Code-switching and Preaching: When “preacher voice” means leaving our selves and God behind.

In my seminary preaching classes they taught us to avoid “preacher voice.” Have you heard such a voice from the pulpit, a voice that seems “put on” or unnatural? Preacher voice is often described as an astute sounding, carefully articulated, loudly projected, serious sounding voice. I know I’ve been guilty of “preacher voice.” In our worst affectations, some Episcopalians actually sound like we are trying to speak with a vague British accent like we are performing Shakespeare or trying to speak like Madonna.

When we introduce the concept of code-switching, “preacher voice” becomes more problematic. A recent episode of “Q” from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation Radio, explored the question: “Is Public Radio ‘Too White?’” The panelists argued that, regardless of ethnicity and cultural background, broadcast journalists tend to sound the same. Do radio personalities leave some of themselves behind when they step in the booth? Are they are paid to sound the same? I wonder about these questions for our pulpits. Are preachers tempted to code-switch?

I focused a lot on “tone” in the opening paragraph, and most of the discussions of “preacher voice” encourage you to find the “natural sound” of your voice. This is tricky work. Actor friends assure me that “voice work,” finding a natural and yet audible voice in a large room is some of the most difficult work in theater. But I find the CONTENT question even more interesting and perhaps important. To get to the question of word choice and content in Code Switching, I need you to watch this video from Key and Peele:

The laughs come because of the cultural assumptions, based on gender and skin color, that each character makes about the other. Two black men who don’t know one another see one another on the sidewalk, and they move into a particular code. Often in code-switching the sound of a voice changes, but notice the choice of words, even the topics discussed.

Code is about more than our accent and tone. Code involves culturally significant topics, words, and phrases. How many of us preachers “code-switch” in the pulpit by choosing not to curse, though cursing is a normal part of our language. I wondered if the roof was going to fall in the National Cathedral when my friend Linda Kaufman said the word “ass” in her excellent sermon at the consecration of Bishop Mariann Budde. (For the record, Linda wasn’t talking about a donkey). I’m not advocating for dropping the F-bomb in your sermon. Your congregation’s code needs to be taken into account (more on that in the next post). But I worry that we unconsciously code-switch in our pulpits. I worry when we leave behind a whole wealth of language and experience because a particular code is expected. Let’s not mince words. When we leave behind language and experience, we leave out ways that God is working in our world.

I remember in college listening to one of my favorite theology professors, Dr. Maria Pilar Aquino as she lamented the task of teaching introductory courses at The University of San Diego. She was critiqued when she didn’t teach the white European perspective. Her students expected an introduction to Catholic Theology class to include readings by Karl Rahner, Thomas Aquinas and others. Of course she included them, but she had to face questions when she chose to teach a topic with significant readings from Leonardo Boff or Gustavo Gutierrez. White, European, Male, was the default. Anything different had to be justified. It was true in undergraduate classes, is it true in our pulpits? Who are the theologians we quote? Who are the novelists and the poets we borrow from? Do we quote the artists and theologians that have shaped us, or do we leave some of ourselves behind? Do we discount God’s grace by only speaking a part of reality?

I know I’ve been guilty of leaving myself behind. In my own preaching voice, I’ve worried about sounding “too gay.” I’ve never blushed more than after a funeral a few years ago when a family member commented on my lisp.

I’ve thought about content too. I’ve left out discussions of gay rights and references to LGBT themed works of art because I was worried I would be pigeon-holed. As a cis-gendered white male, I have a lot of privilege. I’ve seen it at work when a colleague had to work to win over a congregation that unconsciously checked out when they saw a person of color climb into the pulpit. I’ve heard it when parishioners have described a female preacher’s voice as “shrill.” I acknowledge my privilege. That privilege makes getting to my “natural voice” difficult sometimes. For me it’s easy to speak the dominant code.

The gayest picture I could find of myself, offered as penance for leaving parts of myself out of the pulpit.

The gayest picture I could find of myself, offered as penance for leaving parts of myself out of the pulpit.

The question of code-switching isn’t entirely about style and aesthetics. Power is at play, and theology is at play. The sermon is the only moment in a liturgical service written specifically for that week, that congregation. The Biblical text and liturgy don’t vary, so the work of contextualizing the tradition falls on the preacher. What is said, and what is left out, in the pulpit matters. If we don’t name God for a particular people, what does that mean for them? If we don’t bring our full selves, if we don’t represent the realities of our community, we are making a statement by our omission.

In my first post, I mentioned a trans teenager who grabbed hold of one line in a sermon I preached. One line in that sermon helped them grab hold of God’s grace. Their reality was named, albeit imperfectly, in a far from perfect sermon. Acknowledging that some people’s bodies don’t match their gender was a code-switch for this one teen. They’d never heard a preacher voice that reality before.

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