Dialogue Sketches 2 Dialogue Sermons

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Chapter 2  Dialogue Sermons

In my own lifetime the second half of the twentieth century was a time of change in the churches as well as in wider society. Among other developments was an interest in dialogue preaching. William Thompson and Gordon Bennett in their 1969 book [1] reflect the enthusiasm of the time: Australian Catholic congregations were discussing the documents of the second Vatican Council (in church!), Time magazine was reporting that “dialogue sermons” were popular in the USA, and the World Council of Churches was urging the supplementation of traditional monologue sermons with dialogue, drama and the visual arts. [2]

Noting that good monologue preaching involves interaction, and often seeks a response, they first discuss a pattern of congregational discussion following an introduction of varying length and form. [3] Much of what they say in support of this echoes what I shall suggest as the advantages of dialogue sketches:

“Our rationale for congregational dialogue must focus on the corporate nature of the church, the importance of individual response to the gospel, the values of sharing, the significance of interpersonal communion, and the personalisation of worship” [4]

They also comment on the value to the preacher of learning what his people’s concerns and needs are. However they do not analyse the difficulties which might be expected, and might indeed be hard to overcome with a congregation in dialogue during worship. One of the greatest of these will be the varieties of personality. An extrovert will probably be happy to engage in discussion, but his introvert companion will be most unwilling to speak up, and may lose the value of what others say for fear of being encouraged to contribute.

There is also the difficulty of varied background – a newcomer to faith or to that congregation may lack background knowledge (and feel uneasy as a result). A young person may know the Christian stories, but lack the life experience which is an important part of the “mix” for others. If the discussion is “central”, one voice in the congregation speaking at a time, there are issues of audibility (does the speaker have to come to the front, or wait for a roving microphone?) which will impair the flow of discussion. Again the physical environment – chairs in rows, pews, will have an effect on the way discussion develops. If the discussion is in a number of sub-groups, there are again issues of seating, audibility, and a greater difficulty in moderating the discussion – controlling the dominant, avoiding pet subjects, red herrings etc.

Overall, this technique is difficult to control, and seems unlikely to yield clear conclusions to a discussion as opposed to a variety of opinions and approaches. Repeated use of it would probably bring the dangers of repetition, and decreasing returns. While I have sometimes asked people to talk to their neighbours for a minute or two in a sermon (“buzz groups”), to involve them and help them identify their starting points or reactions clearly, I am not surprised that the “Congregation in Dialogue” technique has not found favour.

More significant for this dissertation is what Thompson and Bennett call “Dialogue in the Chancel” [5]. Their pattern normally involves two voices (“Don’t blame God” in the anthology is the only one of eight sample dialogue sermons which has 3 and not 2 voices [6]), and they usually speak in alternating long paragraphs. I would agree with the three main advantages they put forward for Dialogue Preaching [7]. This form, especially if it is an occasional variation to traditional monologue preaching, does heighten interest and draw the congregation in to a greater involvement. Secondly, it gives an opportunity for issues to be “sharpened”. Not only will listeners consider issues “blocked” in a monologue presentation, they can more easily be introduced to a range of approaches, and the advantages and problems of each. Thirdly, dialogue preaching will tend to deal with real and relevant issues. It is true that there is nothing in theory to prevent a monologue sermon tackling any issue the preacher thinks important, but traditional sermons are often moulded by traditional – written – theology, while the “current issues” for Christians will be developed by media and personal discussion. In addition a dialogue sermon, even a staged “Chancel Dialogue”, will encourage people to go and talk over what has been said, and further develop their own thinking.

With these considerable advantages, what reservations and objections can be made to dialogue preaching? Here I feel that Thompson and Bennett are less helpful. They are not very worried about breaking with tradition, or finding the right partner (they assume that the person responsible for a dialogue will speak). The six significant objections they list [8] are hardly comprehensive.

First they suggest that not all sermon themes lend themselves to this method. I am not sure that there are themes on which I could not write a dialogue sketch, but would agree that there are themes and approaches which lend themselves more easily. They would be those where a number of different approaches or answers have to be dealt with. However, those who have been taught to write sermons on the pattern of a Lowry loop [9] will quickly realise that both the initial upsetting of the equilibrium, and the subsequent moving on through the stages are greatly aided by having more than one voice in conversation. Are there sermons which cannot be written to the Lowry pattern? Perhaps there are, but they may be fewer than Thompson and Bennett imagined.

Secondly, they point to the need for extensive preparation. A comment on “The Many Marks of Christians” [10] suggests that careful preparation and repeated practice is vital to achieve the desired effect, and that at least 30 hours of preparation was needed for this sermon. This is indeed a drawback, if indeed the time cannot be reduced without a loss of effect. I recognise that any change of style for an experienced preacher will slow the process of composition, but will be suggesting ways of producing dialogue sketches – a rather different form to these dialogue sermons – much more quickly.

Their third and fourth objections seem to me to apply equally to monologue and dialogue preaching. They point to the need for a congregation prepared for listening. This is indeed a great help, and I am sure that many preachers long for congregations with a greater expectation, attention, and desire to engage with the sermon. Yet, unless a congregation is so traditional or unprepared for a dialogue sermon as to lose its content and value totally in shock or outrage, I would have thought that dialogue provided easier listening than monologue [11]. Similarly, their fourth objection is the need for congregational feedback, which is hard to get. Again, preachers long for more reaction, more informed comment to guide their future efforts. Yet surely a dialogue will provide more participants to be approached after the service, a greater possibility to say honestly, “I agreed with / I felt for / I hadn’t considered . .”

Objection five suggests that it is difficult to maintain unity when using dialogue preaching. This really depends on the way the dialogue is crafted. I would want to suggest that dialogue may show people how to maintain unity in diversity. The way the conversation (if it is conversation, as in my pattern, rather than conflicting speeches, in this pattern) develops can teach patience and the need to understand meaning and motivation, as well as an immediate reaction to what is said. The use of gentle humour can also decrease self-importance. (See, for example, my sketch for Pentecost b12). Unity will be endangered only if dialogue preaching depends on an adversarial style, and cannot use complementarity, or a literary device of mutual discovery and enrichment. Perhaps the key here is the difference between “debate” and “conversation”.

The sixth objection they raise is the difficulty of achieving a satisfactory resolution of the issue. I immediately want to ask what would count as a satisfactory resolution; clearly no congregation will be unaware of a variety of possible views on an issue after a dialogue sermon, but Plato’s use of dialogue in expounding his philosophy [13] argues strongly that the technique is not unable to lead the listener or reader firmly and convincingly to the desired conclusion. Plato apparently did not always end his dialogues with a strong solution, but found it quite possible to use the technique to examine, and effectively reject, views he found inadequate, as well as explaining his thinking and the reasoning behind it. I suspect this is a matter of skill, style and technique.

I have suggested that these six objections were not comprehensive. What did they miss? I want to argue below that dialogue preaching was not taken up to the extent that might have been expected for largely social reasons, but that the factors applying in the 1960s, 70s and 80s may not apply in quite the same way at the beginning of a new century.

Before I leave detailed consideration of their book, let me quote their summary of the Challenge of Dialogue, to suggest that these arguments were, and are, strong in favour of dialogue form. Thompson and Bennett agree that monologue preaching is good,

“Its content may communicate the gospel accurately and movingly, but its method cannot help but emphasise the authority of God, the revelatory nature of his Word, and the passivity of man. Dialogue preaching, by its very nature, communicates the ‘other side of God’. It says that God is in encounter with his people, that he is listening as well as talking. In addition, it involves and demands a personal participation on the part of each individual.” [14]

The Sermon Seminar

John McClure wrote in 1995 [15], but it is clear from the references in his Preface that he is building on work from the 60s and 70s (eg Browne Barr’s 1963 Lyman Beecher lectures are noted in the Preface as advocating a “sermon seminar”). He wants all sermons to be originated by a Parish brainstorming seminar group, with rotating membership. The scheme is one I have never encountered in practice, although I have sometimes usefully led colleagues in brainstorming the set readings for the following Sunday in eg an Anglican Clergy Deanery Chapter meeting, or a gathering of Readers (Anglican Lay Preachers).

His arguments are worth examining, especially when set alongside those of Thompson and Bennett (already considered), the apparent fact that neither have won general acceptance, and my own ideas which I shall present subsequently.

McClure states clearly that he is interested in the form of congregational leadership, as well as the form of preaching. He accepts that autocratic leadership works in emergencies, for instruction, or where people will accept a leader’s vision as an avenue to excellence [16], but this is less attractive to him than a consultative and collaborative form of leadership, which will build commitment and maturity (leading to readiness for leadership responsibility), and help people take risks.

His liberal tradition, and the origins of his method, are seen in the statement [17] that he sees the good news of the gospel emerging in interpretation, not in the critical practice of exegesis, though he admits a link between them. He is very suspicious of “sovereign” preaching in a traditional, authoritarian way, claiming that the congregation are then dependant and submissive. The preacher, having a senior position in the hierarchy, does the discerning for his people, whose experience is denied relevance. But he does then acknowledge [18] that post-war anti-authoritarianism had led to changes, and in particular to dialogue preaching movement of the 1960s, which failed because of insensitive introduction and exclusivity, and the use of inductive logic by Craddock and then Lowry. This is clearly less authoritarian, but he finds that inductive preaching produces multiple individual insights, and not the communal discernment he desires.

Thompson and Bennett welcome the interaction produced by dialogue, seeing the gospel as living dialogue (amongst humankind as well as with God), and suggesting that a dialogue sermon will demonstrate as well as articulate the dialogue that springs from our created nature. [19] This is less hierarchical and more participatory than the format McClure distrusts. My dialogue sketches emphasise lay involvement in worship (being usually performed by lay people), and may encourage group Bible Study (when the sketch is written in this way, and not by one person).

McClure’s proposition reverses the methodology of Thompson and Bennett. Where they employed two voices, he uses just one, presenting a sermon he has written. But where they used a script produced in the study of one, or perhaps both participants, McClure wants every sermon to begin in a meeting of some ten people. I find his arguments unconvincing, but significant. He wants all sermons to be prepared in this way, yet speaks of the failure of dialogue preaching in the 1960s because of its insensitive introduction! He offers no argument against a gradual introduction, or occasional use of his method. His direction that the sermon will either describe or imitate the roundtable discussion [20] raises the unwelcome thought of the sermon becoming a reading of the minutes of the meeting. I trust that my method makes more imaginative use of the content of group discussion.

McClure gives clear instructions about the group meeting, and wisely specifies a co-leader, to be responsible for chairing the meeting. Yet his section on group dynamics [21] emphasises brainstorming, rather than sermon preparation, and his timing gives just 20 of 90 minutes to “engaging the Biblical text”, while 60 minutes are given to “engaging one another”. There seems to be no thought of going back to the text after discussion, to start a dialogue between views expressed in conversation and in the text. The nature, and balance, of his sermons are determined in these instructions – and this may also apply to their acceptability. This is not the case with Thompson and Bennett, who say little about the process of composition. In my instructions [22], open ended “starter questions” on the biblical text are supplied, but the form of study and discussion is not limited. A group may use a familiar pattern, or one acceptable to their leader (ordained or not). The balance of exegesis, personal experience, and traditional or denominational position may thus vary according to the composition and background of the group members, but the discussion will always be in the presence of (and hopefully usually grounded in) the biblical text.

I find McClure’s description of the preacher in this process ambiguous. He is against hierarchy and autocracy, and might at first seem to be advocating a truly “congregational” style of leadership. Yet the role of the preacher increases as we look at the details. The preacher is host of the sermon roundtable; the preacher provides information to enable the group’s engagement with the biblical text; the preacher is not only a participant in the discussion (leaving the group process to the “co-host” or chair), but may after the group meeting invite communication of further individual ideas expressed in side conversations. The preacher writes, and delivers, the sermon. This is a very paternalistic version of egalitarian ministry! His statement, “Experimental or ‘staged’ forms of preaching attract too much attention to style and detract from congregational leadership in the pulpit.” [23] suggests he is less radical than he at first appears. Having thought at first that McClure would disempower the preacher, I wonder now if he is entirely honest in his opposition to “sovereign” preaching.

Thompson and Bennett give more power to the congregation in “Congregational Dialogue”, much less in “Chancel Dialogue”, thus offering a range of possibility which I have also sought, recognising stages of congregational ability and development, as well as the reality of varying leadership styles and personalities. I would, however agree with McClure in saying,

“The goal of collaborative preaching is neither a like-minded community of obedient clones, nor a tolerant community of insightful individuals. The goal is a learning community of deeply engaged strangers.” [24]

I would prefer the community to be less than “strangers”, as the Christian fellowship or “community” implies, but find the balance of individual learning and the group interaction (“fellowship”, “community”) which plays an important part in it very significant. Where, and only where, individual learning is supplemented by learning through group interaction, there can be effective collective worship, and the church can operate as intended.

References cited above:
1 William D Thompson and Gordon C Bennett, Dialogue Preaching: The Shared Sermon
2 William D Thompson and Gordon C Bennett, Dialogue Preaching: The Shared Sermon, Preface p7ff
3 William D Thompson and Gordon C Bennett, Dialogue Preaching: The Shared Sermon
chapter 3, p24ff
4 ibid p27
5 ibid chapter 3 p37ff
6 ibid chapter 5 p73ff
7 ibid chapter 4 p65ff
8 ibid, chapter 4 p65ff
9 Eugene L Lowry, The Homiletical Plot
10 William D Thompson and Gordon C Bennett, Dialogue Preaching: The Shared Sermon chapter 5, p73ff, second sermon of the anthology
11 but see the answers to the congregational questionnaire, especially question 1, chapter 7.
12 Appendix to this dissertation, Sketch F, p67
13 cp my comments earlier in this dissertation, page 4.
14 ibid p72
15 John S McClure, The Round-table Pulpit: where leadership and Preaching meet.
16 Ibid, chapter 1 p11ff
17 ibid, end of preface, p10
18 ibid, chapter 2 p30ff
19 Thompson and Bennett, end of preface
20 McClure, chapter 5, p73
21 ibid chapter 4, p59ff
22 see chapter 6 of this dissertation. The pattern I give encourages participation, but adapts to a wide range of social and ecclesiastical situations.
23 McClure, p48, my italics.
24 McClure p54