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Analysis of Contemporary British Preaching Styles

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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018

The concept of preaching

Chapter Two

Contextual Literature Review

2.1 Establishing a starting point.

Sermons are not a kind of discourse given much serious public attention in twenty-first century Britain. The very concept of preaching often brings with it negative connotations. To accuse any contemporary commentator of ‘preaching’ is to suggest that unsubstantiated opinions are being delivered in a tedious manner. That in such common usage ‘preaching’ is almost invariably a highly critical or even condemnatory epithet indicates something of the social standing of the practice of preaching. Preaching is not an activity that is generally thought of as either intellectually or emotionally engaging. It is, rather, something that is considered to be at best passé, and at worst wholly untrustworthy.

If challenged, those who speak of preaching in such pejorative terms will often cite the cultural distance in practice and understanding between contemporary society and the sermon form as the basis of their judgment. Mention will be made of the social irrelevance of the content of typical sermons, the perceived authoritarian position of the preacher, and the strangeness of the environment in which sermons usually occur. It is also likely that the methodology employed will be judged anachronistic, static, long-winded, and overly didactic for people used to the methods and time-frames of electronic media. The implication is that preaching is somehow out of place in modern society and that, therefore, the negative attitudes displayed in the colloquial use of the term ‘preaching’ is something new. It is fashionably contemporary to adopt a contemptuous or at best a jocular attitude towards preaching. I use the term ‘fashionably’ to emphasize that preaching is not the only discourse to receive such widespread opprobrium: advertising is similarly widely scorned yet, given the vast sums of money spent on it, is evidently effective nonetheless (Kilbourne, 1999: 34). Voiced contempt of preaching as a worthwhile actively is not necessarily to be taken at face value.

As has been stated in the introduction, this thesis seeks to present an analysis of contemporary British preaching as a practice of social mnemonics. As the idea of ‘social practice’ in that terminology refers to the whole of society rather than an interest group or a few like-minded people gathered together, such a perspective may appear to be an oxymoron given that recent poling suggests only just over six per cent of the adult population of the UK are churchgoers (see Brierley, 2008). This literature review will, nevertheless, seek to establish that Christian preachers who have reflected in depth on their practice in recent generations have invariably assumed that homiletics is an aspect of public discourse rather than an institutionally confined and specialized type of communication. In recent times, justifying that assumption has become more and more difficult, as this review will demonstrate. It has to be admitted that preaching no longer has the place in society-wide awareness it once enjoyed, despite the occasional headline making exceptions, such as Archbishop Robert Runcie’s sermon at the Falklands War Memorial Service on 26th June 1982 that reportedly so annoyed the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (Brown, 2000). Despite the decline in preaching’s social status, this study argues that there are always connections between homiletic theory and wider social discourse, and that discovering those connections is a mnemonic skill required of all preachers.

That many studies (for example, Ford. (1979); Bausch, (1996); and Day, Astley and Francis, (2005)) have observed that since at least the 1960s the idea of preaching as a worthwhile arena of social discourse has been repeatedly and vigorously questioned is part of the contextualization with which this thesis is concerned. That the very word ‘preaching’ brings with it negative connotations that touch even regular Christian worshippers, as N.T. Wright observes in his foreword to the Reader on Preaching (Day, 2005: ix), is part of the social understanding this study aims to examine. The colloquial usage that applies the word ‘preaching’ to the expression of any unsubstantiated opinions, or any speech delivered in a tedious manner, is not a prejudice that serious homiletic theory can simply ignore. That usage is widespread and is, for example, represented in the 1995 edition of the Oxford English Reference Dictionary where the second definition of ‘preach’ is ‘give moral advice in an obtrusive way’. Similarly, the use of the word ‘preaching’ as a highly critical or even condemnatory epithet is too frequent in newspapers to need much supporting elaboration. Andrew Rawnsley writing in The Observer on 13th July 2008 is but one example of a continuing journalistic convention. Rawnsley cited the drawbacks for politicians who preach in their campaigning via a long catalogue of negatives about the idea of preaching which included ‘delivering patronising lectures from a position of immense privilege’, ‘wringing their hands about the sins of the world without offering any practical answers to improve society’, and ‘simplified to the point of parody’. These kinds of associations related to the idea of preaching cannot be simply dismissed if it is to be argued that the practice of preaching within the churches is closely related to wider social trends. Instead, the contemporary bias that associates preaching with that which is intellectually lazy, emotionally sterile, untrustworthy, or simply passé, must be treated as a factor that needs to be addressed in considering the mechanisms of collective memory.

That said, it must also be acknowledged that the assertion that preaching’s low social esteem is a modern phenomenon is not wholly true. Like the contemporary negative connotations of preaching, the characterization of preaching as formerly being held in great social esteem, is a generalization that obscures as much as it discloses. In the famous passage concerning preaching in Anthony Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers the negativity usually judged as ‘modern’ is apparent even at the so-called ‘high-point’ of Victorian religious practice. Written between April 1855 and November 1856, Trollope’s words contain the same kind of criticisms and sense of hostility encountered colloquially nowadays. He wrote:

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. … … No one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sinbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God, without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons. (Trollope, 1995: 43-44)

Only the assumption that Sunday worship is the norm and the invariable gender of the preacher signifies Trollope’s diatribe as of another age. The notion of a static audience enduring a platitudinous and boring verbal presentation has an altogether familiar ring about it. As Colin Morris (1996: xi) points out, it is significant that the first series of the Lyman-Beecher Lectures on Preaching established at Yale University in the 1870s ended with a lecture entitled, ‘Is Preaching Finished?’ Needless to say, the lecture firmly declared that preaching had a future; but, put alongside Trollope’s criticisms, it demonstrates that negativity about sermons predates the age of mass electronic communication. In recent years, numerous influential homileticians have described preaching as being in crisis (for example, Jensen, (1993); Wilson, (1988); Morris, (1996)), but too often such worried analysis has overstated the contemporaneity of the problem.

2.2 The perception of a crisis in preaching.

Three recurring emphases are common to the arguments of those who see the crisis in preaching as something of recent origin, namely: a widespread loss of confidence in institutions; a change in socially learnt communicative skills; and the all-pervasive influence of television and associated vehicles of mass communication. So, to amplify those three aspects, the argument is usually made in the following kinds of terms.

First, not only has the severe decline in commitment to religious institutions in recent times resulted in far fewer people actually hearing sermons, even those who do experience preaching at firsthand are much less likely to treat sermons as being particularly significant than did their immediate forebears. Scepticism, and a questioning outlook that constantly raises issues of credibility, is part of the very air of social intercourse, and preaching has no social independence from such an atmosphere. Like every other voice, the preaching voice is one voice amongst a myriad of other voices, and is just as harried by questions of authenticity, doubt and competition as any other voice. Contemporary European society, it is said, has a fundamentally anti-authoritarian aspect to it that will not allow any single voice ultimate authority. Preaching, therefore, which is usually considered to require special and very particular authority being attributed to the preacher, is especially suspect. This, in turn, has ramifications for those who preach, since as individuals they are just as much influenced by these contextual pressures as anyone else. This means that preachers, whatever they claim in public, almost inevitably have less confidence in the preaching task than even their recent predecessors.

Second, in what the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo (2001: 230) has termed ‘a society of generalized communication’, the very nature of communication itself has profoundly shifted. It is as if everything in human experience has become an object of communication. This shift is often associated with consumerism because, it is argued, such a process of ever widening objects of communication allows more and more events, things, and relationships to become marketable commodities. This expansion, however, brings with it three difficult consequences: it vastly increases the number and range of communication ‘events’ each person encounters day by day, with a resulting loss in focus, concentration, and time spent on each one; it so stimulates the psychological and physical experience of each person that people’s boredom thresholds have decreased dramatically; and it makes communication itself part of the constantly changing, consumption dominated, arena of style and fashion. These things are particularly problematic for preaching since they mean hearers have ever shortening attention spans, feel they need to be stimulated by what they hear, and employ fashion-like judgments to both their readiness to listen and their willingness to respond (Rogness, 1994: 27-29). Coupled with these changes comes an emphasis on technique in communication, and a preference for labelling unacceptable ideas or challenges as a failure in communication. As a result preachers face intense pressures to conform, both in terms of the content of sermons and the techniques of presentation, to what is socially acceptable simply to gain a hearing. Accordingly, it is argued that the requirement to attract attention and engagement is of a wholly more onerous intensity than it ever was in past times. In the distracted age that is contemporary society the static commitment and attention required of sermon audiences is so counter-cultural as to be almost unachievable.

Third, the argument gives prominence to the absolute dominance of television as the popular medium, and characterizes contemporary culture as televisual and post-literate. It is said that through television, for the first time in the history of humanity, children are being socialized into image use prior to word use (see Warren, 1997). Consequently, the use of words is likely to no longer occupy the pole position in social discourse, but rather to occupy an inherently second order, commentary position. In other words, our culture has shifted from a reading-formed preference towards the ear over the eye, to an image-formed favouring of the eye over the ear, with an obviously detrimental effect on a word dominated form like preaching. Television also appears to be an open and democratized form of communication that offers the prospect of an absolutely free flow of information. It tantalizes with the notion that anything that happens will be almost instantaneously communicable; an impression further reinforced by the Internet. Of course there are serious criticisms to be made of these judgments, but they are nevertheless widely persuasive, at least at face value, both because of the sensory immediacy of the medium and because of the entertainment factors closely allied with it. In comparison preaching seems a highly subjectivized personal choice in which the preacher demands of an audience assent without prior consent and justification, and in which the factor of entertainment does not figure at all.

In a televisual world of a seemingly infinite number of stories, preaching’s insistence, as it is perceived, on the one story of God’s relationship with humanity in Jesus Christ seems partial and even tedious. Those who lived before the development of electronic media lived lives in which stories, colour, and pictures were rare and precious events; people of the televisual age inhabit a world alive with an ever changing array of images, colours and narratives. Is it any wonder then that preaching that developed as a communication technique in that pre-television world is thought of as having become outmoded?

Such are the usual parameters of the argument—broadly stated, no doubt, and perhaps caricatured a little—of recent scholarly analysis of the social location of the practice of preaching in contemporary European society. Interestingly, it is apparent that the scholarly commentary not only echoes colloquial opinion about the recentness of the relative decline of the authority afforded preaching, but also the reasons given for that decline. One of questions which this thesis seeks to address is whether such judgments adequately represent what is actually going on in the act of preaching, and whether by an all too easy assumption of preaching as an essentially distinctive activity somehow distanced from other forms of discourse such analysis does not fall prey to the very forces it is trying to counter.

After the hiatus caused by World War II, the BBC resumed television broadcasting in 1946, and the commencement of broadcasting by commercial stations in 1955 accelerated the use of the medium. By 1958 the number of British households with a TV exceeded those with only a radio (Mathias, 2006). Given the above discussion of the widely perceived influence of new electronic media and TV’s escalating use, the 1950s seem an appropriate starting point for the consideration of publications dealing with preaching. Quite apart from this more commonplace sense of a shift having taking place, scholarly analysis of both Church history and homiletics tends to support the idea that very significant changes relevant to the thesis topic did in fact occur at this period. Those changes were not necessarily recognized at the time; perhaps an indication of the lag that occurs as the memories of one generation gives way to those of a succeeding one. One British preacher, however, was alert to the possibility that something profound was happening. That preacher was a R. E. C. ‘Charlie’ Browne, a Manchester vicar, whose 1950s reflections on the preaching task turned out to be amazingly prescient of things that would become major concerns years later. Browne serves as a marker of change. It is sensible, therefore, to examine Browne in some detail before returning to the more general overview.

2.3 R. E. C. Browne as a marker of the changing social location of preaching.

R.E.C. Browne’s The Ministry of the Word was first published in 1958 in a series of short works entitled Studies in Ministry and Worship under the overall editorship of Professor Geoffrey Lampe. Lampe’s editorship lent theological credibility to a series that was notable on two counts. First, it was decidedly ecumenical (for example, two of the studies were by Max Thurian, who later became internationally known as the theological expositor of the ecumenical Taizé community); and second, it was written from a perspective that only later would be widely termed ‘applied’ or ‘practical’ theology. Browne’s book is the acknowledged masterpiece of the series and has been reissued three times since its first publication (1976, 1984 and 1994), as well as being published in the United States in 1982. Writing in 1986, Bishop Richard Hanson said of it:

This is no little volume of helpful hints about preaching but a profound study of the meaning and use of language in relation to theology and to faith, and one that will outlast all the ephemeral booklets about how to preach. (in Corbett, 1986: v)

Just why this work has been so frequently referred to in a wide variety of Christian traditions will be considered later, but for the purposes of the present discussion the crucial point is the historical context of its writing and publication.

Browne wrote the book whilst he was Rector of the parish of Saint Chrysostum, Victoria Park, Manchester in the 1950s. Ronald Preston, in a foreword to one edition of The Ministry of the Word, describes Victoria Park as having ‘moved rapidly since the 1920s from the remains of enclosed and privileged nineteenth-century affluence to near disintegration’ (in Browne, 1976: 10). He notes also, however, that the St Chrysostum’s relative proximity to the university and the city’s main teaching hospital made it a base from which Browne’s influence spread widely. Hanson records that it was a parish where the personality and abilities alone of the incumbent cleric could attract worshippers (Corbett, 1986: iv). In other words, several aspects of the social world that historians like Hastings (1986), Welsby (1984), and Hylson-Smith (1998) have characterized as typical of the 1950s were clearly likely to have been there in Browne’s experience of the ministerial life. For example, Welsby commenting on the monthly journal Theology in the two immediately post-war decades notes how it was widely read by parish clergy and acted as a connecting bridge between the concerns of academia and local church life, and concludes:

It is significant, however, that fundamental matters, such as belief in God or in Christ were seldom discussed in its pages, as though these theological foundations were secure and might be taken for granted. This could be a symbol of much of the theology of the forties and fifties. There was a self-confidence and security so that even those who did write about God, Christology, of the Church did so as though the basis of belief was unquestionably right. (Welsby, 1984: 67)

Elsewhere in the same book Welsby notes that the seeds of radical change were present in the 1950s but went unperceived, and he describes the atmosphere in the Church of England as one of ‘complacency and an apparent unawareness of trends already present which were to burst to the surface in the sixties’ (1984: 94). Browne most certainly did not share that unawareness and frankly acknowledged the difficulties of communicating the gospel despite the relatively secure social position of theological thought and institutional belief. Far from being in an unassailable authoritative position, he described preachers as living and preaching ‘in an age when there is general perplexity and bewilderment about authority’, and as all too unwittingly signifying that perplexity in the language and thought expressed in the pulpit (Browne, 1976: 33).

Browne would probably have concurred with Adrian Hastings’ opinion that in the ebb and flow of the intellectual tide in the twentieth century, the 1950s marked a high water point of sympathy for the Christian faith in contrast to the high point for secularism immediately after World War I (Hastings, 1986: 491), but he nevertheless argued that effective preaching required new symbols because new human knowledge has disabled the old ones (Browne, 1976: 107). Hastings, looking back on the times in which Browne wrote, asserts:

There was never a time since the middle of the nineteenth century when Christian faith was either taken so seriously by the generality of the more intelligent or could make such a good case for itself. (Hastings, 1986: 491)

Browne himself is rather more querulous in his reflections and quotes approvingly from Emmanuel Mounier:

There is a comfortable atheism, as there is a comfortable Christianity. They meet on the same swampy ground, and their collisions are the ruder for their awareness and irritable resentment of the weakening of their profound differences beneath the common kinship of their habits. The prospect of personal annihilation no more disturbs the contented sleep of the average radical-socialist than does horror of the divine transcendence or terror of reprobation disturb the spiritual digestion of the habitués of the midday Mass. Forgetfulness of these truisms is the reason why so many discussions are still hampered by naïve susceptibilities. Emmanuel Mounier, The Spoil of the Violent, Harvill Press, 1955: 25 (as cited in Browne, 1976: 109)

Browne was conscious that amongst the comforts of wide social acknowledgement and respect other more challenging forces were becoming apparent.

Browne is wary of any intellectual triumphalism on the part of preachers and insists that in attempting to address the atheist, or the wholly religiously indifferent ‘unperturbed’ post-atheist, it is always necessary to establish pastoral rapport first (1976: 110). Sometimes, he admits, such rapport will be impossible to establish (1976: 110). Paradoxically, as Hastings notes (1986: 492, 496), the 1950s were at one and the same time an era in which religion was considered seriously by a number of the great cultural and intellectual figures of the day (such as Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), Carl Jung (1875-1961), Graham Sutherland (1903-80), Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889-1975) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), to name just a few) and in which the radical agnosticism and secularism born of earlier times also flourished (for examples see the works of A.J. Ayer (1910-89), C.P. Snow (1905-80), A.J.P. Taylor (1906-90) and Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003)). Perhaps it was that Browne realized in a way other preachers did not, that although these two worlds of thought existed side by side the competition between them was not in any way equal. As Hylson-Smith observes, by the end of World War II the environmental context of all cultural activity was essentially secular (1998: 212). That point was a matter of essential concern to a preacher like Browne who regarded sermons as an artistic activity requiring similar processes of social understanding and interaction as those necessary to the production of music, poetry or painting (Browne, 1976: 18). Browne writes rather ruefully:

Christians have the naïve idea that the arts, specially drama, could and should be extensively used for the proclamation of the gospel. In the first place Christian artists cannot easily and quickly find a way of expressing Christian doctrine in a community which is not moved by Christian symbols. Indeed at present there is no common symbolism Christian or otherwise and Christian artists are found incomprehensible and disturbing by their fellow Christians who cannot justify the authority of new forms and somehow feel that old forms might be patched and brought up-to-date. In the second place whenever the church tries to use art as a method of propaganda her integrity and authority are severely questioned by just those whose conversion would be most significant. (1976: 35)

There is here an early recognition of that social forgetfulness of Christian symbols that would a generation later become a commonplace assessment of religious traditions in contemporary Britain.

For Browne the preacher’s purpose was to seek answers about the most profound aspects of human concern and experience with the single-mindedness and commitment of an honest artist. Easy answers to difficult questions, or formulaic responses to deep questioning, were to Browne a betrayal of preaching’s very purpose. For him nothing less than the artist’s earnest wrestling to express the inexpressible was good enough. It is hard to imagine that Browne was untroubled that the things of artistic expression, with one or two notable exceptions, seemed less and less concerned with religious ideas, and that the churches appeared indifferent to the fact (Hylson-Smith, 1998: 212).

As favourable to inherited ideas of religious expression as the climate of the 1950s appears viewed from the beginning of the twenty-first century, Browne, as a preacher active during those years, offers an altogether less sanguine appraisal. That his book dwells extensively on the issue of meaning and the use of language in relationship to the expression of faith indicates that he did not share the easy certainties regarding the communication of religious ideas that were still prevalent within the institutional church of his day. Browne’s commitment to preaching as a necessary part of Christian community life is absolute, but his insistence that its practice is most like the creation of a work of art or a poem makes plain its inherent limitations: the sermon can no more readily define the truth in absolute terms than can the artist or poet (1976: 18). Such an insistence shifts the authority given to preaching from one of power, described as ‘six foot above contradiction’, to the altogether different position implied in later years by terms such as Ford’s communicative ‘expertise which is self-authenticating’ (Ford, 1979: 235), or Taylor’s ‘fragile words’ (Taylor, 1998: 121). Like such later homileticians, Browne believed preachers should not claim too much for their efforts.

That reserve, however, should not be mistaken for a hesitation about the necessity or value of preaching. In his work there is no hint of the thought of later theorists who sought to abandon preaching completely. Browne’s reserve is a perceptive awareness that, to use the terminology of Adrian Hastings, although the ‘comfortably traditionalist’ church of his times was undergoing ‘a period of confident revival’ (1986: 504) it was in fact finding it harder and harder to connect with the generality of people in terms of shared symbols and meanings. Browne was ahead of his time in his recognition that the changing social context of ministry had direct ramifications for the power and authority of the preacher. He wrote:

What ministers of the Word say may seem too little to live on, but they must not go beyond their authority in a mistaken attempt to make their authority strong and clear. That going beyond is always the outcome of an atheistic anxiety, or a sign that the man of God has succumbed to the temptation to speak as a god, to come in his own name and to be his own authority. (Browne, 1976: 40)

Such sentiments are echoed in the more recent application of contemporary philosophy to preaching by the American scholar John S. McClure (2001). Nevertheless, in terms of homiletic theory in Britain in the twentieth-century, Browne’s was a voice that offered a new appreciation of the actual communicative environment in which sermons were placed. His book demonstrates that the radical calling into question of the methodologies of preaching pre-dates both the crisis noted by such commentators as Ford (1979) or Jensen (1993) and the colloquial assumption that in the 1950s, before the widespread use of television, the place of the sermon was assured.

This concern about preaching’s power to engage attention indicates that the shifts that will be analysed when this study returns to the consideration of collective memory must extend wide enough to include responses such as those of Browne. The unease with homiletic methodology that Browne’s work expressed provides a justification for this review using his analysis as its historical starting point. Consequently, there now follows an overview of trends in preaching since Browne’s book that aims to provide both general orientation and a framework within which works discussed later can be placed.

2.4 Trends in the theory and practice of preaching since the mid 1950s.

O.C. Edwards in his A History of Preaching notes that the 25 year period ending in 1955 turned out to be the high-point of the social standing and influence of traditional Protestant churches (2004: 665). Whilst that judgment may seem too effusive and unqualified when applied to the United Kingdom, it does, nevertheless, indicate the reality of the institutional confidence that was prevalent in churches on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. That confidence had direct ramifications for preaching: as Hastings puts it, ‘in the immediate post-war years preaching as both art and edifying was still alive and cherished’ (1986: 462). The comment comes in a passage in A History of English Christianity 1920 – 1985 (1986: 436-472) that deals with the Free Churches, in which Hastings cites the influential preaching ministries of Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1975), W.E. Sangster (1900-1960), and Donald Soper (1903-1998)—all of whom drew large numbers to hear them preach. In the same section of his book, however, comes this stark conclusion:

The mid-1950s can be dated pretty precisely as the end of the age of preaching: people suddenly ceased to think it worthwhile listening to a special preacher. Whether this was caused by the religious shift produced by the liturgical movement or by the spread of television or by some other alteration in human sensibility is not clear. But the change is clear. (1986: 465)

Hastings is perhaps a little too hesitant in his judgement about what prompted this change. Although numerous theological and social factors were obviously significant, the turn towards television as a predominating pastime must surely have been the crucial prompter of change in the way people spent their time.

That preaching, at the beginning of the 1950s at least, remained dominated by agendas and styles drawn from previous generations is evident in the fact that a number of books from those earlier times remained in frequent use. Bishop Phillips Brooks had delivered his eight lectures on preaching at Yale Divinity School in the Lyman Beecher Lectureship of January and February 1877, but his advice was still considered pertinent enough to warrant the publication of a British fifth edition in 1957. Similarly, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Lyman Beecher lectures of the winter of 1923-4, entitled The Modern Use of the Bible, were last re-issued in their published form as late as 1961; and Leslie Weatherhead’s Lyman Beecher lectures of 1948-9, although only published in part in his book Psychology, Religion and Healing in 1957, was re-issued in 1974. Two crucial points are suggested by the longevity of these works: first, although the 1950s do indeed mark a watershed in preaching’s social location, it is clear that the consequences of that change were not apparent with the same force, nor at the same rate,


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