Confession: I get awkwardly nervous when asked to read something—scripture, call to worship, prayer, anything—during church. I’m talking about serious sweat-inducing nerves, not just a few harmless butterflies that give me jitters before my moment on stage. I work hard to keep my hands from shaking with the text beneath my fingers, to keep my voice level. Sometimes (really) I don’t reply to emails from our pastor, terrified I’ll be asked to read again and go through the motions of this frustrating anxiety.
Speaking in church should not be so anxiety-ridden, especially for me. I’m a teacher, after all: speaking in front of crowds is part of my job. But there is something different about being asked by a pastor to read scripture on Sunday, carefully holding the chapter with your finger through the opening hymns, and then shakily making your way to the stage to read aloud from your own Bible.
No one judges me if I mispronounce the name of an Old Testament king and no one cares if the microphone doesn’t work right away. When you read scripture, your job is to read loud to the congregation and proclaim This is the Word of the Lord: Thanks be to God. Your job is to pray the poetry written by the psalmist. Your job is to make your voice the vehicle for God’s, if only for a brief moment in the Sunday liturgy. Your job is to be a representative of the church community, to speak your words proudly from the stage, yourself a holy object.
Alright, so maybe the stress is warranted.
There’s a sense of social responsibility at work here, too: do I have any idea how meaningful it is that I am permitted to stand at the head of my church and read the words of God aloud to my community? My presence as a woman reading to the church is not vulgar or upsetting because I worship in a community that recognizes women as co-creators of shalom, as active participants in the bringing of the Kingdom. These positions of equality are celebrated by the symbolic presence of women on the stage and at the pulpit, where they lead the community in worship alongside the men.
I will not take this for granted, even though it is so easy to write it off as a tiny part of the liturgy, barely worth celebrating. In congregations where women speakers and preachers are affirmed, I think we grow forgetful of just how seriously our denominational ancestors denounced the female body as an unworthy and distracting vehicle for the Word. We shrug it off by saying, “Oh, our church is past all that; that whole issue doesn’t matter anymore.”
We look down our noses at those congregations that organize their worship only around men and think of ourselves as enlightened.
But I think we forget about those other congregations too easily; we forget about the women who attend those deeply conservative churches today, who, if they wish to announce something, pray something, ask something in church, they have to use their husband or another male relative. Their voices are mediated and they are taught that to speak unmediated is a marker of their sin.
I forget about these women, these churches, sometimes. Then I pick up a book like Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement again and realize that I shop alongside these women at the grocery store, that I wait in line with them at the checkout. They aren’t difficult to miss: ankle-length skirts, carefully braided buns, broods of children dressed in (what, for me, would have been) Sunday best, and quiet demeanors. I never saw members of this religious tradition up close until I moved to Texas, never understood their beliefs until I studied them myself.
Now I see them everywhere, and they remind me of this: I will not take this for granted, that I am asked to speak in church.