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Nicola Slee, director of research, Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham

28 July 2017

‘I find hope in poetry and all forms of prophetic resistance’

I oversee around 30 Ph.D. students, some based in the global South. They’re an enormously varied bunch, but they all share a vocation to research as discipleship, and I learn a great deal from them. My colleagues are some of the best people one could hope to work with.


There isn’t a typical day. I could be meeting a prospective Ph.D. student or honorary research fellow, doing a supervision, giving a paper at a conference, or planning a research seminar. I try — but don’t always succeed — to include some reading or writing every day.


I’ve recently also been appointed Professor of Feminist Practical Theology at our partner university, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. All our Ph.D. students are students of the faculty; so we already work closely together, and have an annual residential in the Netherlands.


Practical theology is the way in which the practice of faith articulates theology. The way we pray, care, and engage politically is a primary means of theology, not just an add-on to the conceptual stuff.


I’d like to say that all theology is, or should be, feminist, in the sense that it takes seriously the insights, experiences, and gifts of women and girls. But self-evidently that’s not the case. There’s still a need for an intentional commitment to gender analysis and critique, alongside other critical perspectives such as post-colonial, queer, and body theologies, to name a few.


Christian tradition can help to shape a positive theology of gender, but the insights of gender theory and scientific research, as well as culture, are vital to fund theologies which speak to contemporary reality.


I didn’t set out to write Praying Like a Woman [2004]. It’s material written over more than 20 years, as I sought to pray as honestly as I can out of this particular woman’s body, circumstances, struggles, and joys. To give one example: in my early forties I had a hysterectomy, and couldn’t find one single prayer, and only one sermon, that explored this condition from the perspective of faith. So I wrote “This woman’s body” as a way of preparing myself for the loss of my womb. What I’d most hope is that anyone reading the book would be encouraged to pray more authentically as they can rather than to pray like me.


Doing December Differently [2006] emerged out of a group of friends back in 2000 at Holland House retreat centre. We all found Christmas challenging, either because we were single, gay or lesbian, or didn’t have anywhere to go — or all three. We ate wonderful food, created liturgy, went for walks, and laughed and cried a lot.


Afterwards, Rosie Miles and I put out a call for more reflections on alternative Christmases, and so the book was born. Ten years on, some themes have become routine — like the resistance to consumerism and alternative gift-giving — but it’s not necessarily any easier to choose to go against the grain of cultural or church norms.


Lent and Easter are considerably less hyped within mainstream culture, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to do them differently. I value an intentional period of self-examination in which Christians seek to live more modestly and respectfully towards the earth’s resources, yet I’d critique the cult of suffering and self-sacrifice which have prevented women and others from claiming and living the risen life to which we are all called. My book on the risen Christa [Seeking the Risen Christa, 2011] is one attempt to rework the Passiontide cycle in a way that de-centres male heroism, and offers a symbolic language for women to explore their own pain and power.


Christa is the symbol of a female Christ figure. She takes her name from a 1974 sculpture by the artist Edwina Sandys, recently reinstalled in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York. But the notion that Christ can take female form is as old as Christianity. I’ve found well over 100 artistic images of the Christa, most of them by contemporary artists who have no knowledge of feminist theology. The Church Times featured an example of a Christa recently from St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Bendigo, showing a pregnant crucified woman [News, 21 April]. There are also some older ones, such as a fourth- or fifth-century statuette which depicts Christ as an androgynous pagan god with feminine features. It’s a symbol that resonates, perhaps because it can represent so powerfully women’s abuse and victimisation. Images of a risen Christa are much less common.


I grew up in a Methodist family, where Mary only came out at Christmas. It’s taken me years to make sense of the mixed legacy of Marian theology, imagery, and spirituality. She represents for me the courage of young female faith which says “yes” to God without guarantee of the outcome. She also represents the memories, wisdom, and authority of old women, because she’s the bridge between the story of Jesus and the story of the Church. I love Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna, which captures some of that wiry vitality and dynamism. I pray with her as the mother of all Christians and my foresister in faith.


Poetry’s always been in my life, intertwined with faith. My mother recited the poetry of Robbie Burns by heart, and we learnt the King James Version by rote at Sunday school. I loved the sound and feel of the words, and knew that they were doing something amazing, even if I couldn’t explain it. They connected me to places, people, and God, and connected me more deeply to myself. I loved reading and writing poetry from an early age, and I’ve always written as a primary means of knowing what I think or feel.


Poetry, like prayer, is a way of shaping the inchoate — and potentially overwhelming — forces and feelings into words that don’t tell but spell. They charm, soothe, and resonate, and take one into a different territory that’s at the same time the deepest and truest place it is possible to be.


I love the canon of religious poets, like Donne, Herbert, Rossetti, Eliot, Stevie Smith, R. S. Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings, Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry. Feminist poets such as Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Audre Lorde are also vital. They’ve forged language to speak women’s realities.


I don’t remember a time when God wasn’t assumed, but my first personal experience of the presence of God was when I was 13. Two Methodist deaconesses came to our chapel and preached a simple evangelistic message. My sense of God has changed hugely since then, as has my sense of self. There’s been loss, as well as a more expansive sense of faith gained. Often, now, I’m more aware of the silence or strangeness of God; yet the overwhelming reality of God’s love doesn’t leave me, even if I feel it a lot less than I once did.


I grew up a mile from the sea in north Devon, and the sound I most crave is the sound of waves on the shore. A close second is the wind in the trees at Glasshampton Monastery, which sounds remarkably similar.


Communities and groups of people have been as important to me as individuals. My large farming family in Devon; Providence Chapel, near Clovelly, where I learnt the faith; Edgehill College, Bideford, where teachers nurtured my love of literature and first stabs at theology; Selwyn College, Cambridge, where Owen Chadwick and John Sweet were inspiring.


Women in Theology, the St Hilda Community, the Southwark Ordination Course, and the Aston Training Scheme have all been liberating spaces, expanding my understanding of God and faith. Malling Abbey, Glasshampton Monastery, and Vaughan Park Retreat Centre, New Zealand, root my life and creativity.


My partner, Rosie Miles, sees me at my worst and best, and keeps faith with me.


Prayer for me is a dwelling in God’s presence, whether or not I feel it: an opening of myself to be beheld by the beloved. Although I use the daily offices, my own prayers, and those of others, prayer is as much in the spaces between, and in the silence that comes after the prayed words. My prayer is a longing for healing — my own and others’ — but it is also an irrepressible song celebrating the heartbreaking beauty of God in the world.


I find hope in poetry and all forms of prophetic resistance, as well as in the renewal of the natural world, and the faithfulness of friends. As Hopkins put it, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”


I’d love to be locked in a church with my mentor, Maria Harris, who died far too young. She helped me have the courage to be more daring and creative in my writing and teaching. She believed in me when my own sense of myself as a scholar was fragile.


Dr Slee was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Dr Slee’s books can be found on the Church House Bookshop website. She will be speaking at the Greenbelt Festival, 25-28 August.

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