Do women preach with a different ‘voice’?

ImageThis 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.

518vAgjiS0LWomen’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.

41ZCJ35T48LMargaret 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.)

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9 thoughts on “Do women preach with a different ‘voice’?”

  1. Yes, an excellent introduction to a positive area of study.
    The thought that really grabbed me though was this one which applies to all…….

    “If preachers hide behind their words rather than reveal something of themselves, hearers are unlikely to detect the authenticity they seek.”

    This I believe is about half of the reason for the decline of the church over the last few generations. The unreality and disconnected-ness between what we preach and how we behave as Christians. People are looking for reality. Perhaps the preaching of women as women could help to address this?

  2. Hi Ian, thanks for your responses on Twitter, I’ll try to keep this coherent:

    Liz in fact identifies the problems that occur to me with “preaching as a woman”: that the subconscious aim of reclaiming ground sidelines the message (“And what should be the authority balance between Scripture and feminist critique?” – hopefully that’s a rhetorical question), but equally that *not* recognising gender differences “smacks of secular individualism”. Unfortunately I don’t think she really considers either in the remaining article.

    We ended up tweeting about what are two quite different issues: firstly, are there truths in Scripture that men *cannot* see, because they are men? This article speaks of “material hidden from men readers.” That is more than a different perspective. My point to you was that The Spirit illuminates Scripture to us, and if there is “no male or female” in Christ Jesus, is there any basis for stating that there is Scripture men will never understand without women? And if so, can we just check ourselves by making sure we agree with the inverse: is there Scripture that women will never understand without men enlightening them?! Thanks to our current social climate, the latter sounds an awful lot less acceptable.

    But if, for arguments’ sake, we say that there is no difference in *understanding* Scripture between the genders, but it is our ability to relay this to the congregation that might well benefit from feminine insights and experience – to explain it in ways they may better be able to relate to – I suppose there is an argument. But is this necessary? Don’t statistics tell us that our congregations are overwhelmingly female anyway? Isn’t there a “crisis of men” in the church? So in what way are women failing to be adequately fed by the male-oriented delivery from the pulpit?

    As a more overarching point, I personally believe that there is actual Truth to be found in Scripture, not an endless variety of “what does this mean to you?” – surely the most mind-numbing question of the classic, banal, poorly-led Bible study. I don’t in fact agree that there are hundreds of different interpretations of each verse, each of them as valid as the next. There are often quite hidden, spiritual meanings. But ultimately, I think with study and with inspiration, two people of either gender should be able to uncover the wealth hidden in the Bible. I see it to be a modern and frankly self-centred approach to be asking “who is God… to me?”, “what does this mean… to me?”, as if God owes each of us a personalised version of His Word!

    Finally, and I don’t want to make this too ranty, but this article has faint whiffs of the sort of unequal thinking rife in the world of feminism. That men and women are equal, equally able, the same, we’re all as capable as each other… *until* there is some special role that feminine intuition/experience/whatever makes women particularly good at. And similarly, the equivalent to “men’s sin” is not “women’s sin” but “women’s oppression.” So we read that men are proud (sinful, they need rebuking!) whereas women feel helpless or powerless (they need nurturing, reassuring of their loved status and so on). Aren’t those helpless people going to inherit the kingdom of God?! So it’s not really a SIN, is it?!

    Could the author or the authors she quotes really not come up with anything genuinely *sinful* that women have a tendency towards? Other than the old CV gem: “weaknesses: well, I’m a bit of a perfectionist (ho ho…)”.

  3. I’ve never considered this before. Do women preach with a different voice than men? Possibly, although I think that has more to do with women being actively encouraged to ‘share’ rather than preach – the idea behind this being that women are uncomfortable handling scripture, but are happy to tell stories from their lives. I find this patronising, but in my experience, it’s quite common.

    On the flip-side, I’ve been fortunate to hear men preaching regularly and with great vulnerability and sensitivity. I don’t think the ability, or willingness, to do this belongs exclusively to women.

    On the question of pride – this is my most definitely my besetting sin! And when I preach, I have a tendency towards apologetic preaching, rather than narrative preaching. I think I must be a man!

  4. Tom critiques the dualistic and stereotypical view of feminist thinking that I tried to get away from in my article. I did not set out to explore either a reclaiming of the pulpit, nor individualistic thinking, but to find a different approach that neither compromises Scripture nor discounts feminine insight.

    In order to move the argument on a little from whether or not there are truths in Scripture that only men ‘see’ or only women ‘see’, let’s consider the same question from a different perspective. Are there truths in Scripture that only ethnic minorities see, for example? Or does the Western church have a particular view of certain passages of Scripture? I think they do. I think it’s true to say that while all American presidents have claimed a faith in God, they have never believed in a God who disagrees with them politically. Or consider the alternative interpretations of the story of the Tower of Babel. In general, Western churches have interpreted this to mean that God confused the languages of the world, in order that people might not collaborate to challenge His authority. The underlying view is that having a single language is a good thing. Coincidentally these churches are based in post colonial nations that imposed a single language on the territories they controlled. On the other hand, one two-thirds world interpretation of the same passage is that in ‘confusing’ the languages, God was in fact restoring identity to the oppressed, freeing them from the dominance of a political superpower. Both interpretations are valid, but each speaks out of and into a particular situation and experience.

    Now let’s come closer to home. The story of David and Bathsheba is well known. It is almost always expounded as David not being where he should have been, being tempted by a woman cavorting on the roof and hence falling into sin. That is a clear message for men. But what about if we preached it from a female perspective? Bathsheba was innocent, she was on the roof because the Jewish law said that after menstruation women had to bathe in clean rainwater. The water should not have run through any pipework, so the most practical way of getting it was to collect it in a bathing area on the roof. Curtained bathing areas used for such purposes were common. Whilst Bathsheba is fulfilling her religious duty a powerful man commands her to come to him and forces her to have sex with him. And the man is a ‘man of God’. Whenever the passage is preached purely from David’s point of view the hidden message is that Bathsheba’s plight does not matter. Statistics tell us that there is a very strong likelihood that in the congregation will be at least one woman who is abused in some way at home. And what she will learn is that the church believes she should put up with it. Every year for the past five years I have had at least one woman student training for ministry who has been told by her church leader (Anglican) that she must put up with abuse from her husband because that is what God requires.

    The “who is God to me?” question entirely misses the point. If we approach Scripture with that view we end up with multiple superficial ideas of God. Certainly God does not owe each of us a personalised version of His word. Neither, however, does he confine his self-revelation to a single gender, or nation, or culture. He is greater than each singly, and than all collectively. But we all, men and women, rich and poor, Western or Eastern, read His word from a particular experience of life and faith. God is gracious enough to deal with each. Jesus always began where people were – the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, Nathaniel, Thomas, Peter.

    Does the presence of women in church necessarily imply that women are nurtured in discipleship? I don’t think so. Attendance might be prompted by a range of motives – friendship, loyalty, desire for food, need to serve.

    Some of Tom’s response relies on very particular interpretations of certain words. He calls for something “genuinely sinful” – what might be included here, I wonder. From Genesis onwards the Bible speaks particularly harshly of sin that leads to broken relationship. Jesus is more critical of the religious than of anyone else. In my article I make particular mention of Guenther’s comments on pride. Pride is thinking too much of oneself, women’s sin is thinking too little. Is that a guiltless sin, as Tom seems to suggest? No. Paul tells us to have a true estimate of ourselves. I don’t have time to develop this argument now, but I suspect that thinking too lowly of ourselves as women allows books such as Fifty Shades of Grey to flourish – after all, it isn’t men buying it!

    The penultimate paragraph sets up a caricature of feminism and then takes an easy shot at it. Were this indeed the world of feminist theology I would probably agree with the critique. The description is inadequate. There is no need for such a dualistic approach either to feminism or theology. I do not think that I anywhere imply that a woman’s approach is better than a man’s or that women’s sins are not real sins, or that we are only equal until women have a special contribution. In fact, I say that enabling both men and women to enter into each other’s worlds might lead to a bigger view of the God whom we worship and proclaim.

    When Paul says we are all one in Christ Jesus, I think he meant that we are all pieces in one jigsaw, which when put together provides a greater picture of God.

  5. Frankly I think the question is redundant – I wouldn’t dream of preaching ‘as a woman’ although that’s what I am. I would find such an approach self-conscious in the extreme and more than likely to derail me from an honest and open analysis of Scripture. When we preach, we preach what we believe to be God’s word and the Holy Spirit which inspired it continues to inspire us – we hope! – whether we are men or women.

    • But we all preach as we are…and we all have insights and blindspots. The problem Liz highlights is that we mostly put up with the insights and blindspots of men…and miss out on the insights of women.

      Seems like a good observation to me…!

    • The real lack of honesty in any analysis and portrayal of Scripture is to assert that this can be done from a neutral paradigm which is unaffected by the preacher’s own leanings.

      It is not a negative thing to be self conscious whilst preaching but crucially important to be aware of how the lens through which we read, interpret and apply affects the process.

      More over, even if it were possible to not preach out of who you are, would you really want to? Most preachers would hope for a congregation to engage personally with what is being said. Can a preacher achieve this if they have not engaged with a subject personally themselves? Again, personal engagement can never be neutral.

      Like all characteristics assigned to the different genders (other than physical ones) we are all on a scale of what could be described as masculine to feminine. (Perhaps Sarah is more masculine than most and I would say that in many ways I am quite feminine). However, if we could agree that preaching from who we are is important then surely our gender is a significant enough facet of our make up to make this an interesting and valuable area of study.


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