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Book Preview – The Faith Lives of Women and Girls, edited by Nicola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips

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[Nicola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips preview their edited collection, The Faith Lives of Women and Girls: Qualitative Research Perspectives (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013)].

The Spiritual is Political

‘The personal is political’ has long encapsulated a core feminist idea that, contrary to dominant opinion, women’s lived experiences are not irrelevant to wider discussions about how society functions, what is valued, and the practices of public institutions (economic, political and intellectual). Our edited collection, The Faith Lives of Women and Girls, elaborates on this reality, demonstrating that the spiritual also is political. Women’s and girls’ experiences of, and theological reflections on, faith are not irrelevant to Christian understanding and practice.  Rather, they have much to offer, not only in correcting the distortion of human faith experience that has resulted from their omission, but also in offering new creative insights for the benefit of the whole.

The Faith Lives of Women and Girls is a collection of essays based on recent, original field research conducted by a range of contributors and informed by a variety of theoretical perspectives, into the faith lives of women and girls – broadly from within a Christian context. The main focus of the book is on original qualitative research that identifies, illuminates and enhances understanding of key aspects of women’s and girls’ faith lives. Offered as a contribution to feminist practical and pastoral theology, the essays arise out of and feed back into a range of pastoral and practical contexts in the United Kingdom and Ireland – whilst also drawing on and related to other contexts – offering a significant resource to practical theologians, researchers and practitioners.

The contributions in the book come out of a Qualitative Research Symposium that Nicola Slee convened for the first time in 2010, to bring together an increasing number of (often isolated) women researchers.  For despite the flourishing of Christian feminist theology over recent decades, represented in a vast scholarly as well as popular literature, feminist practical theology has been much slower to emerge as a distinct discipline, particularly in the UK. Our book represents the first significant gathering of a body of feminist qualitative research on the faith lives of women and girls within the British context.

Contents Outline

The book is arranged in five sections. In Part I, we offer a contextualization of what follows in the rest of the book in two essays which offer broad perspectives. In the first essay, Nicola Slee considers feminist qualitative research method as a form of spiritual practice. Her reflections are rooted in her wide engagement with qualitative researchers exploring female faith – through her research supervisory role at the Queen’s Foundation, her work as an external examiner, and through feminist and practical theology networks, as well as her own doctoral work on women’s faith development. She suggests ways in which qualitative research represents for many feminist women not only a scholarly, ethical and personal quest for meaning, but also a spiritual practice or process enshrining core religious or spiritual values. In the second essay in this section, Jan Berry offers a robust critique of so-called ‘public’ theology, challenging a simplistic binary between private and public and demonstrating how this is particularly problematic for women. Much of the research in this book might look at first sight as if it is addressing the so-called ‘private’ religious lives of women and girls, but read in the light of Jan Berry’s discussion, it may quickly be seen that this is not the case. The most intensely personal religious experiences and aspirations of women and girls both emerge out of and feed back into public contexts in many and varied ways.

In Part II, a variety of research into different ages, stages and styles of female faith is offered. If women’s lives have been neglected generally in research and in theology, this applies even more to the lives of girls, young women and older women. Abby Day explores the values, beliefs and experiences of ‘generation A’, a group of Anglican women born in the 1920s and 1930s. Sarah-Jane Page reports on a comparative study of two cohorts of Anglican women (one clergy and one lay) from different generations to consider their differing attitudes towards feminism, and how feminism has impacted on their faith and ministry. Kim Wasey examines young Anglican lay women’s experiences of communion, articulating their ‘ordinary theology’ in contrast to ‘official’ church theologies of the Eucharist. Anne Phillips reflects on the faith lives of girls in a British Baptist context, their different forms of ‘faithing’, how the research process can be an empowering experience for the girls, and offers insights to churches which seek to nurture the faith of girls.

In Part III, a variety of geographical and ecclesial contexts provide stimulating comparisons of how the faith of women and girls is context-specific and responds to particular cultural, political and social challenges. Fran Porter considers how women’s faith has been both shaped by, and contributed to, the context of Northern Ireland including how (both Protestant and Catholic) women’s notions of God have been shaped by the conflictual context in which they seek to live out faith. Manon Ceridwen James traces the identity of women in Wales in terms of how the dominant religious tradition in that land has shaped religious, personal and cultural identity, highlighting the variety of expectations placed upon women by religion, particularly in terms of sexual morality. The two following essays focus on evangelical and Pentecostal cultures respectively within differing British church settings, showing how these ecclesial cultures may continue to be antithetical to women’s faith development and challenging those responsible for teaching and worship in these settings to take account of women’s needs. Ruth Perrin considers the attitudes of young evangelical women to role models, highlighting the lack of positive female biblical role models offered to young women in an evangelical setting. Deseta Davis examines preaching in the Black Pentecostal tradition, analyzing a sample of sermon texts from a local Church of God of Prophecy for their usage of gender imagery and assumptions, which reveals how women are invisible in preaching and, when included, often presented in stereotypical or negative ways.

Part IV brings together studies that illuminate a variety of women’s spiritual practices, beliefs and attachments. There is an emphasis in this section on the lived quality of women’s faith, its strong rooting in relationality and connectedness, and on the differing meanings and value of silence and silencing in women’s religious experience. Emma Rothwell describes a piece of action research in which she worked with a small cohort of women in an Anglican parish to share faith journeys, consider women’s treatment in both church and society, and create a collaborative record of the research process. Susanna Gunner recounts another participatory research project, describing how she created Woman-Cross, a feminist reworking of the traditional stations of the Cross, and enacted this with a group of women in an Anglican rural parish; she reflects on and asserts the significance of ‘ritual faithing’ in women’s faith lives. In contrast to the dominant use of ‘silencing’ as an image of disempowerment, Alison Woolley focuses on women’s chosen practices of silence, in prayer and meditation, and gives a rich account of the meanings women identify in such practices. Eun Sim Joung brings the theoretical perspective of attachment theory to bear on an analysis of the faith narratives of a group of UK-based Korean Christian women, showing how attachment theory can illuminate and discriminate between different kinds of religious attachment held by women. Caroline Kitcatt considers in detail the significance of women’s experiences of spiritual accompaniment, its importance for the support and maturation of women’s faith, but also the challenges it can present if there is a confusion between spiritual accompaniment and other forms of relationship. Francesca Rhys recounts the ‘ordinary Christologies’ of a small group of women from a range of denominations and traditions, exploring to what extent these women found their relationship to Jesus Christ liberatory.

Finally, Part V offers three rich accounts of various kinds of liminal experience commonly encountered by women, and their significance in women’s faith lives. Jennifer Hurd investigates the encounter with death and bereavement of those diagnosed with terminal illness, and their carers and relatives, bringing to bear the notion of natality as developed by Grace Jantzen in order to explore how such a biophilic perspective might inform pastoral care of those who are dying and those who accompany them. Noelia Molina offers early findings from her interviews with women who have given birth, exploring the ways in which this experience of liminality may be considered a profoundly spiritual one, as motherhood enacts transformation for the woman in terms of her understanding of her self and her relationship with others, the world and the divine. Finally, Susan Shooter reflects on her research into a liminal experience that one would wish were not common for women but unfortunately is: the experience of abuse. She reveals the theological richness, creativity and generosity of women who, despite having undergone the most appalling experiences, maintain a profound conviction of the timeless presence of God which saves. She challenges the churches not only to recognize the depth of the faith as well as the suffering of women who have experienced abuse, but to affirm and support the ministry of those who have survived abuse.

Purposes and Hopes

Reflecting the purpose and practice of the Symposium from which these essays arise, as well as seeking to offer new research into the faith lives of women and girls, an accompanying theme throughout the book is on the research process itself, understood from feminist and practical theological perspectives. We are concerned particularly to ask and explore how the research process enshrines fundamental principles of faith and feminism such as liberation, empowerment, respect for the other, collaborative forms of knowledge, and so on. We hope that this text makes a significant contribution to feminist practical theology, to the social scientific study of religion, and particularly to feminist-inspired qualitative research on religion. As well as offering new knowledge on the faith lives of women and girls, there are challenges to church practice and theology from a range of different ecclesial contexts, and there are challenges to theoretical perspectives, including feminist perspectives and earlier work on women’s faith lives. We anticipate that this will be a valuable text for students in theological education (those preparing for various forms of ministry in the churches), for those working in the field of practical/pastoral theology, particularly at masters and doctoral level, and for researchers in the field. Whilst located primarily in a UK context, we believe that the research here may speak to a wider international readership.

For women of faith who are conducting research into the faith of other women and girls, the overlap between personal and professional, between research and the rest of life, is inevitably blurred, and it is obvious that such research will be highly influenced by the personal faith experience and convictions of the researcher. This is not to be deemed a ‘failure’ of research so long as it is acknowledged and made visible for self-scrutiny as well as the critical scrutiny of others. As editors, too, the process of working together on this book and helping to bring to light what might otherwise remain the hidden work of women of faith (the hiddenness extending both to those who have conducted the research and to the women and girls who form the subjects of their research) has been a process of enrichment and enlargement of our own faith. More than this, the stories of the faith lives of women and girls that the book reveals have import for wider theological understanding and practice; our hope is that theologians, pastors and practitioners may constructively engage with what they find here.

[Nicola Slee is a Research Fellow at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. Fran Porter is a Freelance researcher, writer and teacher. Anne Phillips is Co-Principal at the Northern Baptist Learning Community, Manchester.]

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