Australian Women Preach

Book Review: In Her Voice: Raising Women’s Voices in Preaching the Gospel

Reviewed by Mary-Anne Lumley

Originally published in Pastoral Liturgy

Hughes, Juliette, ed. In Her Voice: Raising Women’s Voices in Preaching the Gospel. Mulgrave VIC: Garratt Publishing, 2023, vi + 150 pages.

A symphony of voices is brought together in this book: voices from ancient peoples of these lands known as Australia; voices from varied denominations; voices of lay people, consecrated religious and ordained ministers; voices of teenagers still at school and of those who teach in schools, universities and seminaries; voices representing a variety of vocations and talents. Importantly, as noted by Tracy McEwan in her introduction (7), they are all voices of persons who ‘share a knowledge and love of the Gospel, and a Spirit-given desire to preach.’ This is blessing for the People of God in Australia: persons who are gifted by the Spirit, who love the Gospel and give their voice to share it with others.

The book In Her Voice is a selection of twenty-eight podcasts of Australian women preaching on the Sunday Gospel. This podcast series, Australian Women Preach, began on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021, in the lead up to the first assembly of the Plenary Council to be held in October of the same year. The series of podcasts sought to ‘model the Church we want to be: inclusive, diverse and welcoming’, according to Andrea Dean (5), President of WATAC (Women and the Australian Church). McEwan notes the recommendation made in one of the Discernment Papers, to ‘provide formal approval and encouragement for suitably qualified lay women and men to break open the Word’, while outlining the vision of the podcast series: ‘to raise women’s voices and highlight the preaching talent of women’. With joy, McEwan observes the ongoing momentum of the podcasts, which are available here: Home – Australian Women Preach.

Within the global Church there are currently many conversations around the role of women in the Church and lay preaching in general. These conversations need to continue and will continue. However, that is not the objective here; the purpose of this review is to highlight some of the treasures to be found within the pages of this remarkable book, In Her Voice. The 1982 document from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Fulfilled in Your Hearing, observes that ‘the homily is not so much on the Scriptures as in them and through them’, and the work of preaching is to ‘hear these [Scriptures] as real words addressed to real people’[1] It also notes that the homily begins with the assembly[2] Some of the homilies in this volume have been prepared by women for their own assembly in communities where they are permitted to do so. Other homilies, in and through the Scriptures, have been prepared for the podcast – and await the day when they can be voiced for and with a liturgical assembly.

In Her Voice is divided into four sections entitled: The Journey: Advent to Resurrection, Tempus B, Tempus C and Celebration, with seven reflections in each. Significantly, a reflection for the feast of Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop, is included. Each reflection is of approximately 800 to 1000 words in length and provides the name of the Sunday or feast and the designated gospel reference. The book is an open invitation to take a deep dive to probe the Sunday Word or to dip in from time to time. As with all works of this nature, it will be most fruitful if pondered with quiet attentiveness.

Reflections by Boandik woman, Di Langham (1, 133), begin and end this work, firstly welcoming the listener with words from Revelation – or are they words from Country! – ‘… and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations’ (Rev. 22:2). A heart-rending poem crafted by her daughter, Belinda Roberts, and ornamented with leaf paintings, is integral to this welcome:

…Pegged on the line are my leaves.
I say we are here.
This is what’s left.
We have been laundered, white-washed and hung out to dry.
Wood suspends us but they are not our trees.
Even the trees are off country.
We are not left out the front.
We are left out the back in the yard scattered,
Needed but not considered.
We have our culture in small pieces,
Fragments of an ancient forest
That is without canopy or roots.
Just left tormented by the sun and disconnected to the earth (2).

Concluding the book, Langham’s homily calls the listener to ‘be on the side of Truth’ (136), taking up the words of Jesus in his dialogue with Pilate, ‘Everyone on the side of truth listens to me’ (John 18:37). Listening. In recent times there has been much talk of listening. In the Australian Church, ‘listening to what God is asking of us’ became a guiding and formative question during the Plenary Council process. Similarly, the Synod on Synodality in Rome has been marked by its commitment to a process of prayer and listening. In Australia, preparation for the 2023 Referendum on the Voice to Parliament was an invitation to respectful listening. Deep listening.

In the reflection for Palm Sunday, Tamlyn Ah Kee, proud descendant of the Wanyurrmajay Yidinji and Kuku Yalanji People, sees deep listening as a way of being in intimate solidarity. Ah Kee reveals how this connection forms, ‘When you listen deeply, when you are truly present to the other, then you are being with them.’ Being available to others does come with a cost. A proud descendant of the Wakaid and Badulgal People, Ashleigh Ung (109), describes the generosity and hospitality of her grandmother as gifts for future generations: ‘Her sacrifices, what she has lost in order for her children and grandchildren to gain are the blessings’. Ung refers to the ‘open door’ of her grandmother’s house, the baking of bread, the voices of children and being ‘present to each other in love’. In the context of the Palm Sunday Passion Narrative, it echoes the unfathomable hospitality of God, through Jesus.

The theme of Hospitality is also taken up in the reflection on Martha and Mary, Luke 10:38-42, by Gemma Thomson, assisted by Riley-Jane Carroll and Samara Spadanuda (79). Martha and Mary each demonstrate different expressions of hospitality: Martha by preparing food and attending to the physical comfort of her guest, while Mary’s was a hospitality of listening and ‘being with’. Hospitality is implicit in ‘voice’; a voice needs to be received and welcomed. Thomson notes that Jesus honoured the attentive response of Mary, ‘ignoring the traditional norms of the society at that time’. The reflection continues: ‘listening deeply to the Word of God and the indwelling Spirit is just as important as being people of action … good works flow from a Christ-centred life.’

One of the tenets of Fulfilled in Your Hearing is that the homily needs to be directly addressed to a particular assembly, so that they may find there ‘a word that responds to the implicit or explicit questions in their lives.’3 Christine Redwood (87), in her reflection on the parable of slaves waiting with lamps for the return of their master, Luke 12:32-48, is unambiguous about the status of slaves, who ‘had little agency … were someone’s property … [and] were disposable’. In this context, Redwood recognises the evils of domestic violence, workplace exploitation, trafficking and abuse. Similarly, the listener is challenged to examine how they might be complicit in the ‘toiling away to make a lot of commodities we enjoy … clothes, coffee and technology’. Redwood describes Jesus as the one who ‘sees those at the bottom of the social order … those who are exploited and mistreated’ and desires to give them ‘a seat at his table’. The reflection both recognises the plight of individuals whose rights are violated, while calling out those unmoved by compassion, whose ‘eyes skim over them, ignoring the blows to their bodies’.

Another contemporary question is what Gemma Thomson and her young students, Riley-Jayne and Samara, name the ‘twenty-first century “comparison trap”’ where, on social media platforms, ‘young women measure their self-worth or success in comparison the others’. Furthermore, inbuilt measures of comparison determine options for entry into tertiary education. Even in personal relationships, ‘what is expected between two people is often a point of comparison’. Referring to the Lukan account of Martha and Mary, the young women share how each person has their ‘own personality and purpose’, and ‘God-honouring promise’ and propose that ‘the onus is on us to act with courage and consciously remove ourselves from this comparison trap’. Their reflection ends by turning to the ‘author’ of all ‘our life stories’ … ‘May your God who knows and loves you, bless you abundantly and may you be inspired by the gifts of both Martha and Mary in their interaction with Jesus.’

An antidote to the ‘comparison trap’ might be developing the virtue of gratitude. Angela McCarthy (97), in her reflection on the healing of the ten suffering from the leprosy, Luke 17: 11-19, expands on the meaning and impact of being thankful. McCarthy reflects on gratitude for healing, healing that brings freedom from addictions and distractions: this ‘enables us to live in the kingdom of God … where God is evident in the behaviour of the people … who form the community.’ By way of contrast, the current trend of placing signs in offices and public places advising that abuse will not be tolerated is ‘one of the things that saddens’ McCarthy, which she sees as ‘an absence of grace’. McCarthy concludes by proposing that one of the effects of gratitude ‘is to bring about the kingdom of God in our world, to make our space one of grace where we can feel the heartbeat of God.’

Contemporary issues, such as isolation, the pandemic and the climate change are further examples of ‘real words addressed to real people’ in Fiona Dyball’s reflection on the healing of the man who was deaf and mute, Mark 7:31-37 (53). ‘Far beyond magic words, mere spectacle, and empty promises’, says Dyball, the ministry of Jesus is characterised by ‘physical presence and proximity that both announce and enact the reign of God … the incarnation is forever joined with social justice, with life poured out for and with others.’ By way of response, followers of Christ are called to be advocates on behalf of others, to ‘open inclusive spaces and ways for all people to belong, so that they can hear the music of their own lives rising within them and give voice to their own unique song’.

For the Ascension Gospel, Mark 16:15-20, Elizabeth Young (115) draws on the teaching of Karl Rahner to reflect on how Christ’s presence suffuses ‘every corner of the universe’: all creation, all beings, all their cries, all ‘sacramental life … through the hands and feet, the paws and tendrils of every creature that does his work’. Further, Young says, ‘Christ’s presence can replace all that is not of God in our universe’, and that Christ’s ongoing work ‘of healing, of nourishment, of reconciliation, of raising up creatures to something better … [is also] our work’. Lest the listener is tempted to bask in wonder at this mystery or in the beauty of its expression, Young has a final exhortation: ‘let us not wait for a sign, let us be that sign.’

Doing justice to each homily, as well as to the book as a whole, is daunting. These are twenty-eight thought-provoking, unique, beautiful and relevant reflections, in addition to the Welcome to Country. It is recommended that readers take the time to read a homily, let the voice of the preacher ‘speak’ and show hospitality in receiving the Word. Similarly, Australian Women Preach is an initiative that is to be commended for not only taking steps to be ‘the Church we want to be’, but also for the solidarity demonstrated among the participants themselves.

It would be most apposite to conclude with the voice of a woman, in this case an unnamed, ‘destitute, diseased, voiceless’ woman suffering from haemorrhage (Mark 5:21-43). In her reflection, Patricia Gemmell (45), pits the woman against the synagogue leader, Jairus, a person of influence and power, highly respected who ‘has no hesitation speaking to Jesus’. Yet the woman, after being caught out, ‘slowly, reluctantly, in fear and trembling’ came forward and told Jesus ‘the whole truth’ (Mark 5:33). Gemmell invites the listener to ‘sit with these words … [there is] … so much to be pondered.’ We are invited to imagine the woman’s words but, according to Gemmell, what is more remarkable is that Jesus gives this unnamed woman a voice in this ‘assembly’ and gives her ‘authority to teach … [Jesus] invites this woman to tell the good news to those around him, in her own words.’ To conclude, Gemmell poses a question: ‘what is the invitation [for you] in this gospel?’