N.T.Wright – about as good as can be.

Tom Wright was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010. When he retired that See (succeeded, incidentally, by someone called Justin Welby) he went into academia and authorship under the name of Professor N.T.Wright. It is in the latter guise that we find him in November 2014 delivering a lecture to Duke Divinity School. The lecture is entitled Why and How Paul Invented Christian Theology.

After a very brief introduction by (I believe) Richard Hays, Dean of the School, he begins at 1:15, and ends at 45:55. The rest is questions.

My word, but this man is good!  He does pretty-well everything right, or at least he does everything as I teach it should be done – which of course is the same thing.

In his introduction we have been told that he is on a very tight schedule, and will be whisked away immediately after this lecture to his next engagement. Before walking to the lectern he has already looked and seen that there is not a clock visible. I know this because before the applause has died enough for him to start speaking, he has already removed his wristwatch and placed it on the lectern. This is such a small thing that it presses my excitement button. If he takes such care of the micro details I know he will be well on top of the macro ones.

Readers of this blog know that I prefer speakers not to use a script. Readers of The Face & Tripod also know that I concede that there are occasions when a script becomes necessary: I even have a section of rights-and-wrongs concerning the physical layout of a script. I make the point that those who have learnt to speak without paper invariably handle paper better, because the script is merely a tool not a master, still less a comfort-blanket. Wright is a copy-book example of all of the above. We have been told that he is rushing from engagement to engagement, and I think we can assume these all to be speaking engagements. He will certainly have tailored each speech to each audience, so scripts are necessary. Nevertheless he gives the audience the full benefit of his eyes, just glancing down from time to time.  The sheets of paper have writing on only one side (makes page turning less messy). They are not fastened together (ditto). He is doing everything right. And he is so much in command of himself that a couple of times he produces a pen and annotates the script – or possibly even edits it – on the hoof without breaking stride.

His enunciation is as good as it gets. Readers of Every Word Heard will know that I am allergic to ‘consonantitis’, that self-conscious, staccato, over-delivery of every consonant, making the speaker sound like a prat. I also hate over-enunciation that makes each word sound as if it came individually wrapped. Wright goes nowhere near either of these errors yet not a single syllable goes AWOL. His intonation is wonderfully expressive, but some expressive speakers add emphasis to certain syllables by stealing it from others. Examples are here and here. Wright does not make that mistake. (Nit-pick alert: listen closely to his first two sentences and you will hear him kick-start his platform-enunciation with a tiny bit of deliberate consonantitis before settling into his normal stride. It’s a professional trick.)

He conforms to W.B.Yeats’ urging to “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”. Some streetwise colloquialisms are used to make points more eloquently – even occasionally rubbing shoulders with Latin in the same sentence. Perhaps he is also conforming to a Kiplingesque walking with kings nor losing the common touch.

If I were to move into serious nit-picking, I would address a tiny detail concerning his gestures. They are beautifully, unconsciously expressive, so no problem there; but I would urge him to adopt the habit of ‘mirroring’. When, for instance, his hands indicate a progression of some sort he moves them from left to right – his left to his right. If he did that the other way around, the progression would go from our left to our right.

He tells us that his lecture is based upon his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Whether you are promoting a book to potential readers or presenting a big report to your company’s Board of Directors, the classic error is to attempt to precis it when you should be trailing it. You want your audience to read it: you don’t want to preempt their need to do so. Wright trails it. He picks a section from it, and then tells you just enough both to teach and to tantalize you. It’s very skillful.

At least I think that’s what he does; but to be honest I am so smitten that my rhetor hat has stayed firmly on my head. I’ve been sitting and luxuriating in the magisterial magnificence of the performance at the expense of my actually paying much attention to what he is telling me. I shall now watch the whole thing over again. It will be a pleasure: I could listen to him all day.

I know even less about the admin of the Church of England than I do about theology, but I wonder how big a blow to the church his retirement from the episcopacy was. It was undoubtedly a huge boon to his students and indeed the rest of the world. I find myself pondering on whether he made the ecclesiastic equivalent of moving to the back-benches in order to broadcast more freely his particular piece of apostolic succession. I shall look out more of his pronouncements.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby and two mistakes

In November 2012, the appointment was announced of the (then) next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham. He duly delivered a statement in Lambeth Palace.

It is well known that Welby, before being ordained, had a career in the oil business. Both industry and the church help their executives with skills such as speaking in public. I was eager to see whether, and how well, he had been trained.

[I wonder why whoever posted this speech on line used a ‘still’ from another occasion. He’s dressed differently.]

In a past posting on this blog I marvelled at how none of the speakers in the Oxford Union God debate had begun with a prayer. Welby did not show the same neglect.

Followers of this blog will expect me to be scandalised by Welby’s reading this speech unless they recall, in this posting, the following sentence, “There are occasions when a script is unavoidable“. If the occasion of your speech is of such high profile that the press corps has been or will be supplied with a transcript, you have little option but to utter what they will report. This is one such occasion. Welby has to have a script.

I have also been known say that those who have learned to speak without the assistance of paper, tend to cope with scripts better and with more assurance than those who haven’t. It is not always that simple: habitual shooters from the hip, when one day confronted with a script, often find that their timing suffers. I shall venture the guess that Welby comes into that last category. As far as I am concerned he makes just two crucial errors in a speech that otherwise is not at all bad.

Repeatedly, particularly in the early stages, the audience stubbornly neglects to respond as they were evidently intended. 0:28 – Someone laughed. We heard him. Mark that!  It means that the microphone can pick up audience response: the following 2 minutes could make us doubt it. 1:35 – Here, surely, the audience was intended to applaud, or show some courteous agreement. Nothing. Welby pauses, and tries to prompt gently by naming the person they were expected to acknowledge. Still nothing. 2:03 – Again the audience yields zero response. Welby expects some semblance of laughter. How do I know? 2:05 – “…to be fully serious…” No! NO! NO! Never tell an audience you just tried to be funny. Those words are disastrous. If the audience had been laughing their heads off it would have been lame. As they hadn’t even tittered, he wiped egg all over his face. That’s one mistake.

[Here is a Rogues’ Gallery of phrases which should never, after humour, be uttered by any speaker (except, possibly, with heavy irony) – 

  • Be that as it may…
  • But seriously though, folks…
  • Anyway…
  • Any derivative or equivalent of the above]

This is a lousy audience that responds to nothing; and it puzzles me because his performance deserves better. The speech is good. It’s a little bland, because when you reach these stratospheric altitudes of profile any perceived gaffe results in a media feeding frenzy, but I’ve known blander.

10:35 – In the closing words we learn the other mistake, and I believe it explains a huge amount. This is essentially a Press Conference to which he is making a statement. As he finishes, he tells them that they will be receiving a copy of it. If he at the beginning, or better still if someone else before he even entered the room, had told the audience they would receive a transcript, they would have sat, listened, enjoyed and made a few notes. Instead, I reckon they were feverishly taking shorthand while he spoke.

And that’s why they didn’t respond as they should.