In my PhD research, several young Christian women studying at university shared with me how significant they found sermons in how they understood and lived out their faith. Author Elisabeth Smith found that ‘people in the pew are in some sense preparing to speak the message of the sermon in the context of their own lives.’ In other words, those of us that have responsibility for preaching do something important.
Yet as a woman, preaching is one of the main spaces in which I am most aware of my gender and physicality. Preaching is something that has taken me some time to come to terms with, and even enjoy. My voice, although clear, is small and high pitched. I am too short for most pulpits and borrowing vestments makes me look (and feel) like a child playing dress-up. Author Virginia Purvis-Smith writes, ‘When a clergywoman preaches from a pulpit, she enters a space which… has been occupied, and its character defined by, male presence for centuries.’
The first time I preached a full sermon, I began with words to the effect of ‘bear with me, I am new at this.’ A feminist liturgist and poet who happened to be in the congregation spoke to me afterwards. She thanked me for my sermon but said something like ‘Never apologise, never apologise for who you are, you have been given authority by this church to speak, same as anybody else.’ It was great advice, and the “impostership” that I feel a lot of the time has gradually decreased when I am preaching because I make a conscious effort to claim this authority and trust my voice.
Do women preach differently? In content, style or emphasis? Susan Durber observes in her collection of women’s sermons that ‘preaching can be something transforming and life-giving,’ and I have preached some liberating sermons – liberating both for me and for others.
In preaching, there is a need to name and validate women’s voices, experiences and silences – both biblical women, and women of today. Pastoral theologian Brita Gill-Austern observes that being immersed in a patriarchal Christian tradition contributes to women’s loss of a sense of their self and voice. I argue that, in fact, the tradition should be one that enables women to find that voice and speak it out loud – as has been my own, albeit gradual, journey.
Jenny is Assistant Curate at North Lambeth Parish in south London. She is writing a PhD looking at the faith lives of Christian women at university. She enjoys wild swimming in the sunshine, knitting and red wine. She tweets from @jellydidit