Carry on preaching!

Although latest figures show Church of England congregations fall again, a staggering 96.6 per cent look of those in the pews look forward to the sermon.

The vicar's sermon has been the subject of jokes for longer than anyone can remember – long, rambling efforts guaranteed to leave even the most fervent parishioner dozing.

A recent survey was therefore greeted with profound puzzlement among Sunderland's clergy when it revealed that nearly 100 per cent of their flock actually "look forward" to sermons.

Surely some mistake. Not according to The College of Preachers, which commissioned the survey – carried out by Durham University's Codec research centre – to mark its 50th anniversary. Even the College of Preachers themselves admitted they were "surprised" by the findings.

Tellingly, the Rev Kate Bruce, fellow of St John's Durham and director of preaching at Codec, said: "The results were not what we expected. Part of me wonders whether it was just that hope springs eternal."

And she hit the nail on the head with: "The general perception is

people don't want to be preached at – preaching is almost a term of abuse: 'Don't preach at me'."

So, given most sermons would send you to sleep and our attention span is a mere 10 minutes, it was no surprise to me that fellow Anglicans want to be entertained and a sermon lasting no more than 10 minutes – although up to 20 minutes was fine if there was no "waffle".

Bafflingly, Baptists are happy to sit through at least 75 minutes while Catholics want their homilies to be completed within 10 minutes.

The Church of England is not noted for having us rolling in the aisles.

Indeed, one friend's dad, a faithful worshipper, confesses to regularly succumbing to overpowering boredom and stays awake by sharpening his wits with a little mental arithmetic.

He adds up all the hymn numbers and then divides by the number of hymns.

And who better to ask than an Irishman for his take on tittering in church and raising a laugh in his sermon.

Father Stephen Hazlett, Industrial Chaplain and Team Vicar at Sunderland Minster Church told me straight: "The entertainment has to be part of the worship in the context of the sermon but it must have a purpose, not just for its own ends, otherwise you just end up with vaudeville."

On the sermon still being relevant, he said: "That's heartening. I believe I've a good sense of humour which congregations here seem to appreciate and surely the church should not have a stiff and starchy image.

"However, I do not believe we are there just to entertain, and attempts for church services to be informal for their own sake end up being trite and embarrassing.

"I also doubt the value of priests or ministers being stand-up comics. The Empire Theatre, just opposite the Minster, where I'm based, does it so much better.

"I also believe passionately that what we say, especially in the sermon slot, should be up-to date and in the language of the people, not theological fossilry, and humour can be used to clarify a deep spiritual truth. "I once knew a vicar in Northern Ireland who only ever had two sermons.

"One was against the people who never came to church, which was the majority of the parish, so his sermon was a waste of words anyway.

"The other sermon was against the Communists, who were not exactly thick on the ground in that part of County Armagh, so likewise he was expending excess vocal energy. "I also think God Himself has a sense of humour. Take the wonderful biblical account of the prophet Jonah and the whale.

"Sceptics say they have difficulty believing he was swallowed by so great a mammal. I have no such problem.

"Whales have been known to chew up small boats. My real problem is with his returning home. You can just imagine him standing there soaking wet outside number 62 Olive Mews, Ninevah, to be greeted by arms-folded, foot-stamping Mrs Jonah, "and where have you been these forty days and forty nights?"

"Sorry dear, I was in the belly of a whale....." Maybe it's as well the bible does not record her reply.

And what does Britain's former Preacher of the Year, the Rev Paul Walker, formerly of St Wilfrid's at Moorside and now a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in Middlesbrough, think of the survey?

Twice-married Paul, 46, a dad of six whose children range in age from 20 to a couple of months, with twins Poppy and Freddie, said: "I don't think you can present anything now without humour because people expect it.

"I used to teach preaching and you have to give people a mental cigarette break. Lots of people take a break and have a coffee or a cigarette and for people listening for 20 minutes they need a fag break."

Recalling his time at Moorside, Paul knocked on every door at Mill Hill, Hall Farm, Chapelgarth, Doxford Park and Moorside asking why most of them didn't go to church.

"The two main things people have against church is they either find it boring or embarrassing."

"They didn't want people asking them if they'd been saved or flinging their arms around in church. I made a promise that it would not be boring or embarrassing."

And so when he stepped into the pulpit at Durham Cathedral 12 years ago to preach his winning sermon, a contingent from his congregation were rooting for him.

Can he remember what he said, I asked?

Of course he can: "I began by looking around the place and asking what this place had in common with a string vest? 'Holiness!' It looks crap on paper but it got a laugh."

* Do you have any memorable anecdotes from sermons past. Pass them on to Linda at linda.colling@northeast-press.co.uk or tel 0191 5017297.