Part of a priest's job is writing and delivering a sermon to his flock. This is harder than it sounds, since it requires that he be both a good essayist and a good orator. What's more, the message he chooses to deliver has to be chosen with care... "good thing" he has help there in the form of some meddling authority.
A cleric subject to Pre-Approved Sermons either has his sermons pre-written by another person and is forced to read them as is, or has his own sermon heavily edited. Usually, the meddler is either the cleric's direct benefactor (owns the parish building) or a lay leader who finances the church. Even if the meddler has no material means to bully the priest in this way, he usually has such force of personality (aided by the priest being young or insecure) that he can get away with it.
Such meddlers do this for one or more reasons. Primarily, they believe they are best suited to spiritually lead the congregation, and so "help" the priest. They might instead/also have an obsession with controlling everything, especially sources of potential criticism or rebellion (pick up a history book, a good number of revolutions started behind a pulpit), or they out-and-out mean to "train" the populace to accept less than ideal living conditions directly or indirectly brought about by the meddler.
Expect the religious leader to either grow a backbone and speak out against the meddler at some point — at which point he may become an example of a Turbulent Priest — or have the meddler somehow be stopped from interfering.
Compare and contrast Suspiciously Specific Sermon, which the meddler might be trying to cause — or avoid.
- The bishop from V for Vendetta mentions building his sermons around the suggestions of Fate, the totalitarian government's supercomputer. (Neither this trope nor the supercomputer are present in the film version.)
- Chocolat had the mayor do this to the young priest who just came in. The first time he gets to make his own sermon marks when the town is finally 'healed' of the rift the chocolaterie and the mayor were in.
- Note that the Chocolat example only applies to the movie. In the book, the mayor character is actually the priest, and there is no younger priest character.
- Found in the 1960 movie of Pollyanna. I don't see how this sort of logic is supposed to follow. Stupid nosy Aunt Polly...
- Also found in the all-black remake in 1989, but interestingly, not in the original novel.
- The richest man (and biggest asshole) in a small town dies. His equally unlikeable brother goes to the priest and tells him that the eulogy will refer to the deceased as a saint, otherwise the donations to the church could find themselves very reduced indeed. On the day of the funeral, the priest rips into the dead man, calling him out on his lack of morals... before finishing with "...but compared to his brother, he was an absolute saint!"
- Pride and Prejudice had Mr. Collins submit all his sermons to Lady Catherine De Bourgh's editing and approval willingly.
- The Safehold series has the Church of God Awaiting operate like this. When Charis's bishop gives a sermon that comes very close to heresy by Church standards, it's taken as very serious by the Group of Four.
- In Trollope's The Chronicles of Barsetshire, the Bishop of Barchester is so dominated by his wife that she has significant input into the sermons he preaches.
- In an episode of Carnivàle, Brother Justin is given a pre-approved sermon which he starts to read then rips apart in favor of his own words. Not quite a heartwarming moment, as Brother Justin isn't exactly the good guy.
- To the Manor Born. One of the reasons the Rector would be glad if Audrey moved away is because as the former matron of the manor she would stick her nose into everything, including his sermons.
- Monsignor Renard. The BBC calls for citizens in Occupied France to stay off the streets in silent protest at the German occupation. The Germans announce they will give out free bread in the town square, and warn Renard to stay off politics in his Sunday sermon the day before. He does so, but pointedly finishes with "Man shalt not live by bread alone!"
- In the M*A*S*H episode "Alcoholics Unanimous", Frank Burns is left in temporary command, and as his wont, tried again to reimpose the 18th Amendment on the 4077th. This time, he strongarmed Fr. Mulcahy into giving a temperance sermon to help sell his initiative, making it a direct order that all camp personnel attend. It backfires spectacularly, as a nervous Mulcahy is given whiskey by Klinger to calm his nerves and he ends up delivering the Pre-Approved Sermon drunk.
- Something*Positive uses a similar plot line: a rich but very dour parishioner in Fred and Faye's church offers to buy a new baptismal fountain, but on the condition that the annual Easter festivities are canceled, since she sees them as distracting from the holiday's message of sin and salvation. She actually wins in the end, because even while most of the church disagrees with her, nobody but Faye and Fred are willing to do anything about it.
- In The Simpsons, Mr Burns financed the rebuilding of the church, intending to recoup the money from advertising. As part of the settlement, Rev. Lovejoy had to praise the sponsors in his sermons, which drove Lisa to leave the church.
- The Watch Tower Society has prepared a list of 100-odd different outlines for the public talk given at the Sunday meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses. One outline is used throughout the world each week, and the elder giving the talk expands it into a half-hour sermon. Not only that, but following each public talk is the reading aloud of the week's 5-page article from The Watchtower magazine.
- The Catholic Church—and all other liturgical churches (Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) schedules all of the readings of the Bible, divided into three liturgical years. The sermon for each Mass is supposed to follow the readings, and each reading has an interpretation or meaning decided by the Catholic Church. (The priest still creates the particular sermon, and adds in their own experiences and interpretations; they're simply not allowed, in theory, to speak against the interpretation of the Bible as given by the Catholic Church.)
- In the state-established [Lutheran] Church of Sweden, the Archbishop of Stockholm writes the sermon to be given in all the parish churches.
- In China, when Christian congregations are allowed to meet at all, they have to deliver state-approved sermons. This has led many evangelical groups to go underground and meet secretly to avoid the Party's gaze.