Gardner Taylor has a voice rich as gumbo, round as a sumo wrestler, deep as the ocean floor. He has an accent born in Louisiana swamp country and aged in Brooklyn. One of America's most celebrated preachers for half a century, the man is so good in the pulpit that first-time listeners say "amen" even if they understand only every third word.
Fred Craddock's skill at storytelling makes Garrison Keillor sound like Homer Simpson, and when he lasers in from his yarn to his point you see why surveys of America's ministers routinely rank him among the country's best sermon-givers.
So Taylor and Craddock sharing a pulpit yesterday morning was a little like Newman and Streep in a film together or Gates and Buffett at the same boardroom table. The two legends closed this week's Festival of Homiletics (the fancy word for preaching) in Washington, a gathering of about 800 mainline Christian clergy members from across the United States and Canada -- one of the largest preaching conferences in the country.
Their sermons reflected on a major issue for today's preachers: the often conflicting demands between their roles as chastisers and as caretakers, especially in difficult times. This is a tough time to be a preacher, a number of participants said. There's plenty to preach about -- from Iraq to same-sex marriage -- but such meaty issues tend to divide and bruise the folks in the pews.
In the austere grandness of National City Christian Church in Northwest, Taylor, once a close ally of Martin Luther King Jr., chastised like a prophet. A photograph of a snarling dog inches from a fearful Iraqi prisoner on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post was "one of the most degrading photographs ever to meet the human eye," Taylor thundered. Then he compared that image to the snarling dogs set on civil rights marchers in Birmingham in the 1960s.
Civilization, Taylor lamented, was born "on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates" -- the great rivers of Iraq -- "and it looks like that's where it may end."
Craddock, meanwhile, worried about the emotional life of preachers called to deliver such controversial messages. "I wish someone had told me," he said, "how difficult it is to preach prophetically when you know your congregation is not with you."
That drew a murmur of recognition from the clergy in the pews. One was the Rev. Patrick McCoy of Trinity Presbyterian Church in McKinney, Tex., north of Dallas. He leads a church of 700 mostly conservative members and has been struggling to find the words to express his misgivings about the war in Iraq.
"I've been sort of probing" around the subject, he said quietly during a break. What words, what approach, can reach both critics of the war and the woman in McCoy's church whose son has seen battle in Fallujah? "I think our hope," he said, "is to let the Gospel begin to address the question rather than choose a perspective within the congregation.
"I have a feeling the Gospel will make us all uncomfortable."
The Rev. Jim Somerville, pastor of First Baptist Church in Northwest -- which hosted the festival -- has been more direct with his congregation, which runs the gamut of political views. At the church of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter, Somerville preached against the war before it began and returned to the subject last week, not long after he had tackled the sensitive topic of gay rights.
"It's hard," he said, "because you're speaking to people you love. You don't want to hammer them over the head week after week. But sometimes the very best thing you can do for your congregation is to tell them the truth no matter how hard it is."
Some churches and some preachers build reputations for tackling the edgy stuff, both from conservative perspectives and from liberal ones. Most preachers, however, have some variety in their flocks, and these ministers are "walking a tightrope" in tense times, according to Lucy Lind Hogan, professor of preaching at Wesley Theological Seminary.
"Jesus had it easy," she joked after her presentation. "He could preach to people and then leave." Most preachers must live the weekdays with the same people they may feel called to admonish on Sunday.
The frequent result, said James Forbes, the acclaimed preacher of New York's Riverside Church, is "hoop-skirt syndrome," by which he meant sermons "that cover everything but touch on nothing."
Judging from the lectures, sermons and informal conversations that made up the 12th annual festival, this tightrope is just the latest of many tests facing contemporary preachers. Ministers described lives quite different from those of pastors a generation or two ago.
Church-switching is common -- preach too many controversial sermons, and you may find your flock has fled. Attention spans are dwindling. The endless demands on a minister's time, from hospital visits to youth group ski trips to updating the church Web site, leave little space to prepare as many as 48 weekly sermons plus who-knows-how-many eulogies, wedding homilies and newsletter messages.
All of which explains the proliferation of books, tapes and Internet sites devoted to sermon aids. In the basement of First Baptist, long tables were loaded with paperbacks bearing titles such as "Stories for Preachers" and "Preaching for Gen-X" and "Children's Sermons to Go."
The religious publishing giant Zondervan issues a fat book every year -- "The Zondervan Pastor's Annual" -- that offers a week-by-week guide to the Lectionary (a standardized set of Bible readings that rotates each year) complete with sermon outlines, illustrative stories and appropriate hymns.
The bestselling Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," goes even further, encouraging ministers to download his sermons and deliver them word-for-word.
Prepackaged sermons are a blight on today's churches, Hogan preached in a session that made a number of listeners uncomfortable. And reciting entire sermons is even worse, she said. "It is wrong to preach the sermon of someone else if your congregation thinks you wrote it."
But there's plenty of good preaching going on in spite of everything. A parade of pulpit stars -- some rising, others venerable -- proved that in sermons spread over the week. At a preaching conference, you discover that ministers really belt out their hymns when they get together and that there is no single way to create a good sermon.
There's the dry wit of Duke University's William Willimon, the lilting multiculturalism of Kenyan-born R. Grace Imathiu, the thrilling imagination of Washington's Beecher Hicks Jr., the intellectual loft of Fleming Rutledge, former rector of Manhattan's Grace Episcopal Church.
What they have in common is the knack for taking very old lessons and sometimes enigmatic tales and making them fresh by a mixture of analysis, anecdote, insight and performance. These men and women clearly believed -- as did their hundreds of listeners -- that preaching is still highly relevant, even when it's hard.
"Is there any time more crucial than this time," Somerville asked from the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday, "when the whole of humanity seems to be marching in lockstep down the path that leads to destruction -- is there any time more crucial to say, 'You can turn around'?"