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the homily

In 2008 the Roman Catholic Church had a Synod of Bishops on the Bible. Earlier this year a book, “The Word of God” was published as one of the results of this synod. It includes advice on homilies (sermons) by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops.

“Homilies should be no longer than eight minutes, a listener’s average attention span”, Nikola Eterovic said.

“Priests and deacons should also avoid reading straight from a text and instead work from notes so that they can have eye contact with the people in the pews.”

In his book, Nikola Eterovic wrote that it’s not unusual for preachers to recognise that they have less-than-perfect communications skills or that they struggle with preparing homilies. “Everyone should spend an appropriate amount of time to craft a well-prepared and relevant sermon for Mass”.

While he explained that Pope Benedict XVI starts working on his Sunday homilies on the preceding Monday so that there is plenty of time to reflect on the Scripture readings from which the homily will draw, I wondered how his advice about reading from a text related here. Does the pope avoid reading straight from a text and instead work from notes so that he can have eye contact with the people? Also, I am not convinced that a week is actually sufficient time. I think planning needs to be over a far longer period of time so that the scriptures and sermons from one week to the next are not disconnected or repetitive.

The lectionary encourages an ongoing series of sermons. If connections are to be made with the prayers being prepared by someone else, with music, with choir, hymns, and even the look of the worship environment, far more than the pope’s practice of six days, IMO, will be required. There needs also to be an overview of what is being covered in sermons. Over the longer term, what messages, applicable in ordinary daily life, are being given to a regular worshipper in your community? Over an extensive period, what messages are not being talked about? Thought about?

Two hints: in my sermons I normally try to include something to think about, something that touches the heart, something to do.

If you use a full text, I once read the helpful suggestion that in rehearsing it you read the last paragraph, then the last two paragraphs, then the last three, until you reach the start of your sermon – that way as you get further into actually preaching it you reach increasingly well-rehearsed material.

What ideas and practices can you suggest for others in the comments here?

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8 thoughts on “the homily”

  1. As a Protestant I’m more used to preaching 20-30 minutes. This is probably easier for the preacher than the listener! Must take a lot of skill in producing a shorter homily.

    Anways … I used to preach from a full script – though didn’t read it word for word. I now preach from notes and find it easier. I still prepare in some detail during the week and start on Tuesday morning usually and take two or three mornings.

    I’m more of an expositor than anything else, believing that the text should be central to what we should be saying.

  2. Tony Whatmough

    I always have a text to follow but I print on A5 paper, 1 1/2 line spacing about 16 points in very short paragraphs. Them my eye can scan a whole lien and paragraph which enables me to look at the congregation.

  3. Randi Tex Smith

    I think you are absolutly right.I come from a Baptist background. I am now attending the small Anglican chuch in our town.
    I have often spoke and taught in front of a group of people. I am always nervous. I think if you were not nervous, you would not be putting forth your best effort.
    I was taught that for every hour of instructon you must spend at least 40 hours preparing your delivery.
    It takes a lot of work and I agree that likely one week, unless you are very good, and some are, is not enough.
    I enjoy your writing and look forward to the next one.

    PS As I said I am now attending our small Anglican church…perhaps you might share some thoughts and references to a person trying to learn to become an Anglican.
    Thank you very much.

    1. Randi, my rule of thumb is much as you describe your ratio of 40 to 1. I usually suggest that it takes an hour of preparation for a minute of preaching – and the shorter the address, the more that is true. An 8 minute homily would certainly take 8 hours preparation to be of value, IMO.
      As to your second point, I’m not sure what sort of thing you are seeking. You may appreciate the following book: Jesus Was An Episcopalian (And You Can Be One Too!): A Newcomer's Guide to the Episcopal Church

  4. Eight minutes? How is that long enough even to talk through the text, let alone put it in context? Perhaps one of the problems is excessive pride, in that minsters unable to write an accurate and engaging homily won’t consider using published homilies. From the perspective of the pew, it’s far preferable to hear from the the Book of Homilies, a translation of one of Origen’s sermons or some other such excellent material – than to hear two cheesy readings from ‘sermonillustrationsonline’, a muddled discussion of the text in the light of the shrinkwrapped illustration, and an ‘application’ that almost always confuses law and grace!

  5. I have two kinds of sermons – one like Tony Whatmough above, 10 or 15 mins in a formal setting, I use a a script laid out in a format so that I can mostly look up – and also I rehearse it out loud (sometimes in front of a mirror) so it’s at least half learned

    the other kind I used back-of-an-envelope brief notes, or even none at all if I can remember the route of my homily, so it’s more like talking for 4 minutes to a group of friends.

  6. I think the length of a sermon or homily matters far less than the content and communication skills of the preacher; content first – always. We’ve all sat listening to someone ramble on for several hours to find that our watch tells the lie that it’s only been a few minutes, and just occasionally we might have had the opposite experience. There’s an old adage “If you haven’t struck oil in the first 5 minutes, stop boring”.

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