Dr Steve Holmes, Senior lecturer at University of St Andrews, explains the reasons why he created a new web resource and how we can help develop it.
The Alabaster Jar - www.alabasterjar.org.uk- is a website devoted to telling stories of female church leaders across the history of the church, women whose stories should be told across the world because they have done something beautiful for Jesus.
There are probably three key moments that led to me putting the time into setting this up.
One was a response from a friend, a pastor, to a blog post I wrote on International Women’s Day a year or two ago, telling something of the story of the amazing evangelist and leader Phoebe Palmer; she tweeted ‘thank you for giving us our history back’.
Another was reading Scot McKnight’s wonderful e-book, Junia is not Alone which at one point tells the stories of three female leaders from church history without naming them; Scot asked simply why these stories are forgotten, when others, of men, are still told?
The most important, however, was talking to a friend, another pastor, who had been a member of our current church whilst a student in St Andrews; she spoke of the difficulty as a young woman experiencing a call to the pastoral ministry of not knowing of any role models, never seeing or hearing a woman preach in the pulpit.
Of course, I’d heard and read that story before from many different women, but she was talking about the congregation my three daughters are growing up in; thankfully they see women behind the lectern (the pulpit’s long gone…) regularly, but it hit me with much more force because of the personal connection.
So in my head I had a young, gifted woman (probably if I’m honest in my head I had my own 13 year old daughter, or what I thought she might be like in three years time), and I imagined that she was being called by God to the ministry of the gospel, and was trying to understand that call. How would she hear about all the glorious role models who have gone before, about Phoebe Palmer and Lydia Sexton and Catherine Booth and Junia the apostle and Catherine of Siena and Sojourner Truth and Marie Dentière and Mary Dyer and Hadewijch of Antwerp and Katherine Chidley and thousands more?
I thought about a book. Then I thought about a website. Then I started the research. I had some wild ideas of paying people who can write properly for teenagers to write up my research, and paying other people to do some nice artwork, but in the end decided I just needed to get the thing going in some form, to trust that the stories mattered enough to not need too much dressing up. I would love to have better writers than me, and illustrations and other things; I would love the site to become enormous, hundreds of stories of gifted women called and used by God, a forest that someone could lose herself in for days at a time. But I preached last month on not despising the day of small things, and felt the time had come to start with what I had, rather than dreaming about what I might be able to get.
So if you go to the website you’ll find a modest collection of a dozen or so stories, with an architecture that will support many more. I intend to add at least a couple of stories a month myself, and have already been inviting others to join in. For each woman featured there are two basic pages, one a straightforward telling of her story, the other a guide to the scholarly sources for her life, and also a place for any needed argument (‘of course Junia was a woman; here’s why…’). The second page is to help someone to go deeper, or to respond to someone who rejects this or that story as implausible; you don’t have to take my word that it happened; here’s the scholarship! There’s space, obviously, to link to other things: pictures; online editions of her writings, if there are any; or whatever else might be useful.
I am deliberately wanting the site to contain nothing more than the women’s stories; there are places, of course, for controversy, for arguing about the interpretation of a couple of verses from Timothy and Corinthians, but there’s a place to tell stories too, stories that will inspire women to trust in God’s calling on their lives, and stories that will challenge others with evident works of the Spirit through the leadership and preaching ministry of women.
Several people have asked if they can help; yes, in two ways: with content; and through spreading the word. If you know about Argula von Grumbach or Sophia Wigington Hume or St Mary MacKillop or Julian of Norwich or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or whoever and would like to write about her for the site, you would be so much more than welcome; if you know women who would be encouraged to learn of mothers in the faith called and gifted by God to lead Christ’s church, please do point them to the site.