‘Thus says the Lord … “Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So you shall be my people, and I will be your God”’ Jeremiah 11.4.
God’s own voice is neither male nor female. But as we all, both male and female, are made in God’s image, all our voices echo something of the voice of God. When women’s voices are not heard, we are deaf, at least in part, to the word of God. And muting, at least in part, the voice of God.
In scripture we must therefore be attentive to the voices of women. For example, therefore, as we read of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, we must listen out to the voice of the God of Sarah, Hagar and Keturah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Leah and Rachel, and Bilhah and Zilpah. Salvation history is told through the stories of women as well as men. We have to listen harder to God through such women’s voices – and even more so for those women who are unnamed and passed by - because so often what God is saying in and through them is drowned by the louder noise of the men around them.
This matters because when we do not listen to women, we are being deaf to the voice of God.
It is not only the narratives of scripture that specifically include women that might help us listen to God more carefully and completely. God speaks, reaches out, loves, through every word of scripture, and God does not speak with a male voice.
As I age, like most people, I am finding that my hearing diminishes. It is not only volume that makes a difference, there are pitches I find more difficult to hear. That means it takes more attention to follow some conversations; it is less likely that I can pick out particular sounds from cacophony; some music is harder to appreciate. If we only listen to particular or limited pitches of God’s voice in scripture, we are missing out – certainly of the fullness of all that God offers, and perhaps of something significant and vital.
Both men and women need to listen out for God speaking with a woman’s voice through all of scripture if we are to hear God more clearly.
And further, it is not only in the words of scripture itself that women’s voices need to be heard. Women’s voices are necessary as we respond and engage with scripture. If women’s voices are not heard in the study and proclamation of scripture we risk losing for ourselves, or denying to others, the hope of salvation because we are listening only partially. As Thomas Cranmer taught us to pray:
‘Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of eternal life.’
All of scripture is for, and of, all, and each, of us. None of us hears or understands completely, and we discover the truths of God together. What we are hearing, and understanding, will be warped and distorted, as well as limited, if we ignore or marginalise the voice of women in our reception of scripture.
When we do not hear what women hear, what women have read and marked and learnt, if the ways that women have been nourished by saving word of God are not recognised, we deny the work of God. When women’s voices are silenced or disregarded, God is dishonoured, and, according to Cranmer’s prayer, the promise of eternal life itself may slip from our grasp.
When we do not listen to women, we are being deaf to the voice of God.
All this means, I think, that men and women alike (individually and together) need to be attentive and open, both to God’s own voice sounding as a woman, and to the voices of women themselves that may be echoing the voice of God.
We women, therefore, need to take courage, and make our voices heard. If I do not speak, I am silencing something of God that cannot otherwise be spoken. We all have a responsibility to be attentive to the voice of God in women’s voices. That may mean men taking responsibility not to drown us out, but it also means women taking responsibility: to use our own voices and amplify one another’s voices.
For many of us that is hard. Centuries of conditioning have taught us to be silent, that we have nothing worth saying and that we won’t be heard. Some of us prefer now to remain muted, and we do not want to hear that our voice is God’s voice. That responsibility is too much.
My premise, though, is that we are denying God if we deny ourselves. It is ridiculous and outrageous - but it seems that God voice is spoken and heard in and through fallen, fallible, fractured humanity, including women and girls – including me.
My voice is God’s voice.
If it is true that when we do not listen to women, we are being deaf to the voice of God, it must also be true that when we women do not speak we are silencing the voice of God.
I think I have always known the truth in all this, though it has taken me years to recognise and articulate it. The prompt for this particular train of thought was being asked to introduce the ‘Women’s Voices’ Conference at Foxhill House in the Diocese of Chester in 2018. This is annual conference to explore and give space to women’s voices in the exposition of scripture, and through preaching in particular. This conference provides important opportunity for women and men to give attention to hearing God’s voice in women, and for women to gain the confidence to speak up and speak out.
I do pray that God raises up more women to preach and teach and write and proclaim, in public places, the good news of Jesus Christ. Even though a few of us are now prominent in the church, and can make some noise, God’s voice in women’s voices is still only a background whisper and often still unheard or diminished. Perhaps we should not pray for it to be any other way. Perhaps in that marginalisation and silencing, God’s voice is heard most clearly –- if we bother to listen. Perhaps in learning to hear God with a woman’s voice, we can all be freed from the pressure and expectation to be loud and overbearing in order to be heard or taken seriously.
However, my prayer is not only for those with recognised role and responsibility in the churches. Even more I pray that women, and men, will have the grace and gift to voice the love and invitation of God in everyday ways. That, being transforming agents of the kingdom in the ordinariness of daily life and ready to give account of the hope that is in them, women, and men, young and old, will find confidence to be the voice of God for their family, neighbours, colleagues, friends.
I pray that all God’s people will be free, every day and all day, having heard God’s voice, to give God voice.
The Rt Revd Libby Lane is Bishop of Derby.
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