Playing to the gallery (or, Anselm's chance)

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Anselm Mulliner is a character in one of P. G. Wodehouse's short stories, entitled "Anselm Gets His Chance," available in the collection Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (US), for those interested. Anselm is curate of the parish of Rising Mattock in Hampshire, a man who "when he was not dreaming fondly of Myrtle Jellaby . . . [was] chafing at his vicar's high-handed selfishness in always hogging the evening sermon from late in April till well on in September" (107).

Without going into the details, Anselm's superior, a certain Rev. Sidney Gooch, finds himself unable to preach due to the possession of a magnificent black eye, obtained in a scuffle with a burglar purloining a book of stamps. Anselm must preach at evensong, and the chance must be seized:
In Anselm's deportment and behaviour on the following morning there was nothing to indicate that his soul was a maelstrom of seething emotions. Most curates who find themselves unexpectedly allowed to preach on Sunday evening in the summer time are like dogs let off the chain. They leap. They bound. They sing snatches of the more rollicking psalms. They rush about saying 'Good morning, good morning,' to everybody and patting children on the head. Not so Anselm. He knew that only by conserving his nervous energies would he be able to give of his best when the great moment came.
To those of the congregation who were still awake in the latter stages of the service his sermon at Matins seemed dull and colourless. And so it was. He had no intention of frittering away eloquence on a morning sermon. He deliberately held himself back, concentrating every fibre of his being on the address which he was to deliver in the evening.

He had had it in him for months. Every curate throughout the English countryside keeps tucked away among his effects a special sermon designed to prevent him being caught short, if suddenly called upon to preach at evensong. And all through the afternoon he remained closeted in his room, working upon it. He pruned. He polished. He searched the Thesaurus for the telling adjective. By the time the church bells began to ring out over the fields and spinneys of Rising Mattock in the quiet gloaming, his masterpiece was perfected to the last comma.

Feeling more like a volcano than a curate, Anselm Mulliner pinned together the sheets of manuscript and set forth.

The conditions could not have been happier. By the end of the pre-sermon hymn the twilight was far advanced, and through the door of the little church there poured the scent of trees and flowers. All was still, save for the distant tinkling of sheep bells and the drowsy calling of rooks among the elms. With quiet confidence Anselm mounted the pulpit steps. He had been sucking throat pastilles all day and saying 'Mi-mi' to himself in an undertone throughout the service, and he knew he would be in good voice.

For an instant he paused and gazed about him. He was rejoiced to see that he was playing to absolute capacity. Every pew was full. There, in the squire's high-backed stall, was Sir Leopold Jellaby, O.B.E., with Myrtle at his side. There, among the choir, looking indescribably foul in a surplice, sat Joe Beamish. There, in their respective places, were the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker and all the others who made up the personnel of the congregation. With a little sigh of rapture, Anselm cleared his throat and gave out the simple text of Brotherly Love.

I have been privileged (said Mr Mulliner) to read the script of this sermon of Anselm's, and it must, I can see, have been extremely powerful. Even in manuscript form, without the added attraction of the young man's beautifully modulated tenor voice, one can clearly see its magic.

Beginning with a thoughtful excursus on Brotherly Love among the Hivites and the Hittites, it came down through the Early Britons, the Middle Ages and the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth to these modern times of ours, and it was here that Anselm Mulliner really let himself go. It was at this point, if one may employ the phrase, that he - in the best and most reverent spirit of the words - reached for the accelerator and stepped on it.

Earnestly, in accents throbbing with emotion, he spoke of our duty to one another; of the task that lies clear before all of us to make this a better and sweeter world for our fellows; of the joy that awaits those who give no thought to self but strain every nerve to do the square thing by one and all. And with each golden phrase he held his audience in an ever-tightening grip. Tradesmen who had been nodding somnolently woke up and sat with parted lips. Women dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs. Choir-boys who had been sucking acid drops swallowed them remorsefully and stopped shuffling their feet.
Even at a morning service, such a sermon would have been a smash hit. Delivered in the gloaming, with all its adventitious aids to success, it was a riot.

It was not immediately after the conclusion of the proceedings that Anselm was able to tear himself away from the crowd of admirers that surged around him in the vestry. There were churchwardens who wanted to shake his hand, other churchwardens who insisted on smacking him on the back. One even asked for his autograph. But eventually he laughingly shook himself free and made his way back to the vicarage. And scarcely had he passed through the garden gate when something shot out at him from the scented darkness, and he found Myrtle Jellaby in his arms.

'Anselm!' she cried. 'My wonder-man! However did you do it? I never heard such a sermon in my life!'

'It got across, I think?' said Anselm modestly.

'It was terrific. Golly! When you admonish a congregation, it stays admonished. How you think of all these things beats me.'

'Oh, they come to one.' (117-120)
Compare Paul:
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. (Gal 1.6-10)

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. . . . Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. (1Cor 2.1-5, 12-13)
So, do you keep a little stash of 'archangel sermons' to preach at that church or that conference, should you ever be invited - the real doozies that you can slide out if ever they are required? Do you chafe that you never really get your chance to pour the sauce, or that someone else always hogs the evensong limelight? Do you ever slave over the style of your words and their delivery with a view to securing an effect upon men by means of the words and their delivery alone? Perhaps you will preach away this weekend. You might preach to five, or to five hundred. Would you prepare, deliver and expect differently in each place? To be sure, you might rise to the occasion differently, the personal and spiritual dynamics in each environment will be different, but will your spirit be different? Will you preach on brotherly love, with a stunning excursus on said virtue among the Hivites and the Hittites, to the applause of men, or will you preach a crucified Christ in your crucified style to the glory of God? Will you play to the gallery or remember the great cloud of witnesses? Will you perform for men or serve the Lord?

Posted March 29, 2012 @ 2:31 AM by Jeremy Walker
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