Elocution expert gives trainee ministers secret to better sermons

Rikki Fulton's comic character Rev IM Jolly has been used as a teaching aid. Picture: Contributed
Rikki Fulton's comic character Rev IM Jolly has been used as a teaching aid. Picture: Contributed
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Trainee Church of Scotland ministers are encouraged to learn poetry, keep scrap books and wear loose clothing to improve their sermons.

Elocution expert Richard Ellis claims great homilies are given by those people who drink lots of water, learn how to breathe properly, do not smoke and know how to tell a good story.

Mr Ellis, 71, has trained hundreds of preachers in the art of speech-making over the past 35 years. He said the character Rev IM Jolly, created by comedian Ricki Fulton, was a “wonderful teaching aid”.

One of his predecessors in the post, which is known as the Fulton Lectureship, was the Scots character actor Alastair Sim, who went on to star in the St Trinian’s films.

Mr Ellis is leaving his role at Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity (New College) to move south to Lincoln. His career has seen him watch his students in action at more than 800 church services – the equivalent of never missing a Sunday sermon for 16 years.

Reflecting on his time at New College since he started in 1981, Mr Ellis said: “It has been wonderful. I planned to stay for three years but it has been a very interesting job.”

Commenting on the sheer number of services he has watched and given feedback on over the years, Mr Ellis said: “It’s a lot. I was asked to hear everyone in New College twice in their three years of training and then my role expanded to include the candidates from Glasgow and St Andrews.

“My main role was to enhance the voice that they had and to give them coaching on things like sustaining eye contact with the listeners, rhythm and pace, storytelling and gestures.

“I also advised on the structure of the sermon, how they might organise the material, how they might use humour and visual aids. I never met Rikki Fulton, but I must say his Rev IMJolly was a wonderful teaching aid. I also introduced recording candidates in action so they could watch themselves back, which was a great help.”

Recalling the most memorable sermon he heard in church, Mr Ellis said: “During the height of the Cold War in 1983, the candidate at Gorgie Parish Church in Edinburgh gave an apocalyptic sermon on the nuclear winter which was then being discussed.

“He got up and there were rumbles of thunder in the background. When he went up to the pulpit there was a flash of lightning and all the lights went out except for a small glow over the pulpit.”