Every year The Living Church’s student essay contest draws several excellent submissions. The first-place essay will be published in the October issue of The Living Church, but several other essays were of such quality that we have decided to publish them here on Covenant. 

By Maxine King

The Book of Margery Kempe is undoubtedly a strange book. Often described as the first autobiography written by a woman in English, Margery’s book describes her spiritual life as a middle-class laywoman from Kempe at the turn of the 15th century. Even the most cursory glance at any of its vignettes will prompt any number of confused reactions at Margery’s odd piety, especially when read in her original language, which only further accentuates this strangeness for contemporary readers (which is precisely why I’ve retained some of these archaic turns of phrase in this essay). Margery spectacularly fails at business ventures, receives visions from Jesus, convinces her husband to be in a celibate marriage, and goes on pilgrimage, loudly weeping almost everywhere she goes to the great annoyance and confusion of many. Even the manuscript history of Margery’s book is full of strange exoticism. While the existence of Margery’s book was known of for centuries, it was not until the 1930s when a search for a ping-pong ball (really!) led to the opening of an old cabinet drawer that was home to the only known manuscript of the book’s full text.

While one might rightly argue for soberly contextualizing her strangeness as merely due to belonging to a different historical and cultural context than our own, Margery’s book makes it clear that this strangeness was experienced as such by many of her contemporaries. The strangeness experienced in reading Margery’s book, then, is not always of a presentist projectionism, for we might think of its strangeness as an affect consciously cultivated by Margery herself in seeking a unique form of ascetic sanctity that would be available to her as a secular lay woman. Margery’s “forme of levyngs” [form of livings] is found in the “turnyng up so down” [turning upside down] of her own life in an experimental lay vocation marked by a refusal to follow commonly accepted models of women’s piety.[1] Margery’s asceticism is a performance of an alternative form of churchly vocation that subverts the presumed static ascetic hierarchies of clerical/lay, religious/secular, and linguistic/non-linguistic, and is therefore necessarily strange. And while we cannot make easy one-to-one applications of Margery’s story, it is this strangeness of Margery’s vocation that is most relevant and shows most promise for dislodging the current ruts in our church’s thinking and practice of lay vocations today.


Margery’s quest for sanctity is hampered from the beginning of her conversion. As an already-married woman, she is unable to follow the usual vocational paths of holiness: she cannot become a cleric and she cannot become a nun. Margery also does not accept what seems to be the necessary outcome of her refusal of the religious life, that is, the kind of enclosure required by a conventional secular married life. Instead, she turns the expectations of a married laywoman up so down, most infamously in her negotiations with her husband to secure a chaste marriage. Equally important, however, is the series of business failures which prevent her from securing a conventionally successful mercantile life. All onlookers — and Margery herself — agree that these failures are secured by divine intervention, with some seeing them as proof of divine vengeance for Margery’s sins. Yet it is only the “wise people, whose minds were more grounded in the love of our Lord,” who can see that Margery’s failure to achieve business success “was the high mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that bade and beckoned her from the pride and vanity of the wretched world.”[2] Margery’s business success could have translated to an acceptable and highly desirable form of lay piety through increased tithing and ecclesial patronage that would have been welcomed by those in the Church who would later become her detractors, but divine mercy ensures that Margery’s lay piety will not be tied down to such intelligible forms.

Having refused the secular enclosure of a normative married and mercantile life, Margery is goaded by antagonistic clergy toward the religious enclosure as another form of vocational intelligibility. In one story, Margery is accosted by an old monk who dares her to speak of God. When Margery enthusiastically responds that she will dare to both “speak of Him and hear of Him” — refusing to limit her activity to the passive receptivity expected of a lay woman — the monk replies, “I would like you to be enclosed in a house of stone, so that nobody might speak with you.”[3] By alluding to the stone enclosure of the anchorite, the monk marks his anxiety about Margery’s ability to freely travel and speak with others, the very qualities enabled by being a lay woman free from a religious rule. For this, Margery is accused of Lollardy and run out of the monastery, but Jesus quickly comforts her in a private vision, assuring her that she is “a pillar of Holy Church”[4] — the very same language Paul uses to describe James, Peter, and John in Galatians! Margery’s forme of levyngs now turns ecclesial pillar-dom up so down by including a secular lay woman accused of heresy with the great apostolic bishops of the New Testament. It is also an especially delicious irony that Margery later disproves the old monk’s assumption that enclosure would prevent the movement of alternative modes of women’s religiosity outside of clerical control by visiting and partaking in “much holy conversation” with the enclosed Julian of Norwich — so much for enclosure preventing the sharing of Margery’s and other women’s strange vocations.[5]

In Margery’s mature public ministry, she continues to pursue her strange vocation by recapitulating the extralinguistic qualities of what spurred her initial conversion, when she heard “a melody so sweet and delectable that she thought she must have been in Paradise.”[6] Margery mirrors this extralinguistic converting melody through her ministry of tears, which similarly occur outside the bounds of language, securing the strangeness of her lay vocation in a church centrally concerned with the linguistic and clerical ministries of the word.[7] In one relevant instance, a monk who has heard of her intimacy with God asks her to find out if he will be saved or not. Margery replies by telling the monk, “go to Mass, and if I may weep for you, I hope to have grace for you,” drawing a parallel between the ministries of the priest at the altar and of her own crying in the pew.[8] After Jesus tells her of the monks’ sins during the Mass, Margery even assumes the role of spiritual director to the monk in giving advice and encouraging his confession, demonstrating that the grace of Margery’s extralinguistic tears are able to invert the expected hierarchy of male/religious and female/secular. While there are some clerics in Margery’s narrative who experience this inversion as competitive to their own ministry (most especially when Margery’s homiletical weeping occurs during their sermons), Margery’s extralinguistic ministry of tears need not be considered as in competition with the clerical ministry of the word. Jesus himself presents them as complementary, telling Margery “to pray for your spiritual director in this way: that as many men and women might be converted by his preaching as you would like to be converted by the tears of your eyes.”[9] Margery’s ministry of tears turns the expectation of a merely passive listener to the active presider and preacher up so down.

Margery does, of course, strategically seek intelligibility in her narrative, as she sees her vocation as an ecclesial one and desires for it to be understood as such by the clergy of the Church she loves. That there is a book at all is a testimony to her seeking this particular form of legitimacy that can only come through some form of ecclesial acceptance of her form of life. Even in the book’s necessarily clerical production, Margery asserts her authority in presenting the strangeness of her vocation even in her search for ecclesial authorization. She first refuses the “worthy and honourable clerics” who initially beg her to write the book,[10] and even when the first manuscript is finally written, it is discovered that the scribe has written in an unintelligible script. It is only through her prayers that her new clerical writer receives “special grace” to be able to understand the extralinguistic scribbles produced in the first scribe’s transcription of her experience.[11] Then, when an intelligible copy of the book is finally being produced, the clerical scribe’s eyesight fails and it is again only after Margery’s prayers that the production of the book is able to continue with his eyesight restored, “[seeing] as well (he thought) as he ever had before, both by daylight and by candlelight.”[12] Even in Margery’s search for clerical legitimacy through the writing of her book, the text goes to absurd lengths to demonstrate that it is Margery who presides over every step of the process of making her life legible in a process continually marked by clerical inability (apart from Margery’s intervention, that is).

The Book of Margery Kempe is obviously no formal dogmatic treatise on Margery’s form of lay asceticism or lay spirituality in general, nor should we bowdlerize its particularity with a simple appropriation of its content into contemporary ecclesial policy. The Episcopal Church has plenty of catchy programs and slogans for its laity, and our clergy are happy to triumphantly proclaim, “lay people are listed first among the ministers of the church in our catechism!” ad nauseam, as if it were a kind of incantation that magically wards off the possibility of clericalism. The strangeness that we encounter in Margery — and the strangeness that her contemporaries encountered in her — does not lend itself to this kind of appropriation, yet perhaps it is this obdurate strangeness that is best put to use in our church’s theology and practice of the laity today. Even the sincerest clerical promoters of “the ministry of the laity” can so often fall into tidy schemas in their attempt to pin down just what is a lay vocation. See, for instance, the Ecclesiology Committee of the House of Bishops’ 2013 report in which lay ministry within the church is described as predominantly “[taking] responsibility for finances, and for maintaining the properties of the congregation for the use by the rector for ministry” — it’s hard to imagine Margery fitting into such a neat categorization![13]

Recognizing how Margery’s strangeness confounds the commonly accepted hierarchies of secular/religious, lay/clerical, and active/passive (we might add weeping/preaching as well) might bolster our own church’s ability to recognize and celebrate the strangeness of other lay ecclesial vocations which go beyond accounting and property management. In this time between the times, amid the ecclesial slogans and catchphrases, those of us with strange lay vocations can look to Margery’s strange formes of levyngs for example and encouragement in turning alle this thyngys up so down.

Maxine King is an enthusiastic lay person and cantor in the Episcopal Church. She is currently a student of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.

[1] These and all original language quotations are taken from The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), 17; 19.

[2] The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. and ed. Anthony Bale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 14.

[3] Margery Kempe (Bale), 29.

[4] Margery Kempe (Bale), 31.

[5] Margery Kempe (Bale), 42.

[6] Margery Kempe (Bale), 15.

[7] Much of this analysis of the extralinguistic elements of Margery’s spirituality is indebted to Adin E. Lears, World of Echo: Noise and Knowing in Late Medieval England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020), 62-93.

[8] Margery Kempe (Bale), 29.

[9] Margery Kempe (Bale), 190.

[10] Margery Kempe (Bale), 5.

[11] Margery Kempe (Bale), 5.

[12] Margery Kempe (Bale), 6.

[13] Ecclesiology Committee of the House of Bishops, “A Primer on the government of The Episcopal Church and its underlying theology,” Fall 2013. I owe my attention to this document (and much of my thinking about lay vocations) to Elizabeth Anderson’s essay “The Priesthood of All Believers: The Uses and Abuses of a Doctrine.”


The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Lynn Staley. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.

The Book of Margery Kempe. Translated and edited by Anthony Bale. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Lears, Adin. World of Echo: Noise and Knowing in Late Medieval England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020.

3 Responses

  1. Kristen Gunn

    This was fantastic, encouraging and insightful, I felt, as another woman with a “strange” lay vocation. Thanks, Maxine!

    • Maxine King

      ah, thank you for this, kristin! encouraging fellow strange-vocation-having lay women is exactly why i wrote this — solidarity!


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