As both an actor and a Christian, Peter Kennedy, a lifelong parishioner at Trinity East (Little Trinity) in Toronto, has long been interested in sermons, particularly listening to recordings of old sermons. While attending seminary at Wycliffe College, Mr. Kennedy noticed how few recordings there were of sermons by women and preachers of colour.
“There is a whole breadth of old sermons available. But in the English-speaking West, it’s really focused on white men,” says Mr. Kennedy. “You can get your Wesley and your Spurgeon and your Luther – people have recorded those – but there’s nothing that represents the multicultural aspects of the Church in the West. That’s something lacking in the Church. It’s a message that needs to be spoken into the Church, especially in today’s multicultural world. So I wanted to try and source some of those voices that are hard to find and bring life back into them.”
This idea laid the foundation for the Sermon Project, an ambitious plan to find and record 100 sermons over three years that will highlight ethnically and culturally diverse preachers of the past. Initially, the project will focus on Canadian preachers.
Using his connections in the Church and academia, Mr. Kennedy has already been able to find a rich variety of sermons. With the help of a generous early donor and a Reach Grant of $5,000 from the diocese, he planned to begin recording in October.
Mr. Kennedy will be hiring voice actors and possibly also preachers to record the sermons in a professional studio, to produce the highest quality recordings possible. He emphasizes that he will be seeking voice actors who reflect the gender and ethnicity of the preachers. The sermons will also be recorded in the original language, with a translation in English available as well.
One challenge facing the project is the question of how faithful the recordings should be to the original sermons. “This is one of the things we’ve talked a bit about. If you do a sermon from Elizabethan times, are you going to perform it like a Shakespearean play or are you going to do a bit of modernization of the language? There’s pros and cons to both,” he says.
Supported by a steering committee, Mr. Kennedy will also consider the contents of each sermon closely. “If something in a sermon was just terrible, I wouldn’t record that sermon. But theology shifts throughout generations, and I’m okay with allowing that to sit because it’s part of the history of the Church, warts and all. It’s part of admitting that we are broken and fallen people who are struggling to walk in relationship with God,” he says.
Each sermon will have its own introduction, providing context on the language and content. The sermons will be housed on the project’s website (www.sermonproject.com), which will allow users free access to a searchable database of historic sermons. Mr. Kennedy says he hopes that the project will create a space for people to contemplate the history of the Church. “It’s designed to address social and racial issues in a space that is invitational, rather than confrontational. It’s a safe space, and I’m hoping that this project invites people into that space,” he says.
One genre of sermons that he has found during his research and that he is especially excited to share is sermons by women from a period when it was illegal for women to preach. “There’s this whole genre of literature in the 18th and 19th centuries where women authors, who were forbidden to preach, would write sermons in their writings. So whether you think women shouldn’t preach or you think, of course, women should preach, it doesn’t matter because you’ve got these historical examples,” he says. “It gives people that space to go, ‘well this happened, so let’s talk about it.’”
Mr. Kennedy says he hopes the project will bring many more stories like this one to a wider audience and encourage discussions. Anyone who’d like to support the project financially can donate on the website at www.sermonproject.com/donate.