Brief Book Review: The Women’s Lectionary

The Women’s Lectionary:
Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year
By Ashley M. Wilcox

Who should read this? Ashley Wilcox intends this lectionary as a resource primarily for preachers and urges them to take a year to focus on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. I suggest that many others — catechists, teachers, Bible study groups, and anyone wanting to learn about and reflect upon the stories of women in the tradition — would find this volume thought-provoking and enriching.

What’s the main point? This volume is a lectionary based on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. The texts follow the liturgical calendar and may also appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year D, or other alternative lectionaries. The author includes commentaries for each text, which offer background, suggestions for preachers, and questions that could be used not only by preachers but individuals or small groups for reflection and discussion.

Why is this book significant? The author lifts up and probes the stories of the many inspiring and influential women of Scripture, women whose stories are too often overlooked, misinterpreted, or omitted in lectionaries. She also explores images for God that can lead Christians to deeper reflection and relationship with the Sacred.

Kudos. Kudos to Ashley M. Wilcox for asking a poignant question, “What if the church took one year to focus on the stories of women in the Bible?” What if…?  The Women’s Lectionary helps us to imagine the “what if.”

Wilcox, Ashley M. The Women’s Lectionary: Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021. 294 pages. $45.00. ISBN: 9780664266196.

REVIEWER: Anne Koester
Anne Koester is Senior Compliance Specialist,
Protection of Minors Policy Manager,
and Adjunct Instructor of Theology at
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Brief Book Review: Claiming the Call to Preach

Claiming the Call to Preach:
Four Female Pioneers of Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America
By Donna Giver-Johnston

What’s the main point? Donna Giver-Johnston uses the hermeneutical framework of feminist scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to focus on the experience of nineteenth-century American women who claimed the call to preach. The author examines the ways in which their call was shaped by their social, cultural and religious location and suggests how the experiences of these women can inform the conversation in the twenty-first century about women’s call to preach.

Why is this book significant? It urges Christian communities to listen anew to the actual experiences of women and honor their claim of the call to preach.

What will most inspire you? The fascinating and powerful call narratives of Jarena Lee, Frances Willard, Louisa Woosley, and Florence Speaking Randolph. They were women who acted with wisdom, courage and perseverance.  Thank you, Donna Giver-Johnston, for telling their stories.

Kudos. The author skillfully draws upon history, theology, practice and stories of struggle and success. She weaves together various threads, which makes this book a compelling read and one that invites reflection and discussion in both academic and pastoral circles.

Next steps. Giver-Johnston writes that through this volume, she hopes to “extend the conversation and enliven the dance.” This is a remarkable invitation. We need to listen to the stories of women who know the call to preach and lift up these narratives to inspire and persuade and we need to provide avenues for people to encounter the Mystery of Christ in the stories and preaching of women. We have for too long overlooked these call narratives and the vital need for the voices of women who are called to preach to be heard.

Giver-Johnson, Donna. Claiming the Call to Preach: Four Female Pioneers of Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 321 pages. $99.00. ISBN: 9780197576373.

REVIEWER: Anne Koester
Anne Koester is Senior Compliance Specialist,
Protection of Minors Policy Manager,
and Adjunct Instructor of Theology at
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Switzerland: An Appeal for “Female Sacramentality”

As the Swiss website reports, Sr. Irene Gassmann O.S.B., prioress of Fahr monastery, argues in favor of monasteries as a place for experiments with “female sacramentality.”

While she suspects that an unreflected general opening of ordained offices to women might lead to a “feminized clericalism,” she would prefer monastic communites as a place for experiences with women in sacramental offices “in an unspectacular manner.”

“The monastic vocabulary knows the term ad experimentum, that means to give something a try for a certain period and then to reflect on whether it should be made generally binding.”

A female monastic community could ask the bishop to ordain one of the sisters for the office of Anointing of the Sick. After a few years, probably the permission to preside over the Eucharist could follow. In the same way parishes could ask for ordination for women who take care of the sick anyway, so that the pastoral service does not need to be disconnected from the sacramental experience. Such procedures would be similiar to the original idea of the Rule of St. Benedict: If the abbot – who originally was a layman – needs a priest for the community, he selects one of the monks and asks the bishop for ordination.

Sister Irene sees gender equality in the Catholic Church as a long term development, like “sourdough that has to be kneaded.” Decisions should never be made by men alone, and women should respect men’s fears: “It is important that we women treat men smartly and respect their fears. That we can give them safety: They need not be scared of us.”

“I wish for cooperation on an equal footing. We should not put people in the center – neither women who want to fight for something nor men who want to keep their status. Instead whe should put Christ into the center.”

You can find the entire interview with Forum, a Catholic paper for the Swiss canton of Zurich, under this link.

Together with Einsiedeln Abbey, the monastery of Fahr (photo above) forms the only current Benedictine double monastery in the world. While the abbott of Einsiedeln is the canonical superior of both monasteries, the prioress of Fahr guides the female community largely independently.

Warning: Girl Altar Servers May Cause Bad Liturgy!

I distinctly recall, some twenty-five years ago, crouching on my parents’ living room floor, my arms slung over a blue velveteen armchair, sobbing.  My sobs, however, weren’t related to the more mundane matters of middle school drama.  “What if I can’t remember all the responses I’m supposed to make during Mass!?” I gasped between sniffles.

Twenty-five years ago this fall (1992 for those of you who are counting), I was among the first girls in my Roman Catholic gradeschool to be offered the opportunity to be trained as an altar server.  Our parish in southern Indiana, it turns out, had actually anticipated the formal recognition of girl altar servers, which came in April of 1994 from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, by two years.  The Archdiocese of Indianapolis formally welcomed girls as altar servers a few months after the CDWDS recognition with new norms for the Archdiocese.  Our parish’s 1992 training session joined us with a number of Roman Catholic parishes throughout the United States which had been allowing girls to serve since the mid-1980’s (following the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which did not expressly forbid girls from serving).

Now, my rather inauspicious beginning, replete with tears and self-doubt, might suggest that a boy (who would not have cried, of course) could have handled the pressure of becoming an altar server with more aplomb.  Yet, amidst all the other altar servers in my class, only I and one other boy remained a dedicated altar server through our senior year of high school.  And it was not the boy in my class who won the “server of the year” award in eighth grade!  Serving, for me, was more than a good way to gain “service points” for confirmation, get out of class during the day, or even make $5 for serving a funeral.  I loved being an altar server, and I kept doing it, because I loved…serving.

Serving at Mass was the first way I began to learn how to love the Church through my work.  It was also the first way in which I learned “liturgical style”—how to move without being obtrusive, how to adopt appropriate postures, and how to be attentive to (and solve) liturgical mishaps as they arose (e.g., a bad incense hand-off, or a missing cruet).  Being a server brought me inside the Mass, in a way I’d never experienced as a parishioner in the pews.  Altar serving was ministry, Martha-style—and I rejoiced in doing it.

Yet, as many of us have experienced, the phenomenon of girls taking on the role of “altar server” has been, and perhaps has increasingly become, a point of contention.  Even when Indianapolis’ Archbishop Daniel Buechlein first reflected positively upon girls becoming altar servers in the Archdiocese, he was careful to explain that “Servers represent the worshipping assembly at the altar in a role that is distinctive from that of ordained ministers” (“Seeking the Face of the Lord,” The Criterion, April 22, 1994).  There was, and has been, historic concern that allowing girls to be altar servers might become a slippery slope toward female ordination in the Roman Catholic tradition.

On this note, a friend sent me an article a couple of years ago on just this issue; a parish pastor in San Francisco, CA had recently released an “official statement” on banning girls from altar serving.  Unfortunately, the original article my friend sent is no longer to be found—but I happily discovered a favorite clip I’d excerpted.  The pastor wrote:

At the risk of generalizing, I suspect young men serving with young women might just distract them from the sacrifice of the Mass, and perhaps even from a priestly vocation.

Aside from simply being distracting, girls might prevent boys from serving 4985133.pngbecause “young boys don’t want to do things [like serving] with girls,” or, even worse, because girls are better at serving, they might “intimidate” the boys and prevent boys from serving at all!

Yet, I believe that arguments regarding “distraction” or “intimidation” are surpassed by far greater problems.  What happens when women are involved with liturgy?  According to a 2015 article which appeared in Crisis, when females are involved with liturgy, we get bad liturgy.  As the author explains:

When men are in charge of liturgy, they generally favor austerity, solemnity and reverence. They are far more likely to have ‘high’ liturgical sensibilities. When women claim a more central role, we frequently see a slide into lower and more culturally idiosyncratic practices. It generally starts with campy banners and popular-style hymnody, but may end with synthesizers and scantily-clad liturgical dancers. These liturgies are not beautiful or uplifting. They’re more like a never-ending hug from a grasping, obsequious aunt.

Now, I, too, have bad memories of felt-and-burlap banners.  But I am distressed by the gender binary which is presented by this contrast of women’s approach to liturgical style and men’s approach.  Is there not neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, in Christ?  Is not altar serving a ministry, specifically, for the lay faithful?  Who are we to say that half of the lay faithful (e.g., the female half) has bad liturgical taste?  Or, even more painfully, that young girls exist as mere distractions to building up calls for vocations among our young boys?

I am perhaps contemplating the role of girls in parish ministry because I am expecting my first baby, my daughter, to arrive any day now.  I am wondering what her response to the Church’s call to missionary discipleship will be—and if she will spend any time sobbing in our living room, wondering if she might be good enough for service.  I am hopeful that my husband and I can encourage her to do good work for the house of God—and that being a lay female does not prevent her from doing so.


“Women’s Experiences” and Sacramental Theology

As the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II approaches, I have been asked to reflect on developments in sacramental theology and practice with an emphasis on the practices of women – and that in the worldwide church no less. This obviously is a daunting task. To begin with, there are more than 600 million women around the globe who self-identify as Roman Catholic. These women form, for the most part, a silent majority in the life of the church; we are able to hear their voices only through multiple mediations. Moreover, Roman Catholic women worldwide have as many different experiences and visions of sacramental life as there are individual women; 2 X chromosomes simply do not suffice to establish globally shared “women’s experiences.” Finally, the theological, ecclesial, and cultural developments of the last 50 years – especially as they pertain to women – have been quite complex, and anything but linear.

So much for the difficulties. Here are some of the joys of my research: First, I have been able to read and re-read much about Roman Catholic women in the mid-twentieth century. What a spirited, diverse, and committed group of women is visible. I have appreciated anew, for example, the life and work of Christine Mohrmann, the famous Dutch scholar of ecclesial Latin, who was at the height of her scholarly powers as Vatican II opened. I have looked again at the women auditors at Vatican II and at what propelled them to prominence in the Catholic Church of their time. And I have thought back into my own childhood, remembering how in my parish church we were given little prayer leaflets, with a photos of the pope and of the council in session, and a prayer for the Holy Spirit to move in this gathered assembly. I was convinced, as a six-year-old, that my prayers contributed mightily to the council.

And then, after Vatican II, there are the dramatically changing lives of women developing together with substantial changes in liturgical practice. Once again, a complex picture emerges. Not all liturgical changes spelled positive change in women’s lives. And some sacramental practices become particularly contested sites in ecclesial life after Vatican II (e.g., questions about altar girls, women’s ordinations, struggles with language, feminist visions of sacramental theology).

One fact seems clear, namely that women who after Vatican II entered the world of scholarly theological conversation for the most part did not find “sacraments” a subject that garnered their passion and interest. I am taking a new look at the reasons for this.

I am also reading broadly about contemporary women and their “different temporalities of struggle,” both in the worldwide church and in the global village we inhabit. I keep thinking about the roughly 160 million women who (statistically) should be here, but who are not – due to son preference and selective abortions, female infanticide, abuse, and neglect. In a world where 2 X chromosomes can spell such danger to one’s very existence, I want to re-think sacraments and sacramentality with the flourishing of all, particularly the most vulnerable, in mind.

And I would be very interested in any thoughts any of the readers of this blog might have on the vast subject I am thinking through.