BISHOP Michael Curry’s “love and fire” sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was an electrifying performance. While some members of the royal family looked slightly alarmed, wondering when it would end, other guests were entranced, having never heard a sermon like this before, and not expecting one in the sunlit grandeur of St George’s Chapel. The best line, for me, was the simple “Two people fell in love and we all showed up,” which provided a laugh as well as a number of Sunday headlines.
As Bishop Curry expanded on the power of love, he spoke of the cross: “He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying.” There were no clichés here, no banging of old drums. It was all unexpected and moving. Ed Miliband was not the only atheist to tweet that Bishop Curry “could almost make me a believer”.
A hint of next day’s Pentecost was well and subtly integrated: when love is the way, no child will go hungry, the earth will become a sanctuary, poverty will be history. It was good social hot-gospel: human progress, peace, equality, and diversity, seen through the lens of God’s redeeming love and with an unexpected nod to the Jesuit theologian of evolution Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
I am not sure how much was truly off the cuff. It certainly looked to be so, but some preachers in this style rehearse meticulously — even their hesitations are practised. Colin Morris, who died on Sunday, and in his day was the best preacher in Britain, was reputed to rehearse his sermons and addresses for hours. His rhetoric was fresh and fierce and always seemed spontaneous. Bishop Curry wandered off a bit at one point, and found himself in a rhetorical stacking loop, as though he was not quite sure how to land. I suspect that he was caught between trusting in the moment and relying on his prepared script.
Preaching without a script is much admired these days. Some will think it more “real” than reading a sermon. I usually use a full script when preaching, but I reserve the right to abandon it, add to it, or leave bits out, according to the context.
I have twice had to preach without preparation, when an expected preacher failed to turn up. The only strategy then is deep breathing, clear thinking, and surrender to the Holy Spirit. In fact, the revivalist tradition has much to teach cerebrally minded Anglicans.
It was a southern Baptist preacher who came up with the best ever definition of the Benedictine practice of lectio divina, which should be part of every preacher’s preparation: “I reads myself full, I thinks myself clear, I prays myself hot, I let myself cool.”
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus at Christ Church, Oxford.