Preachers: don't amen yourself

I know it is a convention — at least in Unitarian Universalist circles — for preachers to end a sermon with amen and sometimes other codas, like blessed be or shanti. This is about amen, if not the others. Stop it. Stop it now. Carl Scovel (boy, I wish he blogged!) broke me of the habit and I thank him for it.

Amen is the word of the people: a liturgical affirmation of what has been said. I imagine the practice is devolution of the prompt, “And let the people say, ‘Amen’.” (Which the people can decline!)

You wouldn’t end a sermon “and we agree with you” so don’t end your sermon (or newsletter column, blog post or what have you) with amen.

18 Replies to “Preachers: don't amen yourself”

  1. If you expect an “amen,” however, you also have to end the sermon with something like a prayer or benedictory statement that would invite (or prompt) a congregational response. If the congregation feels like you have simply paused, or petered out, or ended with a statement that doesn’t invite assent, they can’t speak as one and won’t respond.

  2. @Philo. That’s fine — I’ve head plenty of good sermons that “dismount” without response — so long as the preacher never, ever ends with amen.

  3. I see this so often … does it not come up in seminary? Don’t the ministers have to take a class (or two) or preaching? I’m confused as to how this can be a clear cut issue when almost every minister I know does it?

  4. Hafidha, it’s not as clear-cut as Scott makes it sound. There are preaching traditions in which the preacher ends with a prayer, and says Amen (with the people joining in), lets the congregation say Amen, or ends without an Amen.

    There’s also a growing UU practice of ending with a string of interfaith assents, such as “So be it, blessed be, amen.”

    I’ve ended many sermons with an amen, and am unlikely to stop just because Scott says so. Carl Scovel, however, is always worth emulating.

  5. I take your point but I also assume that amen, like everything else, evolves and is up for reinterpretation in the liberal religious tradition. Just because it had one meaning and practice for some people previously, doesn’t make it inauthentic for other people today to use it in ways that they believe are appropriate.

    I don’t think amen would ever be said in UU circles unless the minister invited it (exceptions: at the end of prayers in certain churches, such as those that retain the Lord’s Prayer). By saying amen the minister actually invites (not demands) a response from the audience and empowers those who wish to say amen. It also empowers those who don’t wish to say amen, as the minister has taken care of it and you’re not obligated to speak up if you’re of the type who doesn’t like to amen.

    I highly doubt that a campaign to get ministers to stop amening could be effective, even if it is well-intentioned and in line with historical practice.

  6. I am firm on this point. I don’t rightly care if a preacher ends with a prayer, a call for a response or the plain end of a text; my objection is the assumption of assent, even if it’s only in form.

    It can hardly be thought a liberal accomplishment to claim that which belongs to the people, or to reduce something that has a meaning — and amen is pretty well established — into a meaningless gesture.

    And why isn’t this sort of thing known or discussed? Because it falls under the custom of ministry, which is often taught informally (as I was, from Carl Scovel) and rarely written but traditionally out of the earshot of the laity. Such cloudy means of transmission give life to the mummified remains of old practices — because nobody knows where they come from — and hold a subtle power over the laity, who have to trust that ministers know what’s proper. Even when there’s little evidence that’s the case.

    Better to talk about practices, including undesirable ones, in public and with rationale.

  7. FWIW, amen Scott. Same change here, precipitated by the same minister, for same reasons.

    (…:) why, whenever I hear an amen at the end of a sermon I am tempted to get up and walk out on it…couldn’t help myself…holy week’s to blame.

  8. I think you are right on, Scott. Not just Amen, but also as Philo states, the growing practice of blessed be, so be it, etc. I was “broken” of the habit by the Rev. Judy Hoehler after my first two sermons as a ministerial intern.

    Take all the theological justification away and it just sounds bad. Judy’s great advice was have a good ending to your sermon and just end it. I thought it was good counsel then and I still do. Every time I hear the amen, the blessed be, the so be it, or any such thing at the end of a sermon, I hear Judy telling me, “you had a good ending, you just should have ended it there. You don’t need that.”

  9. Scott – I know that you may be very firm on this issue, but I grew up with amen being a kind of liturgical punctuation used both by the people and the pastor and the choir. It seemed to mark the end of a devotional momment. The pastor said amen at the end of many sermons, especially if the sermon had a prayerful conclusion. The pastor said amen at the end of his prayers. The people said amen at the end of their prayers. The choir sang amen at the end of their music, and the people sang amen at the end of every hymn.

    In my experience, the rubric you insist upon, is not so black-and-white. But if I assumed it were so, what if anything would use for such liturgical punctuation? Or do you see no need for such things? I think the fact that this punctuation, or its equivalent (“may it be so”, or “blessed be”) keeps slipping into usage, means that it is satisfying a liturgical need in both liturgist and the listener. Perhaps to mark conclusions in certain sections of the worship’s sung or spoken ministry?

  10. I agree that practices ought to be talked about publicly, rather than just in private minister-to-minister sessions. A discussion of praxis can only be healthy. I know many laypeople such as myself would find such discussion fascinating, and possible enlightening.

    But as for amen, it isn’t just being used by ministers, of course. I hear laypeople say it all the time at the end of their sermons/talks. And of course it doesn’t just belong to “the people” and not to ministers, since ministers routinely say amen at the end of their own prayers, whether before the congregation or in private. Conversely, lay people giving their own prayers at home often say amen, including at the end of saying grace, which is a public performance akin in some ways to prayer before a congregation. So it seems to me that amen has multiple “owners” and there are multiple practices associated with its use.

    In UU circles I have never encountered (at least that I can recall at the moment) amen used as a spontaneous response by the congregation as you seem to believe it should be. I think UUs are reluctant to make such noises, both because it violates an uncertain sense of frozen chosen propriety and because they are afraid of offending pewmates who hate anything with the slightest whiff of Christianity. I have only seen amen used by the congregation in willing response to an invitation from the minister. In effect, you’re actually arguing for the de facto removal of amen from UU sanctuaries. And what may replace it could be applause (I’ve seen this happen in UU circles), which I think you’d probably object to on aesthetic grounds (it certainly grates on me in most, but not all, situations in the sanctuary).

    Perhaps the greatest irony here, and the reason why I feel some resistance, is that your chiding seems to be based mainly on your authority as a minister. Citing a secret ministerial transmission of esoteric knowledge even at the moment of wishing for more open discussion, you try to shut down a practice without fully justifying your objections (at least, not in a way that is compelling to a layperson such as myself who is unfamiliar with Scovel’s argument). Other ministers also chime in, citing their esoteric (as in hidden, unavailable to the uninitiated) oral transmission knowledge, to reinforce your position without further unpacking it. While your intention may be to prevent arrogation of the people’s powers to the ministry, you are in fact using your ministerial insidership to determine what proper practice is. At least the object of your chiding (“Stop it. Stop it now.”) is other ministers, not laypeople, though you’re perhaps indirectly presuming a bit to speak a bit paternalistically for laypeople and what they want/need from their ministers, as if when a minister says amen we somehow feel commanded to say it too or resent that he’s stolen some special power from us.

    I as a layperson am not bothered when the minister says amen–I like it. To me it conveys seriousness of intent and a desire to commend the best parts of the sermon/prayer (whatever they may be) to God as an offering. From conversations with other lay UUs, I have heard similar sentiments. I have never encountered a layperson who didn’t like it, unless they objected to amen because it reminded them of creepy Christian experiences (which is a whole other matter, and means objection to anyone using amen for any reason, including laypeople). So your argument is a minister’s argument, so far as I can tell, and not reflective of the wishes of laypersons on the issue, so far as I am aware (could be wrong here, of course, I’ve never taken a scientific poll). Not that there’s anything wrong with a ministerial perspective, naturally, but it’s only one perspective.

    Your argument seems weaker when you bring in blessed be or shanti (you don’t mention namaste but I bet you had it in mind too, I hear this one all the time). These are Neo-Pagan and Hindu blessings, respectively, and not necessarily used (in their original contexts) in the Christian amen-as-congregation’s-response way that you’re advocating. It may be that a minister/priest saying them at the end of a sermon or prayer is exactly appropriate, in fact, and might be the solution to the impasse created by your desire for ministers not to say amen vs. the clear ministerial/congregational desire for sacred closing words. My only objection here is that these strings of “capping phrases” seem to be getting longer and longer, especially as some speakers try to cram in one from every human religious tradition, apparently in a misguided attempt to give recognition to all faiths and not privilege one or a few (at least, that’s how it appears to me from the pews). That’s actually quite tiresome, but the objection isn’t one of principle, just aesthetics (well, it does bother me a bit that it could be a sort of mindless appropriation in some cases–I am waiting fearfully for inshallah to be added to the standard litany, at which point we’ll have well and truly jumping the shark).

    I had no idea that I had this much to say on amen. Oy.

  11. Hmm. Well, as a non minister, I guess this doesn’t affect me much – and I’m certainly not feeling empowered or knowledgeable enough to tell the ministers at my church to stop saying this. But I do wonder: what does “Amen” actually mean (literally)?

    I never found it odd the way ministers use it because Muslims say “Ameen” at the end of prayers. I always understood Ameen to be equivalent to Amen, but Ameen isn’t the word of the people. It’s intended as a supplication of acceptance (God, please accept this prayer; or, God, please respond to this prayer). Literally, Ameen has something to do with declaring the truth of what was said. And if an imam says “Ameen” at the end of a sermon, others should, too. But even an average person can say a prayer and, if they feel strongly about it, add Ameen to it. Others can chime in if they want.

    I don’t know the Christian origins or intentions behind the word; it sounds as though this may *not* be a point of commonality with Islam.

  12. Oh dear: this has rather gone one farther than I thought imaginable. In brief, before getting ready for noon services.

    @Jeff. I think you’re caught in a reinforcement loop, responding to things I didn’t say while overlooking those things I did say. The post is addressed to preachers, though open to public review. There is a divergence of opinion, the first I’ve ever seen recorded on this custom. To recap from above, the preacher using amen to self-reinforce a sermon is an usurpation of consent (for which Unitarians and Universalists have long been keen to avoid, if imperfectly). This is not a de facto ban on amen, as an entire praying congregation is, as it were, in a one boat. (Also @Derek.) Because the other responses have other meanings, I chose not to respond to them; I’ll let someone else (somewhere else) deal with that.

    @h s. I’m sure the words are related. The English word amen is a loan from Hebrew meaning affirmation, relative to its subject. Wikipedia

  13. Well I’m stepping in a bit late as usual. My two main comments are:

    1) love ya but this is a bit too fussy for me.

    2) Wikipedia observes that in Biblical usage, in addition to the amen as confirmation with a change in speaker is also a terminal amen without a change in speaker, as in some psalms and epistles (e.g., Romans). I think this suggests some room for generosity in your assessment.

  14. There’s quite a jump from psalms and biblical epistles to a sermon. And I don’t think there’s anything fussy about calling out ostentation.

  15. We can parse the fussiness vs ostentation debate another time, I guess.

    More to the point:
    You can’t just discuss “Amen” in its liturgical usage without looking at the scriptural precedents that informed liturgical language. I’m talking about the linguistic context of the word “Amen.”. You seem to be stating that the liturgical usage of Amen is based upon what it means as a response offered to another, and that it is not a terminus of one’s own work. And clearly there’s textual evidence suggesting that there is wider usage of it than you’re allowing for it in your assessment.

    As far as the “jump” from psalms and biblical epistles to sermons, can we please recall that Epistles were simply pastoral letters before they were “biblical.” You’re the one who included other forms of communication in your statement when you said “so don’t end your sermon (or newsletter column, blog post or what have you) with amen.” It’s pretty clear that our Christian epistolary texts make use of the word in the same context you’re decrying. (This including a couple of the letters not included in the canon.)

    I don’t expect to have convinced you. If anything, I was fairly neutral on this point until I looked into myself, and now I’m more convinced that this is not the black-or-white rubric you state it to be.

  16. I will write soon in the UU-History list about the origins of the Pagan “blessed be”, let me just say that most sources available coincide that it comes from the Fivefold Kiss, the part of the Missa Gnostica in which the priest kisses the priestess in five parts of her body while saying “blessed be your (part)”, few moments before having intercourse with her. As usual with things Wiccan, some people say that the origin of the ceremony seems to be traced back to Aleister Crowley, aka “the Beast 666”, while others think that it refers to Masonic symbolism. I wonder how many UU ministers think that they are so cool saying this while they are aware of the context where it all comes from…

  17. Whatever the reasons are for not saying amen at the end of a sermon, it seems that that rule might be broken if one is sending a sermon by quoting something else. That’s certainly not an uncommon practice. When a speaker– the giver of a sermon or otherwise– ends with amen in that case– he or she is affirming the quoted material.

    If someone is ending something that should end with an “amen,” my deal is that it should end with an “amen.” The “amen and blessed be” formation seems, well, just trendy. If there’s a particular reason for something to tend “blessed be,” (because it is legitimately neo-pagan), than the speaker should have the courage to end it that way.

    I cannot think of many situations where the typical UU minister in nearly any situation confronted by a typical UU congregation or other group would be confronted by a situation where “ashanti” would be anything other than silly (or offensive, or both) appropriation. I am sure there may be the occasional exception. But the string of “ashanti, blessed be and amen,” said in the most casual way for the most banal and quotidian of resons, is not one of them.

    My four and half-cents.

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