Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘That may be the last time half the planet listen to one voice at one time’
Paul Kerensa on the sermon with the biggest audience
Imagine delivering a sermon to half the planet. This has only ever happened once, and it happened just a couple of months ago.
The state funeral of Elizabeth II was of course a grand spectacle and an emotive occasion, a tribute to the respect that so many had for the defender of the faith. But beyond the sheer scale of events, I’ve been in awe too at the size of the global audience.
It’s impossible to be precise, but it’s estimated that somewhere between four and five billion people tuned in live to watch the funeral, a Christian service.
The Queen’s reign has been bookended by huge televisual acts of worship. In 1953, her coronation effectively launched television to the world, or 277 million at least, many buying a TV set to watch.
Three decades later, 750 million watched her eldest son, Charles, marry Lady Diana Spencer. Twenty years after that, a billion watched their eldest son, William, marry Catherine Middleton.
Now, a decade after that, her funeral united the planet again, in a broadcast that CNN called ‘the end of television’. Never again will so many gather around TV sets at the same time. The media has fragmented into streaming services and devices. The British monarchy won’t see such long service from one person for some generations. By the time the Queen’s reign is overtaken, television will be long replaced by inhaled microchips or brain beams or who knows what.
So it was a daunting platform for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other clergy speaking that day. Yet in just five hundred words over six minutes, Justin Welby presented the gospel to half of God’s world.
Recently I preached for the first time in my own church. I perform once or twice a week in comedy clubs, and I studied theology, but this was a first for me. Thankfully my congregation wasn’t as big as the Archbishop’s – in fact it was just over a billionth of the size of his audience.
I don’t know who found it more daunting: me to a couple of dozen people in a church in Guildford, or Justin Welby to Westminster Abbey and his invisible congregation beyond. Maybe we’ll call it a draw.
I may have given my first sermon at the age of 43, but perhaps we’ve all been giving mini-sermons all our lives. We don’t have to speak to half the planet – it may be just to half of our family, or a friend in need, or a stranger in the pub. In every conversation, the weight of our words matter.
Early on in my comedy career, although I was a Christian, I hadn’t fully tied up my faith with the content of my stand-up set. I was never Frankie Boyle or Ricky Gervais, but I would do jokes that I’m not proud of now – that picked on people, maybe a celebrity or a group in society. On a couple of occasions I had complaints, and I defended my jokes, arguing free speech, artistic licence, or a good old sense of humour. Now I realise I lacked a sense of decency and respect. I was punching down, not punching up. I was doing down, not uplifting.
Daily, we have the capacity to impact someone’s life, sharing some of the beauty, creativity and hope that God has instilled in all of us. So I’ll continue to aim higher, to raise my gaze, to choose my words as carefully as the Archbishop chose his.
That may be the last time that we as a planet (or half of one) listen to one voice at one time, but I pray that we listen to the one voice of God, guiding our lives, our words and our daily encounters.
Oh and I’ll try and be funny. Just not in this article. Sorry.
Paul Kerensa is a writer, broadcaster and comedian, forever on tour. His show is bookable for churches. Paulkerensa.com
This article was published in the November 2022 edition of Reform