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A History of Women in Christian Workshops

27 February 2007

Book title: A History of Women in Christian Workshops
Author: Susan J. White

Publisher: SPCK
Church Times Bookshop £24.75

Reviewed with Missionary Women: Gender, professionalism and the Victorian idea of Christian mission by Rhonda Anne Semple (publishe by Boydell Press; RRP £60.00) MORE women than men attend public worship on a Sunday. Without women volunteers, most churches would have closed down years ago. Women’s historic contribution to the life of the Church at home, particularly at parish level, and abroad, in the mission field, has been enormous. Before feminism, however, these areas remained largely unexplored by scholars, and there is still much catching up to do, as both these authors remind us. Susan White, a senior liturgist who teaches at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, hopes that one day there will be a history of women at worship. Her book successfully prepares the ground for such a mammoth project, introducing us not only to the wide range of roles adopted by women in public and private worship down the centuries, but also alerting us to the challenges facing future students of the subject. Gender tasks associated with specific rites are of particular interest. Public baptism, for example, is strongly linked with “male power, money, and honour” — in other words, “men’s business” — which has meant that “women’s investment in baptism has been (until fairly recently) relatively low”. Like deathbed ministrations by women, however, “midwife baptisms” take us into female territory. Midwife baptisms sometimes became a form of religious protest, as when, after the Reformation, Roman Catholic midwives were suspected (often rightly) of baptising babies, sick or healthy, in order to avoid their having a Protestant baptism. Chrysostom encouraged women to sing liturgical hymns and psalms at home, when weaving and doing other work, but “especially at table”, where they should “erect a fortress of psalms” against the Devil. As Professor White says, when we first begin to hear women’s voices in the liturgy, we hear them singing. Indeed, much of the sensory richness associated with Anglican and Roman Catholic worship results from women’s activities with the voice, the needle and the fund-raising plate, all of which receive close attention here. Occasionally Professor White’s grip on English traditions slackens, and she can occasionally state the obvious. But her conclusion that, in both knowing and not knowing their place, “women have created an intricate mosaic of religious act, thought, and meaning,” and thus “created Christian history” is fully substantiated in this richly documented book. Missionary Women is far more specialised, and both its subject matter and its price mean that it is destined for the academic library. Rhonda Semple teaches history at the University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George. She has clearly sojourned in a number of extensive archives in order to produce such a learned account of the role that gender played in the professional development of British Protestant missions to India and China between 1865 and 1910. She seems to have read every available minute of board meetings, and has scrutinised hundreds of letters of application by women for missionary posts. Mary Harris, for example, stated that, since the Keswick Convention of 1890, she had not only been “happier and stronger spiritually but more in earnest and useful”. “Earnest and useful” neatly sums up Missionary Women. Professor Michael Wheeler is Director of the Gladstone Project at Gladstone’s Library, St Deiniol’s, Hawarden.

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