The typography of AWESOME Voices: God working through ordained women today isn’t simply a matter of enthusiasm (though the lavish use of exclamation marks inside testifies to that.) It’s the acronym for Anglican Women Evangelicals: Supporting our Ordained Ministries, a group whose founding story is told in the introduction by Lis Goddard. A group of female clergy at the fourth National Evangelical Anglican Congress began chatting in the toilets about the problems particular to their roles, and ended up creating a series of networks to sustain each other. The rest of the book tells the stories of seven members of the network: Jane Plackett, Suse McBay, Sally Hitchiner, Clare Hendry, Jane Morris, Liz Hoare and Kate Wharton. Reflecting on their various experiences of ministry, they explain how they felt called to serve and the routes which that calling has led them to follow.
The individual stories are vividly told, and each writer gives a strong sense of their personality. Abstract theological discussion is eschewed in favour of personal narrative, and ideological issues are approached via anecdote. This gives the book a rootedness in the practical reality of being an ordained woman in the Evangelical tradition, and the spaces where that role is carried out: from Spring Harvest to a hospital administration office, and from Wycliffe Hall to the streets of London on the morning after rioting. The diversity of experience is striking: Sally Hitchiner comments on the curious appeal her leather jacket had for journalists wanting to turn her into a glam-vicar, whilst Jane Morris writes about going through motherhood as a form of conversion experience, and Kate Wharton talks of feeling God’s anger and sorrow as she worked with marginalised people in Liverpool. The progress of each career, through the first nagging thoughts of ordination, the advice of family and friends, the looming Diocesan Director of Ordinands, the period in training and the reactions of various congregations, maps the tension between individual calling and the institutional response.
That tension is one of the persistent themes of the book, of course. The divisions in Evangelical groups over women’s ministry and ordination has led to many feeling “marginalised, voiceless, and unsupported”. All the contributors speak with generosity and understanding about those in their own tradition (and others) who cannot accept female clergy, and seek a solution which respects everyone’s conscience. But, as Jane Moore points out, the theological disagreement is of a peculiarly painful kind when it involves their interlocutors questioning “our very sense of call, vocation, and identity”. The division has a tendency to perpetuate Evangelical women’s under-recognition, since some find it so difficult they migrate to other traditions, reinforcing the impression that a woman with a call to ministry is inherently un-sound or un-Evangelical. (A pattern which women in computer programming, heavy metal and politics may recognise in frustrated solidarity.) The writers of AWESOME Voices live their professional and spiritual lives surrounded by ideological tension, and the book embodies the peaceful theological diversity it proposes, since Clare Hendry and Lis Goddard have co-authored a book (The Gender Agenda) in which they explain their differing views on the question of male headship.
A large measure of AWESOME Voices’ value comes from the increased visibility it provides for ordained women within the Evangelical tradition. The question of what an Evangelical calling looks like and feels like when it happens to a woman has been – for obvious reasons – much less written about than the male counterpart. Other accounts of ordained women’s lives, such as Jobs For the Boys? and Voices of This Calling, have harped upon the search for role models, for a language within which to express internal spiritual experience in a male-dominated community, and for a vision of the difference women might make. This volume should help with this project of building up a structure of images within which Evangelical woman can understand themselves and their identity, alongside the institutional structure which the AWESOME networks provide.