LIZ SHERCLIFF comes across as an imaginative and responsive preacher, with an eye for the divine in ordinary things. She shows how her preaching has developed, and how her gender has made an impact upon that development.
Her argument is that women preachers have insights unique to their gender. This is seen as preferable to outmoded “masculine” ways of preaching based on the preacher as an ecclesiastical alpha male, or on Bible commentaries. She whizzes through familiar feminist territory about how women have been marginalised by patriarchal preachers and models of ministry.
She is spot on when she considers the preacher’s demeanour, which is read by the congregation as much as her or his words are listened to. I remain unconvinced by her thesis that women preach differently from men. Women’s sermons are not necessarily better in terms of empathy and experience-based communication. Had she argued that what we need is a more experience-orientated approach to scripture, I would have been cheering her on. Many of her sermon snippets show her as a lively, empathetic, and engaging preacher. Only rarely does she let the moral trump the medium.
Preaching from one’s experience is a mixed blessing. In a one-off sermon, it is powerful. Within a long-term ministry, it can be tiresome. What about people whose preferred learning style is reasoned argument, or who feel empowered and enthused by insights from commentaries? In long-term ministry, a mixture of sermon styles is better.
This isn’t a book for me, then. I don’t agree with its central premise that women do preaching differently. But I don’t think that my view is normative. The book still has plenty to offer all readers who want to expand the range of their preaching, even female preachers. A section on how body language and human sexual dimorphism touch on reactions to male or female preachers could have been a useful addition.
It is easier to talk about how preaching fails than to prescribe a route to “success”. Shercliff offers women who preach some insights into why they might lack confidence, and how they might learn to transcend limitations imposed by themselves as well as by others.
For this, and for tackling a subject which is at least sensitive, and at times verges on the taboo, she is to be congratulated.
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
Preaching Women: Gender, power and the pulpit
CM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £13.60