Book Reviews

A History of Women in Christian Worship

Susan J. White Cleveland, OH 2003-11-01

White, former professor of spiritual resources and disciplines and associate professor of worship and spirituality at Brite Divinity School, offers a remarkable study of the participation of women in the worship life of the church, specifically their influence on Christian worship and piety through the centuries. Chapters describe places of women’s worship, how women influence worship, liturgical practice, Sunday behaviors, the Christian household, and women’s role in liturgical art. Footnotes introduce valuable sources not normally included in liturgical research, but which reveal the patterns of women’s influence. White’s research gives precedence to sources written by women (diaries, letters, autobiographies, poems, hymns, and other religious writings), legal records involving women (wills and court transcripts), and the material evidences and legacies left by women who “spent their lives saying prayers and singing hymns, giving money and decorating alters, teaching their children and burying their dead . . . primary actors in the liturgical history and shapers of the liturgical future of the church” (p. 8). A small gallery of photographs illustrates some of these concepts (although a larger selection might have been more useful).

White admits that she initially shared the assumptions of most feminist liturgical scholars, “that men have always controlled women’s liturgical lives, and, second, that ‘the church’ was a power structure which used the historic liturgy as a technology of dominance” (p. 5). Her research, however, demonstrates that these assumptions are not always true. Women have exercised significant influence over the practices of Christian worship, although their contribution has been masked by the sources customarily used in liturgical research. White writes as if sharing pastoral thoughts, rather than reporting on academic research. In her anecdotes one hears voices from many worlds. A modern pastor will find his thoughts turn quickly to his own experiences, discovering and commending women who serve in similar significant ways. Others may find comfort in the descriptions of struggles that have changed little despite the wider variety and scale of the conflicts in years past or may value the comparative calm of their own churches. Every reader will discover a broader appreciation for the many significant opportunities for leadership and influence available to every believer within a worshiping community.

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