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Speaking Differently?

28 May 2019

<strong>Speaking Differently?</strong> iStock

It is a truism that men and women speak differently, so much so that the miscommunication between men and women has served as fodder for stand-up comedians for generations. The notion that meaning and message is lost in translation as it passes from a female mouth to a male ear, or vice versa, is so ingrained in our culture that it has become cliché. The subject of male and female miscommunication has also given rise to several best-selling books, most notably relationship counsellor John Gray’s 1992 book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus which suggested that the reason many opposite sex relationships fail is that men and women are effectively speaking a different language.

This idea that there is a difference in the way that men and women speak is so entrenched in our psyche it has become an unquestioned article of faith of our very existence: Men never listen; women find it easier to talk about their feelings; men speak with authority and gravitas; women’s speech is more tentative. These, and other, linguistic differences in the way men and women speak are accepted without question in our daily lives, but what does it mean for the preacher?

In the Church of England women are now, theoretically, permitted to hold every office in the Church. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the arguments for and against women preaching, but the biblical arguments used against women preaching and leading (are 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35) generally centred around whether women should have authority, or power. Anyone who has followed closely – or even loosely the arguments around women’s ordination and elevation to bishop – cannot have failed to hear the arguments that men and women are of the same spirit but have different gifts. Essentially that there is a critical difference between men and women. The difficulty with a critical difference approach is that there has to be a norm, for a difference to exist.

As women now have equal access to the preaching platform and both men and women speak with assumed equal Divine authority, I decided to treat the assumptions about the way men and women speak as a hypothesis rather than a statement of fact. I wanted to explore if there is a linguistic difference in the way men and women preach. Do men have a more authoritative linguistic style, are women more nervous when preaching? The question I asked was: In the context of the sermon in what ways do men and women establish power, and how relevant is gender in the construction of power?

Using the established sociolinguistic methodology, Critical Discourse Analysis I analysed four sermons preached at four different cathedrals on the same Sunday. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s Orders of Discourse, Norman Fairclough developed Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) in 1989 to offer a rigorous assessment of what is meant when language is used to describe and explain. Essentially what Fairclough was saying is that language is the most powerful resource available to us and so every time we speak or write we make a linguistic choice. Language does not exist in isolation from the world, so whenever we produce any discourse we do so in dialogue with other factors. The extent those factors influence the discourse – what is written or spoken – is what Critical Discourse Analysts are interested in. The linguistic choices we make, Fairclough claims, demonstrate our ideological stance. I used this method to explore and gain a deeper understanding into the underlying theological beliefs (ideologies) of male and female preachers displayed through the linguistic features used in sermons. In short, it is a kind of exegesis of a sermon. To guard against making sweeping essentialist generalisations linguists developed a context focused approach called Communities of Practice. For the purposes of this study, the Community of Practice has been identified as senior cathedral clergy delivering a sermon in monologue form during the Liturgy of the Word of a main Sunday Eucharist service.

To identify which cathedrals to analyse I kept a spreadsheet on which I listed all the English cathedrals. I recorded every time a cathedral uploaded an audio file of their sermon to the internet. I kept this spreadsheet from the end of September 2017 until January 2018, and it wasn’t until December 2017 that more than two women preached at different cathedrals on the same day. I identified four sermons which were recorded live and whose sermons are freely available in the public domain. The Sunday selected for analysis was the fourth Sunday of Advent 2017, which by a quirk of the lunar calendar and the lectionary was also Christmas Eve. The readings set for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16; Canticle: Magnificat or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 [or 89:1-8]; Romans 16:25-end; Luke: 1 26-38.

The starting point for any Critical Discourse Analysis depends on where the critical analyst locates and defines power. In the case of the Church of England, it seems to me that power is exercised by highlighting and creating differences between men and women. Very few places, other than the Church of England is the question of gender such a salient point. The research I carried out was a very small-scale research into sermons preached at cathedrals in England. The four cathedrals selected represented the breadth, tradition and diversity of the Church of England and included two men preachers and two women preachers.

I discovered that both men and women have equal access to powerful linguistic features and both men and women use those linguistic features well and do so frequently. Both men and women use adversarial language with equal frequency to challenge, provoke and entertain their hearers. I also found no evidence to suggest that men and women preachers in cathedrals use a different language to communicate their sermons. Neither men nor women are more or less powerful when they speak.

However, representations of the world coded in the language of the sermons, revealed that there is an ideological difference between those sermons preached by men and those sermons preached by women. I previously claimed that I believed power is created in the Church of England by highlighting differences between men and women, and the sermons analysed in this study reveal that it is men who do just that. The male preachers included in this study maintained power and authority by defining differences between men and women and overlooking women’s powerful attributes.

When men preach, women are overlooked. In both sermons preached by male preachers Mary, the woman chosen by God to bear his Son; the woman who had found favour with God, is reduced to a walk-on part. Her contribution to Jesus’ birth is side-lined and silenced. The congregation never hears what Mary has to say, nor what Mary offered to the world or to God. Her silence and obedience are highlighted and whenever women are mentioned in the sermons preached by men they are mentioned as victims of male authority or their sinfulness is highlighted. In both the sermons preached by men the sermon focussed on the Old Testament reading for the day, David’s own tribute to God in the form of a temple.

This this study demonstrates that if we look for differences then we will surely find them, and it is male preachers who notice the differences. Coded in the linguistic choices of the male preachers analysed in this study was an ideological framework to put human worldly constraints on women saints. To counteract this the men sought to assert male supremacy, deny women an identity and highlight sinfulness as an inherently womanly attribute.

The idea that women’s speech is in some way deficient to that of men’s is a fallacy, there is no evidence to back up this claim. There is also no evidence to suggest that women have adapted their language to a more androcentric institutional norm in order to somehow “fit-in” with the male tradition in the church. If we persist in perpetuating the myth that men and women speak or preach differently, then we are colluding in a lie; to half quote St Paul, ‘there is no male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.’


Revd Jenni Beaumont is Assistant Curate at St. Mary the Virgin, Davyhulme in the Diocese of Manchester.

[The study described was undertaken in part fulfilment of a MA in Practical and Contextual Theology at the University of Chester. The full study is available to view online in the university’s library.]

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