Nancy Lammers Gross
Women’s Voices and the Practice of Preaching
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.
Available at Eerdmans.
By Jill Firth
Are you a woman who has trouble with your voice in public speaking? Preaching voice too soft or too squeaky? Flat tone, lacking conviction, imagination, or modulation? Nervous giggles, or that awkward ascending inflection at the end of sentences? Nancy Lammers Gross argues that “the voice is a full-body, physical and musical instrument.” Women can lack confidence, or become disconnected from their bodies. She proposes three basic theses in this book:
“The voice is a full-body instrument.
Many women struggle to speak.
Many women struggle to speak because they are disconnected from their bodies.”
She then proceeds step by step to examine the loss and restoration of a woman’s voice. Chapter 1, “The Symphony of Miriam,” uses the story of Miriam as a metaphor for the value of women’s voices. Chapter 2, “Asking Permission,” tells paradigmatic stories of life experiences that lead women to lose connection to their voices. Seminary student “Chatty Cathy” smiled throughout her delivery of her sermon on Job’s misfortunes. She realised that her smile was apologetic, as she came from a tradition that did not allow women to preach. “Sarah” learned that what girls said didn’t count: “When I was hit, I learned not to cry out; no one would help me anyway … When I was molested, I swallowed my no.” Writing in an American context, Gross includes women of Korean and African American background. “Gi” explained that in her Korean culture, women should not speak too loudly in the presence of men. Particular grammatical constructions and honorifics indicate respect for older people and respected members of the congregation. “Atara”, an African American woman, discovered that issues in her family and home church were preventing her from taking up her call to preaching. Chapter 3 is “Voice Lost,” where three issues are addressed: women’s loss of confidence in their body being acceptable, the loss of a right to speak, and disconnection from the body due to physical or sexual abuse. Chapter 4, “Voice Restored,” considers the call of God and the need to “body forth” the gospel message. Aspects of female anatomy including the vocal cords are discussed. Chapter 5, “Embodied Voice,” invites reflection on a woman’s story including memories of using her voice as a child and adult, and of memorable sermons she has heard. Exercises in breathing and posture for developing the preaching voice are included. Chapter 6, “As If It Matters,” uses the story of Martha and Mary at Lazarus’ tomb as an example of a full-bodied sermon. Exercises in voice modulation, emotional tone and volume help the preacher examine the voices in the text and the appropriate preaching voice for that text. The book concludes with notes, bibliography, and indices of names, subjects and scripture references.
Women’s Voices and the Practice of Preaching is a useful and practical book examining reasons for issues with women’s preaching voices and suggestions for action. Nancy Lammers Gross is well qualified to address this topic. She teaches preaching, worship and speech communication in ministry in Princeton Theological Seminary. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, she is an experienced preacher. The concept of “full-body” preaching is a gift to women, and the practical exercises will be beneficial to many. A preaching class or preaching mentor may use these exercises and insights with great benefit. Aspiring women preachers may enjoy reading this book with a friend and trying out the suggestions. A must for seminary libraries.
Jill Firth is a lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. She is an ordained Anglican minister and conference speaker.