Friday, November 9, 2012

Barbara Crafton

"I'm sorry I'm late.  I had to buy a dozen cartons of cigarettes."

With that, she introduced herself.  While I seem to recall that she smoked in those days, the cartons were not for her but for the captain and crew of a freighter that was to berth in New York harbor later that day.  She was, you see, the chaplain for the Seaman's Institute and would greet the foreign ships with a package of necessary items.  You know, Bibles and cigarettes.  It was, safe to say, an uncommon ministry, especially for a woman in the 1980's.

In my day at the original General Theological Seminary the first year students were assigned tutors.  This was based on the English system of education where one's tutor wasn't, as in the American system, there to help one through work found difficult by the student, but was instead to help sharpen the points that were being made in the classroom.  As the seminary instruction was heavily academic, the tutors were those from the parish world who helped show how theory could, or could not, become practice.  Barbara was my assigned tutor.

We would meet every other Friday afternoon, if memory holds, and I would read to her a paper that I had written on a topic that was assigned to all of the first-year students.  She would have me read it to her rather than read it herself as she said, "It always sounds better when it's read aloud."  That, and I don't think she had the time to read through a bunch of wannabe clergy's terribly prosaic ruminations on the life theological. 

Honesty, I don't remember any of the topics of those papers, which is just as well.  I do remember that this was in the days before computers and I had to plan a full day not to research or even write the paper, but to type it on my aged Sears typewriter.  Sometimes, I would finish the typing just moments before our meeting.

That never bothered Barbara, as she brought a rather casual atmosphere to the proceedings.  While I am grateful to her for her insight into parish ministry [she was also on the staff of a large suburban parish in New Jersey at the time], and for recommending me for a desirable intern position in a parish during my second year in seminary [the conversation about this possibility taking place when we happened to run into one another during an intermission at a Broadway theater], there is a another reason that I thank her presence in my life, and one of which I've only recently begun to realize.

It was Barbara who taught me how to preach.  Not in the cumbersome way that was still being taught in seminaries in my day, a manner of preaching that was already dated and becoming easy to parody, but one that was based less on a prepared script, carefully read with well-modulated tones, but more on a style that was individual and dependent on the connection between the preacher and the hearer.  She was often asked to preach in our seminary's chapel and was always one of the most popular of guest preachers, and it was through watching and listening to her that I learned a far better style.

From something I once wrote in a book review, and that captures what I learned from Barbara and what I have attempted to practice lo these many years:

The problem with sermons is that they are not the same as speeches, lectures, or any other form of public oration. As sermons are a form of proclamation, they are at their least interesting when written down and read later, as the chief feature of a sermon is the spontaneity of the connection between preacher and listener that exists in the moment of the preaching.

Thus, a sermon needs to be fluid and responsive to the expectations and perceptions of the congregation, as does the preacher. The same sermon preached on the same Sunday before different worship services should be different, as the different congregations have expectations and listening styles particular to them. This is why an experienced preacher watches and, more importantly, listens to the congregation during the sermon to monitor their responses.

For example, if there is some shifting in the pews, that means the congregation has digested the point the preacher is making and he or she should move on. Or, it means the preacher has made all of the points that he or she may make, has exhausted the congregation, and really needs to sit down. [A side note: If someone is reading the hymnal during a sermon, it means that they are determined not to listen to the sermon. Any sermon. Usually, this is done by visiting or vacationing clergy.]

This may be one of the reasons that it is very difficult for there to be an academic, historical appreciation of preaching, as its very liveliness cannot be maintained outside of the event of the sermon itself.

This was the most valuable lesson I took from my seminary days.  Ironically, not one officially taught by the professors but the one realized and related to me by my first-year tutor.

Barbara Crafton is also a writer of a number of collected works; she would occasionally write a column on the back page of the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  She is still a parish priest and active public speaker and writer.  While I haven't seen her in many years, nor exchanged a card or note in quite some time, I think I owe her one.  After all, it's that stray lesson in preaching that's kept me employed all of these years.

A collection of her written works may be found at this link.