This is a guest post by Liz Shercliff, who is Diocesan Director of Studies for Readers, Chester, and teaches for All Saints’ Centre for Mission and Ministry.
‘Jesus calls us to be fishers of men,’ declaimed the preacher to a somewhat bemused baptism congregation. Being fishers was not an image that sprang immediately to mind, other than perhaps angling by the side of the local lake. But more importantly, what might fishing for men mean to the rather attractive, well dressed woman who was now addressing them? The very fact that the phrase was lifted from one of the Gospels and repeated by a woman without too much thought caused confusion in the minds of the hearers.
Whether or not women preach with a different voice from men, the fact that the preacher is a woman can mean that the message is heard differently. Dissonance between message and messenger result in hidden meanings being transmitted, as well as what is actually spoken.
The key question for preachers, however, is, ‘Is it delivered differently?’
Christianity, from the beginning, has been an incarnated faith. Some will say that it was incarnated in Jesus, God in the form of a man, and that it should therefore continue to be incarnated in men. This is not the place to enter that debate. Suffice it to say that I write from the perspective of a faith incarnated in all, men and women, who seek to follow Christ. Indeed, I would argue that unless the faith is incarnated in women too, it is only presented in part to those around.
There are two interlinked questions about women’s preaching: do women preach with a different ‘voice’ from men? And should they?
Ask a group of sixty or so students training for ordained and licensed ministries, who therefore spend a great deal of time listening to, preparing and evaluating preaching, and the response is a resounding ‘yes’, though few could articulate the reason for their answer.
A quick literature review yields little fruit, with the vast majority from America, where the history of women preaching is very different. While books about women’s ministry through the ages, women in mission and feminist interpretations of difficult texts abound, there is little that encourages women to develop a style that is true to their sex. Susan Durber published Preaching Like A Woman in 2007, some time ago now, in which she argues for a deliberately feminist approach to preaching and presents several of her own sermons. Since then innovative work has been thin on the ground, and some of the writing done on women in ministry has avoided speaking of preaching.
Whether or not women’s preaching is in some way distinctive is often addressed with certain trepidation. Feminists seem to suggest that women should consciously preach differently, in order to reclaim space defined and held by men. Conservatives (of both catholic and evangelical persuasion) tend to avoid an answer in the affirmative in case it might challenge the authority of church or Scripture. Perceived differences are therefore more likely to be attributed to personality type than to gender.
Both approaches carry significant risk. If a sermon is about relating Word to world for the present congregation, to what extent might a conscious intent to claim back occupied territory compromise the preacher, the sermon or even the Scripture? And what should be the authority balance between Scripture and feminist critique? On the other hand, denying difference between sexes by attributing all difference to personality smacks of a secular individualism anathema to the community of the church, whilst also ignoring all we know about collective memory and shared experience.
Conscious and Unconscious Difference
Women do seem to preach with a different voice from men, whether intentionally or otherwise. They communicate differently even Elizabeth Aries (Men and Women in Interaction, 1996), who questioned the widely accepted research on this came to the conclusion that while not all women communicated differently from all men, the sexes did exhibit different tendencies); they come to faith differently (Nicola Slee, Women’s Faith Development, 2004); their life experience is different. Each of these characteristics will influence the way women preach.
Women’s unconscious voice might include a tendency toward narrative rather than apologetic preaching (on average women use 20,000 words a day, while men use only 7,000); greater focus on stories and illustrations from everyday life; vulnerability — but only if women are encouraged to preach authentically, rather than to emulate the preaching of male colleagues or lecturers.
Of course, unconscious communication is not always positive, and the preacher who feels that they are on ‘foreign’ territory or have no right to be where they are will, at least in part, communicate as much to their hearers. Equally, the woman who from childhood has learnt to win approval by ‘girlish’ behaviour might unconsciously fall into that when preaching.
It is when women preach consciously as women that they have the most to offer. Durber suggests that women use preaching to reclaim ground (the pulpit) that has traditionally belonged to men. From a feminist perspective such a view has much to recommend it. I believe that there are more important reasons for women to preach as women. Firstly, women’s joint experience is of life in a patriarchal society; as members of the less powerful group. While men are able to preach about marginalisation from an academic perspective, in Britain it is very difficult for a male preacher to preach with authenticity about the experience of being marginalised. For most women preachers, powerlessness will have been lived at one level or another. When the preacher identifies this honestly, the Gospel is more likely to sound real to those in the pew.
A Wider Perspective on Scripture
Secondly, women reading Scripture self-consciously as women should find much material there that is hidden from men readers. Google sermons on David and Bathsheba, for example, and you will likely find many that portray David as weak, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even Bathsheba as a temptress. Few pick up on the key words ‘she was cleansing herself after her period’ (2 Samuel 11.4 NRSV). Bathsheba was obeying the religious law when the king called for her because he wanted to have sex with her. Even the story of the death of the child who follows this act is usually told from the man’s perspective. Women preachers should be in a position to fully explore stories such as this and gain from them comfort for those who are abused and oppressed. In other ways, the exploration of what is really happening in biblical texts, particularly to those on the edges of the story should encourage women to see their own value to God. The church has too long promoted a Gospel in which men are the heroes and women the ill, weak or sinful. Preaching that regularly explores events from a liminal perspective should encourage Christians to develop a more enquiring mindset when approaching Scripture.
The problem, of course, is that colleges and courses training people for ministry do not train women as preachers distinct from men. Perhaps the larger problem is that courses on preaching are predominantly taught by men, and the masculine approach is deemed to be the ‘norm’. There is a danger of depending on the structure of sermons as communication and slotting preachers into them, instead of recognising and developing the strengths and communication styles of the sexes and exploring ways of using them to full effect in preaching. Again, I do not envisage a dualistic divide, but a spectrum or tendencies and experiences.
Preaching that Speaks to Women (and Men)
My third point is probably the most contentious. Sermons based on a patriarchal view of spirituality and discipleship tend to focus on masculine weaknesses, while feminine failures are seldom mentioned. Typically, we might hear pride and selfishness denounced and care for others promoted – and many women in the congregation will not feel challenged, because they can point to the number of others they care for.
Margaret Guenther (Holy Listening, 1992) says, ‘The time I have spent listening to women’s stories has convinced me that there are distinctly feminine patterns of sinfulness, and that pride is not women’s besetting sin … even as they talk of pride they are feeling worthless and powerless’. Saving suggests that ‘temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man’. At any rate, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the widely accepted definition of sin as prideful does not match the experience spiritual directors and theologians have of women.
A sermon addressing these issues might deal quite differently with Romans 12:3 than one approaching the text from a purely androcentric perspective. ‘Thinking of oneself with sober judgement,’ might mean recognising strengths as well as identifying weaknesses.
Slee (2004) found that the ‘majority [of women] offered explicitly relational models of faith … understanding faith as being in relation with God and/ or the Other’. They are more likely to think of sin as broken relationship rather than specific wrongdoing. In a recent TED talk Rita Pierson spoke of the importance of authentic relationship in order to support development. She was speaking of children, but the same is likely to be true of adults, that we only really learn from those we feel we know and can trust. If preachers hide behind their words rather than reveal something of themselves, hearers are unlikely to detect the authenticity they seek. Paul was able to say ‘be imitators of me’ because the Christians at Corinth had got to know him. Preaching that appeals to women, and is true to female tendencies, is perhaps more relational than academic (although sound study should stand behind it) taking hearers on a journey through the passage, rather than presenting propositions about it, and including aspects of the preacher’s own faith.
Unless preachers, particularly women preachers, get to grips with preaching about the experiences of women, the faith will not be truly embodied for the whole community. While women, I believe, should preach as women they should avoid speaking only to women. The aim should be to image God better by preaching, and hearing, human, gendered sermons rather than androgynous sermons aimed at homogenous congregations. This will benefit both women and men, by allowing them to enter into each others’ experience and understanding of God, maybe by opening Scripture differently, and by offering a bigger picture of the One we seek to follow.
Do women preach with a different voice from men? I think so.
Should they do so? Yes, for the sake of a holistically incarnated gospel.
The next question might be ‘should churches and training institutions do anything about it?’
(This was first published in The Preacher (No 154), journal of the College of Preachers.)