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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pulpit-Pounding Champs Celebrate Fine Sermons

LONDON -- There was no napping in the pews, no snoring through the sermon at Southwark Cathedral when five of the country's more eloquent Christians got together for what can only be called a preach-off.

The Rev. William Anderson, a 65-year-old Roman Catholic canon from Aberdeen, Scotland, said he was "dumbstruck" to have won the contest Wednesday.

"I didn't think it was particularly good," the slightly built, gray-haired cleric said later. "I think I preached better in the bathroom this morning."

Before a full congregation and a panel of judges, Anderson and the other finalists reasoned, persuaded and proclaimed in very individual styles and accents from softest Scottish burr to ringing, full-throated Welsh.

The finalists for the second annual Preacher of the Year Award were chosen through secret church visits from among 30 names on a short list, which was selected from many entrants who submitted sermons they had given.

When all five had delivered 10-minute sermons on themes from selected psalms, the judges' panel of seven churchmen and journalists chose Anderson. Bishop of Durham Michael Turnbull said the priest "spoke particularly to the human condition at a very significantly deep level."

Anderson peppered his sermon with literary allusions, quoting Chaucer, Robert Burns, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot and one of England's greatest preachers, John Donne, the 17th century dean of St. Paul's cathedral.

Turning to Psalm 51, in which the psalmist begs for mercy and cleansing, Anderson said:

"Yes, just occasionally it's proper almost to grovel as he does when we pray; to come before the Almighty, slime of the earth that each of us, and admit: `Lord, my name is mud!"'

Anderson gets plenty of practice, preaching each sermon three times on Sundays -- "and very occasionally four, because I'm the only priest in St. Mary's Cathedral in Aberdeen at the moment."

"You're sick of it by the fourth time," he confided. Of his technique, he said: "You need sincerity, clarity and one or two jokes. You have to make it light, otherwise boredom sets in."

All the preachers agreed that sermons had been affected by the electronic age and become a lot shorter.

"Even within Methodism, where we like to preach for a fair amount of time, they've gotten shorter and shorter," said Dr. Arnold Kellet, a 70-year-old Methodist from Yorkshire. "But I like a full 20 minutes if I can."

Anne Peat, a 48-year-old lay preacher at a shared Anglican-Methodist church in Hertfordshire, said humor is becoming more common.

"And at one time you would never have told a joke in the pulpit. People are still a bit afraid about whether they should laugh or not," she said.

Anderson, who was awarded a bronze sculpture of a dove, said the entrants felt awkward about the competitive aspect of the event.

"The idea that we were preaching against one another was a bit of a contradiction in terms," he said.

A competition?

"Oh dear me no," he said. "A celebration rather."