Why do we speak as we do?

Alan and Eleanor Kreider have a distinctive and unusual speaking style. They stand together in front of an audience or congregation, with shared notes they have prepared together. They speak in tandem, sometimes completing each other's sentences or paragraphs, often taking up an idea and presenting it again in fresh ways. Those who have heard them have usually been intrigued; many have found this approach liberating and evocative.

Here Alan and Eleanor reflect on why they speak as they do. What follows is based on their rough notes for a presentation to the College of Preachers in Canterbury on 11 January 2000.


We came to England to do postgraduate academic work, Alan in English Reformation history and Ellie in music. Our future was clear: one of college teaching, research, performance. And then our life directions changed. Mennonite Board of Missions asked us to stay in England as wardens of the London Mennonite Centre, Highgate, London. There were involved in: a mission of love and presence to a wide variety of international students; the founding of the first Anabaptist/Mennonite congregation in Britain since 1575, when one was persecuted to death; and the development of an Anabaptist teaching a resource centre ministry, which seeks to interpret and apply the Anabaptist tradition to the life, work and mission of Christians in contemporary England.

We did these things as ordinary Christians: academic training, the sensitivities of historian and musician, people who love and read their Bibles, people who worship and pray – but not theologically trained. But we were the people who became involved in leading a small church: it seemed right.

And we brought a particular set of emphases. We were products of the ‘recovery of the Anabaptist vision’ which was important in North American Mennonite life in mid 20th century. For many Christians ‘Anabaptist’ had been an epithet, a way of categorizing people who were really bad and dangerous. And some of this had rubbed off on Mennonites. But in the mid 20th century a rediscovery of the sources and stories of the movement enabled North American Mennonites to say: ‘These Anabaptists are exciting.’ They give us a sense of our roots, and also of the way forward. And we sense that they were saying things that are good news for all Christians.

Why do we speak as we do?

So the Anabaptists impacted us in lots of ways. Two of these have shaped the way that we preach.

1. The Hermeneutical Community: imagine a continuum, with the individual conscience on the one end and community consciousness on the other. Christian traditions have found themselves at characteristic positions. The Anabaptist tradition has found itself towards the communitarian end of the continuum. We question always when facing something new: how does this affect us as a community? Does this benefit our common life or does it make it more difficult?

So in interpreting the Bible we make the assumption – God’s Spirit is active interpreting the word, and is at work in more than simply the preacher. Question: how can we read it so that the insights of all, or at least of many, are taken seriously? Anabaptists took seriously a liturgical text in the New Testament that the great traditions have almost completely ignored: 1 Corinthians 14 – a vision of participatory worship: ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up’ (14.26). An early Anabaptist document, from Switzerland in early 1530s, Why we have stopped going to the churches, says: ‘When someone comes to church and constantly hears one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can or will regard the same as a spiritual congregation?’ There is, from the outset of the Anabaptist tradition, a bias towards what Ellie has called ‘multivoiced worship.’

But how can a community interpret the word, and how should this impact our common worship? There has been much discussion and debate across 475 years of Anabaptist history. Our approach to preaching is one sub-variant of attempts to make Bible reading and exposition more than the work of one mind and one voice.

2. Practical Discipleship: Anabaptism did not develop a strong, coherent intellectual, dogmatic tradition; it allowed more doctrinal variation than many groups. But it was insistent: the point of the Christian life is to love and follow Jesus in daily life; and the Bible must be read to that practical end. A characteristic early Anabaptist saying (of Hans Denck) was: ‘No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life.’

And so the Bible has been read and taught and preached: characteristic sermons are preached from the text, and are simple and practical. And the assumption is that the Bible is a vehicle by which Jesus challenges us to change the way that we live – to enable us to follow him more faithfully. This will alter our approaches to wealth and worry, to hierarchy and truth-telling, to war and peace. The preached word must equip communities of disciples who want to live in a Jesus-kind of way in a world that doesn’t appreciate his insights!

How do we speak as we do?

We didn’t start out like this, and we know of no other Mennonites who speak as we do. We simply stumbled into it. In the mid 1970s transatlantic telephoning was expensive, to be done in event of death or crisis. So we sent tapes to our parents: our parents spoke by paragraphs, and Dad punctuated the messages. But we (Ellie and Alan) kept interrupting each other. On one occasion we noticed:‘hey, we’re different. I wonder if that’s significant.’

We decided to try speaking together: we did so in presentations that we made on art and architecture (both of us commenting); then on Early Church documents that excited us. Soon we tried speaking together in church: especially speaking about the Psalms. The Greenbelt Festival heard about what we were doing, and we spoke
there for several years in the 1980s. It was not easy: we struggled to find a shared voice. This practice grew in the 1980s: we did more and more informal teaching on themes that mattered to us: The Early Church Comes Alive; the Sermon on the Mount; the Church as Community; and more recently – Transforming Conflict in the Church and Is a Peace Church Possible? And, inevitably, we did more and more preaching together.

Gradually we’ve developed some ways of doing things which we find helpful.

We like to start with a biblical text: and we prefer to preach off a text rather than give topical discourses. If someone gives us a topic, we’ll find a text to grapple with that deals with the topic. We like to preach from the narratives of the Bible, especially the stories of Jesus.

So we read the text to each other, out loud. We sit near each other, both of us with open Bibles, generally the NRSV. We then begin to brainstorm, and one of us (generally Alan) writes down ideas. At first there may be no shape to them. Or there may be questions that we want to think about further. Eleanor is especially strong on images and metaphors; Alan tends to have more organisational instinct; and both of us have pastoral and practical concerns. It can, at this stage, feel like chaos.

At a certain point, we often turn to commentaries. We like reading these to each other. It’s a kind of hobby of ours. On holiday we will often read these out loud. Last summer, on the Isle of Arran, we read Walter Brueggemann’s recent Westminster Bible Companion on Isaiah 40-66. It reads wonderfully out loud! So, while preparing, we’ll look at one or two commentaries to see if new ideas jump out at us. They often do; but the heart of our preparation is in our conversations about the text.

At some point, I (Alan) will go off to the computer to try to order and record what we have said: I will emerge with a draft, which Eleanor goes through and edits heavily. She may query it all; more often she clarifies, illustrates and humanises the text. I (Alan) then insert Eleanor’s emendations into the full notes which become our joint outline. It really is the product of both of us. One day the thought came to us: we are a small hermeneutical community!

What’s it like to give a talk that we have prepared like this?

Easy! Much easier than it is to write the sermons. That’s the tough part; it’s hard for our particular hermeneutical community to come to agreement. But once we have written our notes, giving it is no problem.

The notes are there: either of us could preach the entire sermon. But we like giving it together. And neither of us knows who will say any given bit of it: we do not specially mark E or A in the margins. We do not know who will start or who will end the sermon. We leave this up to the Holy Spirit.

We have to trust each other. Early on in our preaching together we had fears. What if he just lets me go on? What if I get stranded? We learned: we must be willing to stop – and to let the other come in. We develop a sense when one or the other of us wants to go on, and we give them freedom. It’s like playing chamber music. But the general principles are – trust the other; allow gaps; give the other person space to speak. And in all of it trust God.

This is easier when we don’t have really tight time constraints. When we preached at Coventry Cathedral, the precentor was strict: ‘You have 12 minutes!’ We have noticed that the tighter our time constraints, the fuller our notes have to be. And this has its cost. It gives less opportunity for spontaneous moves in new directions. We have discovered that if either of us is speaking separately, we can be freer. Nevertheless, we’re learning: as our trust of each other grows, we are learning when to give the other freedom to go off on a Spirit-inspired tangent!

And we have found that people stay awake! Listeners listen. They sense themselves drawn into our conversation. This pleases us: it fits in with our understanding of the church as a place where a community reads the Bible together and then converses about it. The sermon as conversation is thus important to us.

Who has inspired us to speak as we do?

Do you know about Robert Banks? He is an Australian, Cambridge-trained exegete, founder of house churches across Australia and first professor of the laity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Rob spoke in our church about Acts 20. Paul was in Troas. On the first day of the week the community met, broke bread, and Paul then ‘preached unto them…and continued his speech until midnight’ (AV for Acts 20.7). What a long sermon! He preached so long that poor Eutychus sank into a deep sleep and fell three stories to what should have been his death. Some people will do anything to escape a long sermon!

But that wasn’t what happened. Rob pointed out that the Greek word for Paul’s discourse (Acts 20.7) was dielegeto, which implied dialogue. When we think of Paul in Troas, or perhaps Paul anywhere else, we don’t think of his sermon as a long monologue, we think dialogue, or perhaps ‘multilogue’: people bringing their questions, and Paul bringing his wisdom and experience and learning to bear. Not a sermon, but a ‘surgery’ (like a doctor seeing patients).

Then we learned that the Latin root of the word ‘sermon’ is sermo, which means conversation. Of course this has changed, and ‘sermon’ has come to mean monologue, but it began as an interchange, as something mutual, as a conversation.

Reading the church fathers we find Origen being interrupted in mid-sermon by questions; we also find this in Augustine – sensing objections, and changing course; even Chrysostom did this. Then this changed, and the great Christendom tradition of the long, rhetorical sermon developed, which had been prepared and polished by an individual homiletician in his/her study. This has blessed many; it has blessed us.

But we have been inspired to persist in our exploration of a hermeneutic community, a multivoiced worship, a conversational style. We recognise three sources:

1. Liberation theology – with its communal hermeneutic. We have read a bit; but we have also taken part in groups that read a biblical text together and then converse about its meaning. We participated in a group in a Methodist church, reading a Gospel passage together, and applying it to its life. There are similar groups in Baptist churches, which at times have helped pastors prepare for their sermon the following Sunday. Our pastor in Oxford is currently in Australia, speaking at the Baptist World Alliance congress: she brought her text to our Thursday evening group, and together we sensed what the Spirit was saying to the churches and thus shaped the themes of her message. What the two of us do in our preparations is related to this.

2. Several Catholic preachers – with their implied conversation: we have been much influenced by hearing Daniel Berrigan and the Franciscan Richard Rohr engage in implied conversation. They ask, ‘Do you understand?’ ‘Is this clear?’ They indicate their profound awareness of the people to whom they are speaking, and that it is very important that these people understand and assent. They expect people’s permission before they proceed, and give the strong impression that they will try again if they’ve not yet communicated. They give the strong sense: you are a part of the sermon, as much a part of the sermon as I am; it takes two to have a conversation! We have tried to incorporate elements of the implied conversation with the congregation. But we also are having a real conversation with each other; and we find the others can enter into this; often they sense themselves involved!

3. Our Mennonite tradition – with its responses to the sermons: from the start, the Anabaptists emphasised the importance of having responses from people. Balthasar Hubmaier wrote that the people ‘have authority to ask questions’. A typical pattern, kept in the Mennonite tradition, was that after a sermon there would be several responses, often by elders, in which other people underlined, ratified and developed what the first speaker had said. This was called ‘giving yea and Amen’.

This is still done in some Mennonite churches. It is not always easy or successful. The Mennonite Church in North London which we helped found for several years had a response time after the sermon, and was nearly destroyed by an extremely articulate Marxist who kept criticizing the sermons: how bourgeois! how conventional!

It was more successful is the ‘sharing time’ in the church which Ellie grew up in in Indiana. After the sermon, and before the congregational prayers, there is an ‘open mike’ time: an elder goes round the congregation, and people can say things they are concerned about and want prayer for; they also give responses to the sermon. ‘I think it’s really important what Pastor Andrew said this morning about learning Spanish; we’ve got to do better at responding to our Hispanic neighbours.’ Then, after sharing, the congregation prays. And the worship has become multi-voiced.

How do we feel about the way we speak?

We sense that we’ve just stumbled into it. It wasn’t our desire or design to speak like this. It represents the way we talk to each other all the time. Neither of us is a great expert; both of us are people of convictions and questions and passions which we want to share.

We have discovered that people like what we do; they pay us the compliment of staying awake! One day I (Alan) gave a speech, after which someone came up to thank me. ‘You speak so helpfully, Alan; but you’re lots better when you speak with Eleanor!’

Why do they like it? We heard one expert say – and we found this extremely intimidating – that when a speaker speaks 80 per cent of what is communicated is how the speaker looks and 20 per cent is what is said. How embarrassing! How intimidating! How should we look, how should we dress, should I grow a beard, wear a gown?? Then we realized: ‘how we look’ is not what a speaker wears; it’s how the speaker LOOKS – in their face, at the people, etc. And how we look: we are speaking together, a man and a woman as equals, engaging in conversation about the most important things in the world. We sense that people respond because they feel they have been included in our conversation.

Over the years we’ve had some expert help. Once we asked a professional teacher of homiletics to listen to us, and he alerted us to dangers and weaknesses. On one occasion after we had spoken a woman came up to us: she said, ‘I’m doing a Ph.D. in rhetoric; but I’ve never encountered a genre that classifies what you do. What do you call this?’

We don’t know what to call it. And we don’t greatly mind what it’s called. We like speaking together. And it’s not just with each other. We have had experience speaking like this with others, with whom we have had open relationships. Sometimes it’s been easier than at other times; and it doesn’t always work. One time Alan spoke with a woman and found it really hard going. But generally our experience of doing this with others has been good.

We thus know that our way of speaking is something that others can learn if they wish. What does it involve? There are some simple ingredients – thinking things through together; trust; mutuality; a certain self-confidence and willingness to take risks. Also it takes some time – doing a solo sermon is much faster, and it’s often what we do when we are under pressure.

But we still find benefits in speaking this way. Some of these we’ve mentioned – it holds people’s attention; the process of being a hermeneutical community is valuable, and it enables others to enter into the conversation.

We’ll close with one final benefit that we haven’t mentioned yet. This can be a means of an experienced preacher enabling an inexperienced speaker to gain confidence. It’s wonderful. To work with an experienced preacher; to study the Bible together; to discover that insights into the Scriptures and God’s message to the people can come from both. And then to discover that they as a tandem can speak in public, that their cadences can rise and fall together, that their compassion and enthusiasm can mirror each other. And when this happens, others get caught up in their vision. The result of preaching together can be significant: the empowering of yet more preachers who can preach powerfully on their own.