloved of politicians ("education, education, education"
- T. Blair) and estate agents ("location, location, location"), but
it also serves to describe the linguistic force of the most
chilling sentence in history: "My God, my God, why hast thou
IN THE 21st century, we tend to value simplicity above all else
in prose. Forsyth gives us the proper name for such plainness in
writing: parataxis. We might call it the
Economist style: only stray from subject-verb-object for a
But simplicity gets us only so far. It can embrace the force and
allure of alliteration, and of that three-fold tricolon
(the phrase "short, sharp shock" captures both), or of any of the
other "figures" illustrated above from the Gospels. Simplicity is
the bedrock for speaking well in church, but it is not the whole
story, as much that is best in Anglican liturgy illustrates.
Forsyth quotes the Book of Common Prayer almost as much as he
quotes Jesus. In Economist style, pleonasm
(saying something more than once in different ways) is a vice; in
the Prayer Book, it shows its virtues. We have "to love and to
cherish", when either verb would suffice, and "Dearly beloved . . .
gathered together. . . join together", where any of these pairs of
words could be pared down to one ("beloved - together - join").
In fact, well-judged verbosity is everywhere to be found in the
Prayer Book. Consider the prevalence of merism,
enumerating in parts what could be said more briefly, but flatly:
"For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in
health" rather than "whatever comes".
A line in the Prayer Book which never fails to please me for its
transgression of the rules of plainness is in the invitation to
confession: "and make your humble confession to Almighty God,
meekly kneeling upon your knees." "Upon your knees" is extraneous,
since we can kneel no other way. Forsyth names what is so elegant
about this phrase: it uses polyptoton, the repetition of a
word in different forms: "kneeling. . . knees". In the Bible, we
find "I have become a foreigner in a foreign land," and "harpers
harping with their harps".
The Prayer Book was the Church of England's first, and no doubt
greatest, attempt at liturgical indigenisation, and "indigenised"
language is not quite the same thing as the common tongue. English
has different registers, not least for speaking and writing. The
Book of Common Prayer was couched in a register that is not really
that of written English (even of the time), and not quite that of
spoken English (of any social back- ground). That is precisely
because liturgy - because prayer - is not quite like any other
human endeavour. Writers of liturgy today, take note! The liturgy
gives us words that are written to be spoken - to be spoken to God;
and to one another; and to be spoken together. There is more to
that than plain-ness.
RHETORIC need not be the tool of charlatans. Jesus used language
creatively, to speak forcefully and memorably; St Paul employed
every trick in his bag to communicate the gospel. Preaching and
praying need to be heartfelt but, as the Saviour and the
foundational theologian of Christianity demonstrate, that need not
be neglectful of style for the sake of substance - nor substance
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Starbridge Lecturer in
Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of