Anthony Trollope on Young Preachers

Trollope is fast becoming one of my favourite novelists, even if I have only just finished reading Barchester Towers, which is only the second book of his I’ve read. It has everything I could want in a novel: beautiful and witty prose, colourful and sympathetic characters, and a backdrop of Anglican ecclesiastical politics.

One scene, however, a raised a chuckle while touching a nerve. Mr Arabin, the Anglo-Catholic priest newly arrived from Oxford to take over the parish of St Ewold’s (and take on the odious evangelical bishop’s chaplain, Mr. Slope, who has come to have rather too much influence in the diocese), ascends the steps to give his maiden sermon to his new flock. The narrator recounts it as follows:

It often surprises us that very young men can muster courage to preach for the first time to a strange congregation. Men who are as yet but little more than boys, who have but just left what indeed we may not call a school, but a seminary intended for their tuition as scholars, whose thoughts have been mostly of boating, cricketing, and wine-parties, ascend a rostrum high above the heads of the submissive crowd, not that they may read God’s word to those below, but that they may preach their own word for the edification of their hearers. It seems strange to us that they are not stricken dumb by the new and awful solemnity of their position. “How am I, just turned twenty-three, who have never yet passed ten thoughtful days since the power of thought first came to me, how am I to instruct these greybeards who, with the weary thinking of so many years, have approached so near the grave? Can I teach them their duty? Can I explain to them that which I so imperfectly understand, that which years of study may have made so plain to them? Has my newly acquired privilege as one of God’s ministers imparted to me as yet any fitness for the wonderful work of a preacher?” It must be supposed that such ideas do occur to young clergymen, and yet they overcome, apparently with ease, this difficulty which to us appears to be all but insurmountable. We have never been subjected in the way of ordination to the power of a bishop’s hands. It may be that there is in them something that sustains the spirit and banishes the natural modesty of youth.

I think I would count my first proper sermon as having been preached in the August of 2015, at the tender age of three-and-twenty. In Barchester Towers, Mr. Arabin receives this treatment at the age of forty. I was not, however being installed as the new rector. In fact, the circumstances of my maiden sermon were probably not uncommon for young preachers: it was the middle of summer, all the proper preachers were away, they gave the lad a run out at an evening service attended by three men and a dog.

I don’t think I preached badly that evening. No one said I did. One member of the congregation, a retired clergyman sixty years my senior, asked me whether I was interested in expanding my theological library: I took that as an encouragement to fan into flame any nascent gift, rather than a hint at the deficiencies of my homily, and he became a valuable friend and mentor. Yet, even if I felt no need to change much of what I said on that occasion, I certainly wish I could change the spirit in which I preached. Indeed, I had no sense whatsoever of the ‘awful solemnity of [my] position,’ but I hope I am beginning to grasp it better. Or, as Bob Dylan would put it in the song after which this blog is named: ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’

2 thoughts on “Anthony Trollope on Young Preachers

    1. I imagine it’d be right up your street. I love Trollope’s way of being able to make heavy things light at the same time as giving real gravity to small things in his books. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it if you get back into it!

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