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Preaching Women: Gender, power and the pulpit, by Liz Shercliff

10 January 2020

Does gender affect preaching, asks Cally Hammond

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
Liz Shercliff
CM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £13.60

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