Exposing the sin of sexism: The prophetic task of the woman preacher
Guest post by Liz Shercliff
Not too long ago followers of the Lectionary will have been reading the Old Testament book of Esther, a story of two women who resist patriarchy, and as a result, save the Jewish people. Vashti refuses to bow to the bullying posturing of her husband, and is banished in case other wives follow her example. Esther, a victim of human-trafficking, takes Vashti’s place, and likewise challenges the hierarchy. It’s all led me to think about resistance, and particularly, since I am a preacher and teacher of preaching, about preaching as resistance.
Both Vashti and Esther resisted the male dominated culture of their time to make their voices heard. Without Vashti, there could have been no Esther – as so often happens, a woman prepared the way for another woman, who had greater impact.
Somewhere along the way, all women preachers resist, whether consciously or otherwise. The very fact that we speak publicly challenges the culture around us. Women have fewer opportunities to be heard than men in the contemporary world. Not only are women paid less, and less well represented at senior levels in almost all areas of life, they are heard less too, because the media generally paraphrases what women say, while reporting verbatim the contributions of men. The very fact of standing and expecting to be heard makes women’s preaching an act of resistance.
When women stand to preach, they are first seen; seen to be women, in the kind of woman’s body often used to undermine or demean. Politically, reports of meetings between then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, focussed, in some newspapers, on the women’s shoes and legs.
More recently, The Spectator magazine headlined an article about the new Bishop of Dover, Rt Rev Rose Hudson Wilkin, “Dangly earrings, hugs and controversy”, starting with her appearance rather than her remarkable record as chaplain to both the Queen and the Speaker of the House of Commons. Virginia Purvis-Smith wrote in 2005 “When a clergywoman preaches from a pulpit, she enters a space which has particular aesthetic value, for this space has been occupied, and its character defined by male presence for centuries.” (Virginia Purvis-Smith, Gender and the Aesthetic of Preaching, 2005).
There is no possibility of being seen as ‘neither male nor female’. Even if our congregation does not consciously think of us as women, the culture that has formed us ensures that what we see is linked with a range of unrecognised expectations. When differences are not acknowledged, they are unconsciously assumed. Michael Kimmel, in a TED Talk on gender, tells how he realised his own privileged position as a white man, by overhearing a conversation between two women. The black woman said to the white “What you see when you look in the mirror is a woman. What I see when I look in the mirror is a black woman. We do not share the same privileges.” When Kimmel heard this, he realised that what he saw when he looked in the mirror was “a human being”. It revolutionised his thinking. Regarding himself as a generic human-being assumed everyone was like him. When he realised his own position he could understand his biases. When women preachers intentionally preach as women, we are able to explore women’s experiences of God, life and sin.
Recognising women’s experiences opens new ways to speak of faith and the Bible. Too often, sin is spoken of from entirely male perspectives, in terms of pride, or lack of humility. Writers and researchers have, for some time, found that “the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man” (Valerie Saiving, The Human Situation: A Feminine View, 1960). Counselling women supports the view: “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” (Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening, 1992). Women tend to think of sin not in terms of wrong doing, but as broken relationship (Nicola Slee, Women's Faith Development: Patterns and Processes, 2004). Failing to speak of women’s faith experiences devalues or denies them, and women are silenced.
Taking the Bible seriously in our preaching means having to “acknowledge time and time again the limitations our own background sets upon our ability to read it, and learn to share the perspectives and understandings of past and present ‘readers’ alike.” (Jonathan Magonet, A Rabbi Reads the Bible, 2004). Part of that background is church tradition. For centuries biblical interpretation has airbrushed women out of the story – until recently, for example, the Lectionary included Moses’ story, but omitted the account of the midwives to whom he owed his survival. Women readers of the Bible can choose to reject it on the grounds of inherent patriarchy, or to re-read it in liberative ways. My emphasis is on re-reading, putting texts into broader contexts.
A quick example is the story in Luke 7 of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. Luke refers to the woman as a “sinner”, therefore tradition has her as a prostitute – despite the fact that Peter uses the same word of himself two chapters earlier, and nobody has ever held him to have been a prostitute. Making the worshipful woman of Luke 7 a prostitute suggests we have little to learn from her, only of Jesus’ forgiveness of her. What a difference it would make to our preaching, and perhaps to our congregations, were we to suggest emulating her humility and worshipful surrender to Him.
It may be that the most challenging prophetic task for preachers is to point out the sin of sexism. It is easily brushed aside as ‘harmless fun’, and protesting dismissed as ‘over-sensitivity’. But at root, many of the injustices in global and national society and church come down to sexism. Aid agencies recognise that “poverty has a woman’s face”. John Chalmers, QHC, one time moderator of the Church of Scotland, and international peace mediator, said recently that the most pressing issue internationally in matters of justice is the matter of gender justice. If that is so, preachers must surely play their part.
Preaching Women: Gender, Power and the Pulpit is published in September, and available to preorder now.
Michael Kimmel's TED Talk can be viewed via YouTube