Sometimes your voice is not your own. I remember a trip to a fine cathedral in England where the woman presiding spoke in a baritone- the sonorous tones of the quintessential Anglican clergyman. It was rather surprising to hear the voice of a Nigel or a John from the mouth of a petite woman, but her speaking voice was even more surprising as she greeted those exiting the service. As she welcomed parishioners in the church’s narthex, her voice was the slightly breathy alto of a woman whose voice was lower, surely, but hardly a low tenor, much less a baritone. She was a gifted cantor, and, it seems, an excellent mimic. Here was a woman who gave the people what they wanted–and what they wanted was the classic churchman.
When you’re preparing for ordination- the interminable tests, interviews, classes, the endless waiting and worrying- no one tells you that sometimes the voice you use will not be your own. There are a thousand subtle ways we women are encouraged to lower and deepen our voices. Be careful not to over-emote when you are preaching. Wear unobtrusive jewelry when you celebrate the Eucharist. Avoid colors like pink. Take care with your hairstyle; you want to appear professional, not girlish. No one says, “Lower your pitch,” but you get the feeling that this might be next on the list.
I live in a church world that embraces and treasures tradition. It is one of the things I love about being an Episcopalian. But sometimes tradition is a guise for attributing importance to other things: ideas whose time has passed, ideas about what a priest looks like, acts like, and sounds like. Thanks to two millennia of male clergy, expectations for what a priest sounds like favor basses over sopranos.
When I stand up to give a sermon, I am aware that I am doing something that is beyond me, and that is not about me. Yet, it is my voice that delivers the message; my throat carries the words to the congregation. To utter anything in the name of the Triune God demands a leap of faith. We have to believe that God will use our prayers, our life, our study, our words to encourage, instruct, and inspire Christ’s body. We have to believe God will use our voices to share a Good Word with the Church.
Sometimes I feel like the clergywoman at the cathedral. I am self-conscious about things that will emphasize my woman-ness. “Is this lipstick too noticeable?” “Is that sermon illustration too ‘emotional’?” So I change my lipstick or remove the anecdote. I am careful with my words. I rarely raise my voice. I never “upspeak.” Perhaps it’s because that’s the sort of preacher I am. Perhaps, though, it’s because deep down I know a voice like mine isn’t the one the people are hoping for.
I remember visiting patients during CPE and having several people ask when the “real chaplain” (the male CPE student) was going to visit. I think of the fuss people make over young clergymen and the promise they hold for the church. So often, after they finish praising that wonderful young man, they begin a litany of great wistfulness for the days gone by. It doesn’t matter that they may not have even been alive then; they can still recite the blessings of the Midcentury Mainline: full Sunday Schools, packed pews, growth every year…and the priests were men. After the recitation, the person is often quiet. In that silence I hear them make the connection, ”Maybe if the priests were men…”
So I walk on eggshells. My preaching is more analytical and less anecdotal. I strive to be more head than heart in my preaching, lest someone doubt my intellectual ability. I use manuscripts because the text insures I won’t get “too excited” or “ramble” or “sound young” (which I suspect might be code for “sound like a woman”). When I need an example I often refer to classics in Western Literature and the latest stories in the right periodicals. “See, I am well read”, my choices say.
Sometimes I catch myself dropping my voice half an octave. At times like those, I am thankful for the women who went before me. I am thankful for the women who stand with me (thanks TYCWP!). I am thankful for the friends and colleagues, both women and men, who challenge and encourage me. I am thankful that I can do the same for them.
In the eyes of the church, I might be a second-class clergy person, not because of what I do but because of who I am (not). In the eyes of God, though, there is no such thing as second-class, and God’s are the only eyes that really matter. So I pray, I preach, I listen, and I love. I know the God who called me has always been in the business of doing a new, wonderful, and unexpected thing. It’s too bad the church is almost always the last to figure it out. The days I remember this, my voice is my own. I thank God for that.
Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/55236839@N00/6310272280/”>GregPC</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>