Stuttering kings and imperfect pastors
Reflections on The King’s Speech and the Office of the Preacher
by Mathew Block
Widely hailed by critics as one of the best films of 2010, and nominated for twelve Academy Awards, The King’s Speech offers Christians much more than an evening’s entertainment according to one pastor. For Rev. Ted Giese of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, the film’s central themes of communication offer striking parallels to the Office of the Preacher.
The film centres around the (somewhat fictionalized) story of Prince Albert, Duke of York. As the second son of England’s King George V, Prince Albert never expects to ascend to the throne nor, indeed, has he any desire to be king. Suffering from a debilitating speech impediment, Albert is happy to leave kingship to his older brother Edward VIII. But when Edward abdicates the throne to marry a twice-divorced American woman, Prince Albert has no choice but to become King George VI. And his difficulties with speaking publicly only grow as war with Germany looms.
A difficulty with saying what you want to say is one many pastors share, according to Rev. Giese. “You come to realize how generally terrifying the task of preaching is for the pastor,” he says. “You’re dealing with the Word of God, and you’re trying to get that message across to the people. You don’t want to be the barrier to that happening.” In attempting to proclaim the Gospel, the pastor often finds himself the greatest impediment to successful communication. Just as King George VI struggles in the film to bring written words to life, so too pastors can find themselves struggling to express clearly the Good News of Christ.
“The first couple of times you preach,” Rev. Giese notes, “it’s an even more difficult task.” He recalls one of the first sermons he gave at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Stony Plain, Alberta. The congregation rose to hear the sermon text, but he neglected to ask them to be seated after it was read. So the congregation continued standing while he launched into the sermon. Only when people slowly began sitting—one by one—did he realize they had still been standing. “It was a collectively embarrassing situation,” he admits, “yet it also illustrated the deep respect they have for the Word of God and for the task of preaching.”
Part of the preacher’s task is learning to judge the congregation’s reaction to what he is saying
As congregants, we take our cue from the pastor; when he missteps, we misstep. But, as is always the case in a speaker-hearer relationship, the congregation’s actions can also affect the pastor. We see this type of situation in the beginning of The King’s Speech when George VI (still Prince Albert at the time) tries delivering a speech at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition. His stammer unsettles his audience, and the looks of concern on their faces cause him to become increasingly less articulate as the speech progresses.
“As a person in the pew, you don’t experience this,” Rev. Giese explains. “You see the preacher. You don’t see the faces of the people looking at the preacher. But the preacher looks out and he sees everyone there.” That vantage point can become an asset to the preacher—he can see when his words are really reaching the congregation—but it can also discourage him when he sees their disinterest or confusion. Part of the preacher’s task is learning to judge the congregation’s reaction to what he is saying and adapting how he says it to make sure the message gets across.
King George VI finds assistance in overcoming his stammer in Lionel Logue, a rather unorthodox speech therapist. Logue helps George realize he “has a voice,” relying on a number of techniques, some common (making him practice tongue twisters for example) and some less so (making him sing what he otherwise cannot say). [Rev. Giese quips that the liturgy serves to some extent the same purpose of singing what needs to be said as far as people and pastors are concerned.] As the film draws to a close, King George VI successfully delivers a worldwide radio address encouraging his people as the Second World War begins.
Successful communication of the Gospel depends upon God
For a pastor’s difficulties in communication, relief does not come so much from practicing speaking exercises (though practicing certainly cannot hurt). Instead, relief comes by remembering that God speaks through the pastor not because he is worthy but because God is merciful. “The Holy Spirit is the one who gets the message across to the people, not the pastor,” Rev. Giese concludes. “Whatever personal fears or idiosyncrasies a pastor might have, the successful communication of the Gospel depends in the end not on him, but upon God.”
As is often the case, Martin Luther explains it best: “If we hold the Word of God in high regard, then we would be glad to go to church, to listen to the sermon and to pay attention. But if you look more at the pastor than at God; if you do not see God’s person but merely gape to see whether the pastor is learned and skilled, whether the pastor has good diction, then you do not have eyes to see the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…. For a poor speaker may speak the Word of God just as well as he who is endowed with eloquence.” Of course, this recognition does not excuse pastors from their duty to become better preachers, trained in the art of rhetoric and public speaking. But Luther does well to remind us where a congregation’s focus should be in the midst of preaching: on God and not the pastor.
God speaks to us through pastors. “Would to God,” Luther writes, “that we could gradually train our hearts to believe that the preacher’s words are God’s Word and that the man addressing us is a scholar and a king.” For it truly is the “King’s speech” a pastor is trying to communicate. And we, clergy and laypeople alike, must listen attentively to hear what He says.
Mathew Block is a freelance writer and member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan. He blogs at http://blog.captainthin.net/