Bulletin 2/2013

The first Swiss Sermon Award

3 questions and answers for author Christina Tuor, Director of the Institute of Theology and Ethics, on the first Swiss Sermon Award.

By Christina Tuor.

“The Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches is launching a Swiss Sermon Award”. This legislative goal of the Council, which is meant to boost public interest in the art of preaching, is now to be put into practice. Successful interpretations of the biblical message will be recognized in the process, with the best sermons being published throughout Switzerland. For the Federation, this is about nothing less than sermon culture – sermons as a Western cultural asset, sermons as an important aspect of our speech culture, sermons as a central concern of the Reformation.

Numerous talks were held regarding making the award a reality with professors of practical theology, pastors, and those responsible for the medial transmission of sermons. The resonance was predominantly positive, and at times even euphoric.

A number of challenges needed to be overcome when it came down to the details. A sermon is indeed neither a speech nor a lecture. And the award is not meant to encourage “preaching contests”. Sermons involve certain characteristics that we need to recognize.

Sermons have their place in worship services

Sermons are a part of worship services and are embedded in a liturgical celebration. Can they even be appraised in isolation from the liturgy as a whole? Can a sermon be adequately understood without knowing the lectionary text that was read, the songs that were sung, and the prayers that were spoken? A sermon is the proclaimed word of God, and is preached, not just read. The proclamation, or put more neutrally, the performative dimension, is a significant part of preaching. Recent homiletic approaches place particular weight on the dramatic quality of sermons. The structure, form and rhetorical style of a sermon, as well as the spoken language and body language, in addition to the hermeneutics of the biblical text, take on an increasing amount of the people’s attention. But how can we evaluate this performative dimension when it comes to issuing an award?

Excerpt Legislative goal 3

The Federation is launching a Swiss sermon award.

Church is where the Gospel happens, where it is communicated to the believers, and where they live it and bear witness to it. According to Reformation tradition, the sermon is the beating heart of worship service. Here, the word of God is proclaimed. With the sermon award, the Federation increases public awareness for the art of preaching and honors congenial translations of the Gospel for today. The best sermons from parishes great and small will be published regularly.

The few active sermon awards in the Germanspeaking world that are still active only take into account the sermon as a written text. One exception is the youth sermon award of the Evangelical Church in Germany. The ten best submitted sermons are chosen and their authors – up to 20 years of age – are invited to a multi-day coaching seminar at the Wittenberg Zentrum für Predigtkultur (Center for Sermon Culture). The best held sermon is recognized with a prize at the close of the seminar.

But what should we in fact be evaluating: The sermon as it is held or the written text? And how do we take the entire worship service in account? The FSPC has in fact looked closely into these questions. The idea was first considered to ask for a video recording of the sermon, but this was rejected as too cumbersome in the end. Ultimately, a poor sermon cannot be improved by a good performance, as one professor for practical theology pointedly stated. The dramatic dimension must therefore already be visibly present in the written text. The text needs to be sent in of a sermon that has already been held. Participants submit both their text and a description of the circumstances under which it was preached. A jury will then choose the ten best submissions, after which individual members of the jury will visit the authors of the texts during a worship service. This will help to determine the winner of the award.

A specific congregational reality within each sermon Sermons address the particular life situations and ways of thinking of the congregation. The preacher takes into account their social environment and the world they live in, making use of the congregants’ cultural codes: The language of a sermon is closely linked to the context in which it is preached.

The linguistic reality of Switzerland, with its four regional languages, needs to be taken into account. The FSPC has thus planned for two sermon awards: one for the German-speaking area, including the Romanshspeaking region, and another for French-speaking Switzerland to the inclusion of the Italian-speaking region. This does not only reflect the division in Switzerland’s television coverage, but also represents the demographic reality in that German and French-language congregations outnumber their Italian and Romansh counterparts by a considerable margin. The evaluation of sermons indeed depends on a high level of linguistic competence. This therefore requires two juries, both which also provide competence in the two languages of the smaller linguistic communities.

The understanding and practice of preaching can also vary according to region. One effect of this pluralism is reflected in the various understandings of “lay preachers” in the German and French-speaking areas. In German- speaking Switzerland, the term is used more broadly to include, for example, politicians or writers who hold a single sermon. In the French-speaking region, influenced by Calvinism, prédicateurs laïcs are, by contrast, theologically trained people employed by the churches. This difference as well as the question of any difference between lay sermons and “theologian” sermons is, however, set aside with the single condition of submitting a sermon that has previously been preached. Anyone and everyone who is permitted to preach in a congregation is eligible for the award. This also means that the biblical text and its presentation for people today remains at the core of the matter, regardless of whether a layperson or ordained minister is responsible.

It all depends on the jury

A well-composed jury is of the essence for the project to succeed – and the jury needs to evaluate what a good sermon entails for congregants. The members of the jury need to be able to work together well, and require a good sense of language, whether they are theologians, journalists, television presenters, or – in the age of the “iconic turn” – those who work with images in the broadest sense of the word. The jury should also represent a picture of Swiss society. If the art of preaching is to be brought closer to a broad cross-section of the public, the proclaimed word of God needs to speak to people of a variety of religious affiliation. This is also a part of the art of the sermon.

The jury will look into the question of whether particular criteria are needed to evaluate sermons. The jury of the Verlag für Deutsche Wirtschaft selects the sermons for its award without any sort of specific criteria – and one hears from jurors that this works quite well. As in any selection, impressions and feelings guide the jurors in making their selections. One criterion is, of course, firmly in place for the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches: Even non-theologians should be able to discuss each sermon. That alone would mean much in terms of boosting public interest in sermons.