Yes, that’s me in that picture. I love that picture. It’s been used in a few posts since it was taken a couple of years ago. This isn’t (just) because of some weird sense of narcissism that loves to see my face on my blog posts. Rather, this picture is a very meaningful reminder of one of the most formative nights in my Christian life.
I said in the beginning of this series on Women in the Church that for most of my life, I had been one of the staunchest defenders of male-led church leadership. I knew all the arguments, I believed the caricatures of the other side, and importantly, I had experienced that women made terrible preachers of sermons.
Now remember: this was “pre-conversion” Paul that was thinking these things. But still, as I had visited friend’s churches, listened to audio, and seen female televangelists, it was hard not to notice that I had never heard a “good” sermon offered by a woman. It seemed clear to me, then, that this unique “anointing” and “gifting” to preach was reserved for men.
Don’t get me wrong. I had received incredible guidance, teaching, and wisdom from women. But these had been in the contexts of schools, lectures, books, blogs, campus ministers, podcasts, and the wider world–not church sermons.
The Christian family has usually associated sermons, homilies, and the general act of “preaching” as something closer to prophetic proclamation than theological teaching. For Christians, “preaching” is a unique office uniquely used by the Holy Spirit in his church.
This is why most conservatives and complementarians (that I’ve met, at least) would affirm that the restrictions placed on women in the church are not based on ability, but rather on what God has decreed for his church. And so, they’d say, though some women may be gifted in great ways to teach and lead (many times better than men!), these gifts are to be used in the broader world and in the home, not in ordained or authoritative church roles.
(At this point in the conversation, many complementarian men, as they say all this, will make some joke about how their wives are more gifted than they are, but then shrug in a “but I didn’t make the rules” sort of way.)
And now here’s where I hope I don’t get in trouble.
One thing that kept me in this mindset was the fact that, as I alluded to earlier, I really hadn’t come across any female preaching that was especially good. It was either too (for lack of better phrases) stereotypically “girly”–hyper-sentimental, over-emotional, etc.–or stereotypically “manly”, where the woman treated it more like a college lecture and seemed to be trying a little too hard to validate her right to be behind that pulpit.
I never heard a distinctly “feminine” sermon delivered by a woman that felt like it truly carried with it the authority and strength I thought that the feminine side of the Divine Image would. (And if you think that my use of the word “feminine” is used in a sense that is “less than” or subordinate to the word “masculine”, then that’s your bias being revealed, not mine).
As my theological convictions on women in ministry began to change, this was a tough thing for me. Friends would challenge me, asking why the “sermons” they too had heard by female preachers had “sucked”.
I had heard amazing lectures by women, and read incredible blog posts and books by them that were incredibly instructive and even pastoral, but still, truly feminine preaching of the authoritative words of God was not something I had encountered.
That is, until Ash Wednesday 2010.
That’s when I stepped into a large Episcopalian church called Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia for their Ash Wednesday service. I had been there several times for other various Holy Day services years prior, and had seen this one woman, perhaps in her 30s, that had been in “residence” or “training” to become a priest (I’m unsure how their ecclesiology works).
This night, she led the service and gave the homily. And it was amazing. It demonstrated what I had begun to believe: authoritative feminine preaching is not supposed to look like authoritative masculine teaching. It was to look different, and yet no less authoritative. And this certainly was.
She incisively cut through a lot of our incorrect postures during Lent and help prepare our hearts for the season head. With winsomeness and humor, she delicately peeled the layers away on our pride and gently applied the salve of the Gospel to encourage and strengthen us through the dark season ahead.
Later in the service, I then had one of the highest privileges of my communal church life. I rose from the pew and heard, for the first time, a feminine voice speaking over me: “Remember from dust you came, and to dust you will return”.
And then the ashen cross was pressed, marking my forehead. And deeper still it went, marking my mind, my heart, and my soul. For that Lent. And all the rest to come.
(And then that picture up top was taken.)
I hope and I pray that for all of those wrestling with this issue of women in the church, that you also get the privilege of seeing God’s authoritative preaching gift being used by amazing sisters. It really does make all the difference. I hope it marks you as it did me.
And for the record: female preachers do not suck.