Brief Book Review: A Womanist Theology of Worship

A Womanist Theology of Worship:
Liturgy, Justice and Communal Righteousness
by Lisa Allen

Who’s it for? This book is meant for theological classrooms that are engaging with liturgical theology and the practice of worship. Theological classrooms include but aren’t limited to seminaries, as the history, content and assertions that Allen makes are critical considerations for worship practitioners at large, particularly those within Black Church traditions.

What’s the main point? Allen offers what she names as a “new paradigm for Black worship, one that reimagines liturgy and liturgies through a womanist lens and works to dismantle white supremacy in and through the Black Church.” (xviii).

What stood out to me the most? Allen’s consideration of the foundations of Black worship across time and what that then implies for the practice of Black worship today stood out to me the most. She names three aspects of Black worship as pillars of the Black liturgical framework: a personal view of God, a communal call for justice, and the communal identity. Allen posits justice as a central tenet of Black worship creation as well as a necessary teleological hope for worship. To start at justice, particularly focused on the lived experiences and practices of Black women, is groundbreaking for many and critical for all. By positing this as an important methodological commitment, Allen asks the reader to consider the worship they participate in both in practice and its history to consider how it might be shaped and informed by these new commitments.

Gifts. While there are many gifts from this book I’d like to posit two as particularly significant contributions.

First, this book serves as the most comprehensive consideration of Black worship since Melva Costen’s African American Christian Worship (1993). Allen offers her own assertion about Black worship as discussed in the previous section and also unpacks the lineage and different historical taproots that are embedded within Black worship. The book offers a historical unpacking as well as an assertion of different theological themes found within Black worship and why knowing them matters. For an introduction to worship class, this is a must read.

Second, a gift of this book is Allen’s construction of a womanist liturgical theology at the end as her offering of the “new paradigm.” In this she talks about the necessity of considering embodiment within the worship space and how important affirming embodiment is within a womanist paradigm of worship. This explication was particularly helpful as we think about the negotiations that Black bodies have had to make and the dangers of being Black in the United States of America. Therefore, to embody blackness within worship isn’t a simple liturgical act, but one of protest and subversion to a normative societal lens that would ask Black bodies to conform to whiteness. This section participates in an important conversation that certainly needs more attention in liturgical scholarship at large.

A Question I Considered After Reading: Chapter 10, “A Womanist Liturgical Theology”, asks explicitly, “What would it mean to worship in a womanist way?” In many ways this is the conclusion of the book, even as a womanist hermeneutic has been woven throughout the text. This work would benefit from a longer unpacking of this question in this chapter. However, as the author names herself, it would not be viable to try and unpack all that is womanist spirituality, worship and ritual in one text. My question for further inquiry is, “What would a book offer that began at this question as the introduction?” so that it would have the time to unpack the answer more thoroughly.

Overall, this is a great addition for any course studying worship and/or Black Church traditions and a good read for anyone interested in the historical lineage of Black worship and the particularities that womanism brings to the conversation.

Allen, Lisa. A Womanist Theology of Worship: Liturgy, Justice and Communal Righteousness. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2021. 231 pages. $28.00. ISBN: 9781626984448.

REVIEWER: The Rev. Dr. Chelsea Brooke Yarborough
is Assistant Professor of African American Preaching,
Sacred Rhetoric and Black Practical Theology at
Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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