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Book review: From the Shores of Silence: Conversations in feminist practical theology, edited by Ashley Cocksworth, Rachel Starr and Stephen Burns

04 August 2023

These essays are a fine tribute to Nicola Slee, says Alison Webster

“LIKE the disbelieving male disciples . . . , we men will know the risen Christa only by receiving the testimony of women. . . Praying like a White, straight man . . . means learning to hear Christa’s “No”, her “noli me tangere” (“do not touch me”)’.

So says Al Barrett in the moving, exemplary, and deeply reflexive piece that is his contribution to this book of essays, put together in honour of Nicola Slee and her contribution to British theology. It is a remarkably creative, varied, interdisciplinary, and intersectional collection that points the way to a bright and beautiful theological future. Every essay is brilliant — but each in a different way.

Some contributions offer poetic engagements with Slee’s own poetic voice: Mark Pryce et al. draw on their experiences of reflecting together as a group of poets sharing their writing; Rachel Mann testifies to Slee as holding “a priestly authority” outwith episcopal ordination, because of her rare gift of being both lay theologian and poet.

And Heather Walton identifies a commonality with Slee in seeking a form of speech that, “pierces through the superficial . . . and arrests the hearer, awakening desires and awareness”. In contrast, Alison Woolley takes us on a voyage out to a place available to everyone in a noisy world: a subversive and transformative silence.

More obviously political agendas are picked up by Anthony Reddie, who speaks into Slee’s work as a practical theologian and educator, reminding us of her awareness that “Black theology is a theology of liberation and is not just theology undertaken by Black people.” And Michael Jagessar discusses decolonising worship: asking why it is that students in formation for ministry can be liturgically creative and push boundaries in a way that fades or is tamed once they are ordained.

Slee’s work has been about perceiving and discerning truth, articulating it, drawing it out, and extending its reach by stretching to join with the truths of others. With the strong but fragile threads of a spider’s web, Slee has spent decades in the slow, steady, and inspired work of weaving new worlds — alone, but more importantly as part of a shifting and ever-growing collective of collectives.

She has not been afraid to encounter pain, loss, fragility, and silence, or to co-create spaces where others can do the same. With one of her favourite poets, Wendell Berry, she has sat in theological woods until, “what I fear in it leaves it / and the fear of it leaves me / it sings, and I hear its song.” Slee has been a woman of powerful poetic words, symbolic acts, and sacred ritual.

I have inhabited the world of theology long enough to see the things of which I was warned by feminist theory come to pass in my own experience —– that is, the process by which the work of pioneering women is erased in favour of the derivative work of the male theologians who come after and appropriate it.

This book isn’t just a book. Its publication is a political act: to celebrate, applaud, appreciate and name the deep and diverse contribution of Slee — who has consistently and persistently, over many years, been versatile, prophetic, collegiate, nurturing, and generous.

Alison Webster is General Secretary of Modern Church.


From the Shores of Silence: Conversations in feminist practical theology
Ashley Cocksworth, Rachel Starr, and Stephen Burns, editors
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £24

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