Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Stain On The Wall

As a child, one of the earliest displays of the power of language that I witnessed was when each Sunday in the church which my family attended, after the Gospel had been read, the priest would ascend the pulpit and begin his sermon.

At that time we had two priests. They each started their homily in the same way: ‘In the name of the father and of the son and of the holy ghost. My dear people…’ But that was where the similarity ended.

One of them was exceptionally good at delivering sermons. I thought of him as the Powerful Priest. His manner was deliberately conversational, as if he were taking the whole congregation into his confidence. Often he peppered his sermon with little stories about people he had encountered. These were sometimes comical, though never cruel, and there was always a strong moral punchline at the end.

The other priest was a complete contrast. He was a nervous man with a thin, quavering voice. His manner was distracted, his talks rambling and incoherent. I thought of him as the Weak Priest. The congregation shifted and fidgeted while he was in the pulpit and parents struggled to make their children behave as he floundered about, trying to find an ending.

It was an object lesson in the importance of structure. Of course the Powerful Priest was a more confident man by nature, secure in his sense of himself. Nevertheless, it was also evident to me that the clear structure of his story-telling in itself created confidence.

It was equally obvious that the Weak Priest never gave himself a chance. There were no hooks to draw in the audience in, no signposts to show them where he was going, no payoff at the end to produce the sense of satisfaction we had all been waiting for.

During the Weak Priest’s sermons I used to stare at a large stain on the wall made by penetrating damp. It looked to me like a map of some imaginary continent and I saw myself sailing around its coastline in a boat, stopping at little islands to pick up supplies and trade with the natives.

But during the Powerful Priest’s sermons I looked straight ahead, willingly surrendering the navigation of that boat, letting him show me countries I would never have dreamed of visiting myself.

Since those days I have learned to sail entirely different seas beneath stars that I doubt either of those men would recognise. But I have not forgotten that early lesson: have a very good idea what you are going to say before you presume to address your audience or they may find something else more entertaining to do with their time.

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