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Why preachers – and politicians – shouldn’t speak from notes

The days when men such as Churchill memorised their speeches are long since gone (Getty)

I have been told that not so very long ago – certainly in my lifetime – if and when an MP read out his speech in Parliament he would be greeted with protesting cries of “Reading! Reading!” from fellow members, it being considered a breach of parliamentary protocol.

If you have watched a good deal of the seemingly endless Brexit debates in the House of Commons, as I have done, you would be aware that the MP who speaks without notes is nowadays a very rare bird. The average MP cannot even ask a minister a simple question without their head being buried in a notebook.

The message seems to be that MPs no longer attach much importance to public speaking (or oratory, as it used to be known). The days when men such as Winston Churchill or Michael Foot rehearsed and memorised their speeches are long since gone.

Yet there is no avoiding the obvious fact that if a politician wishes to make a real impact not only in Parliament but also in the world outside, it will not be enough to have a good bedside manner or to be “good on TV” (nowadays the accepted criterion for political success). When crunch time comes, there is nothing like an old-fashioned speech to rally support. Theresa May might well have been able to sell her Brexit deal to Parliament if she had had more power as a speaker.

It is worth remembering that, despite his lack of reliable military intelligence, Tony Blair was able to persuade MPs to back his invasion of Iraq in 2003 thanks to what was considered to be a magnificent speech.

Has a similar decline in public speaking affected the influence of the churches?

Is it any longer the case that believers will go to a particular church just to hear a particular preacher? Are there any longer such crowd-pulling preachers?

The old-fashioned sermon, at its best delivered to instruct and inspire the faithful, has long since fallen into desuetude. Today the homily is not much more than a Scripture lesson. The speaker, like the parliamentarian relying on notes, will refer back to the lessons or readings and reflect on their meaning and message.

There are two criticisms one can make of this now well-established routine.

The first is that it lets the preacher off the hook. When Scripture has been so exhaustively analysed and commented on over hundreds of years, it is unlikely that he will have anything very original to add.

The second – more damaging – is that the impression may well be given to the congregation that they have not been paying attention or even that they are not mentally equipped to have grasped the message of what has been read to them.

Even such a familiar parable as the Good Samaritan can be repeated and, if necessary, padded out in case we have failed to appreciate its significance. This could even involve filling in some of the gaps in the story. Who was the Samaritan? Why was he going on his journey to Jericho? He must have been a wealthy man – how come? Was Jesus speaking of an incident that had actually occurred?

Once you start thinking in this way you can soon rob the parable of its impact, which derives in part from the lack of unnecessary information.

Whatever else, this routine is not going to lure people back into the pews. And at the same time it could well bolster those critics who like to maintain that, in the wake of various scandals, the churches no longer feel confident enough to speak out and so take the easy path of telling the worshippers what they have already been told a few minutes before.

At least, I suppose, we should be grateful for the way both Anglicans and Catholics seem to have accepted that it is counterproductive to speak for longer than 10 minutes.

Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie