From the Worldwide Faith News archives

"Re-Imagining Revival"

Date 25 Apr 1998 07:35:58

    "Re-Imagining Revival" Marks The End of 
    "The Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity With Women" 
    by Alexa Smith 
SAINT PAUL, Minn.-It was the spirituality that he read between the lines of 
media coverage of a controversial ecumenical women's conference here five 
years ago called "Re-Imagining ... God, Community and the Church" that 
brought Presbyterian minister John Martin all the way from Elizabethton, 
Tenn., to the Twin Cities area to see for himself. 
    That put Martin and his wife, Carolyn, among the approximately 180 
members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who signed up for the 
"Re-Imagining Revival" here last weekend. It was the largest denominational 
group for a reunionlike gathering of the first event's feminist theologians 
and liturgists, whose names became famous, or infamous, depending on one's 
perspective, in the fury that followed the 1993 conference. The first 
Re-Imagining conference caused some Presbyterian and Methodist 
congregations to threaten to withhold mission dollars or quit the 
denomination, and brought about the firing of PC(USA) staff member Mary Ann 
Lundy, who was one of the conference planners. 
    Conceived to mark the midpoint of the World Council of Churches' 
"Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, 1988-1998," the 
first Re-Imagining conference actually marked much more. It revealed how 
firmly mainline conservatives were drawing their lines and how stunned 
progressives were by the level of organized outrage.  Since then, control 
has been tightened on church officers and staff and there is, particularly 
among Presbyterians, more insistence on orthodoxy in church policy and 
    But Re-Imaginers - diffusely spread in what they call the grass roots - 
insist that, while not exactly orthodox,  they are within the church's 
tradition when they draw on feminist thinkers to reinterpret Christian 
symbols and delve into doctrine to find ways to express the feminine 
experience of the holy.   However, they rely less and less on church 
institutions for support, financial or otherwise. 
    "There's a hunger, quite frankly, for a different kind of church that 
really does meet [these women and men] on a profound spiritual level and 
links that with a commitment to justice," said Jean Audrey Powers, a former 
United Methodist Church ecumenical officer and a member of the tiny 
Minneapolis Re-Imagining Community, describing the approximately 900 people 
who signed up for the "revival."  "They want it in their churches.  But 
they find it in this community. 
    "And here they're not afraid to say they're feminist. [In many 
churches,] justice is not necessarily popular, feminism is not claimed and 
the responses to the spiritual needs are what we've always known," said 
Powers, adding that United Methodists made up the second-largest group in 
    As first-timer Martin put it: "Christian theology has reached a dead 
end.  It's not been going anywhere since Tillich ... except [for work] by 
women. ... The organized structures are not designed for reform, for 
change, but to conserve the past and to minimize change. 
    "And," he said, "they're patriarchal to the core." 
                  The Presbyterian speakers 
    Trying to shed patriarchy's hold on religious imagery and language is 
what turned "Re-Imagining" into the media spectacle that it became five 
years ago - with a now entrenched milk-and-honey ritual (recapturing a 
liturgical text of the early church) and a blessing for each speaker in the 
name of Sophia (scripture's personification of wisdom).  But one returning 
speaker, Presbyterian Delores Williams of Union Theological Seminary in New 
York, said that "unedited, uncensored women-talk" is another way to do so - 
making room for feelings and mysteries, secrets and tears. But she warned 
that such talk leads women to realize that just as the slaves had to 
reimagine Christianity, the religion of their masters, women "ain't got the 
same religion" their slave masters had. 
    Williams dared her listeners to reimagine symbols within the Christian 
tradition on the basis of their experience of God, seeking life-giving, 
community-building symbols such as loaves and fish, which do not put 
salvific emphasis on death. 
     "The point I am trying to make here is not that we throw out the cross 
 ... not that we throw out crucifixion,"  said Williams, reminding 
listeners of the firestorm caused by her comments five years ago 
criticizing the classical formulation of sacrificial atonement, "we 
reinterpret it." 
    "We reinterpret it with things we've got in the tradition," she told 
the Presbyterian News Service, saying that she sees the cross as a crime, a 
representation of the violence done to those daring to bring a "beautiful 
vision" - like that of Jesus - up against the world's oppressive 
    She warned that old language and old images do not cross over new gulfs 
and that women who want to cross over will have to do so without the 
protection, especially the financial protection, of men.  "That's not new, 
right?" Williams said.  "You know that." 
    Lundy - now deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches - 
told the gathering that women in all parts of the world are, like the 
Re-Imaginers, staying in their churches, but gathering often in ecumenical 
groups to nourish their faith with liturgy and theological study. 
    "I like to think of these as groups very much like the early church - 
house churches," she said, adding that Voices of Sophia took that role in 
Presbyterian circles when the furor of the first conference hit and when, 
as she put it, "we were all made voiceless by the scared religious 
    Insisting that women need to tell of their own experience - and to be 
angry when the churches that taught its girls about justice and peace and 
nurtured them as leaders back down - Lundy was firm that staying angry 
means living with "paralyzing bitterness" and that letting it go is the 
only way to get on with the work that the Decade was conceived to do and 
did, to get on with asking the hard questions of the faith and rolling away 
the stones that block women's progress. She cited ordination for women in 
Korea, the economic development of women in India and the greater awareness 
of women's work in Togo and Pakistan as some of the Decade's successes. 
    "We have a right," said Lundy, "to call the churches to accountability 
for their lack of responsibility in doing honest theology, for keeping 
secret from its members the biblical scholarship that would enable all the 
laity to ask the hard questions that Re-Imagining asked about the place of 
women ... about power and about authority - and what the Bible does and 
does not say about the difficult issues of our day. 
    "Our churches and clergy are lazy," she said.  "They avoid doing the 
hard work of empowering the people in the pews [with] the tools to 
reimagine for themselves.  Instead they encourage them to live with a safe, 
numbing faith that sits fat and self-satisifed." 
    But, Lundy concluded, despite the turmoil the first Re-Imaginers 
endured, Sophia is now being studied by Presbyterians, Delores Williams' 
books are being read and [Re-Imagining theologian]  Rita Nakashima Brock is 
a late-night television presence. 
    "Yesterday's heresies," she said, "are tomorrow's `Book of Order.'" 
    New York Union Theological Seminary ethicist Beverly Harrison 
attributed much of the fear in the society, in politics and within 
denominations to what she called the family-values nomenclature of the 
"right" that espouses hate - a victim-blaming agenda that she said longs to 
"kill the queers," hates the women who have abortions and tries to make 
feminism "a dirty word." 
    "And why are we on the hit list of the Christian right?" she asked her 
listeners, naming "The Presbyterian Layman" and the Institute for Religion 
and Democracy (IRD) as having employed people full-time to discredit the 
conference's theological work. 
    "We didn't take ourselves seriously enough," she said. "The right takes 
us seriously and rightly so, and with their resources they have won a great 
deal in this society." 
     After insisting that her listeners practice a feminist ethic of 
community-building and justice-seeking, Harrison told the Presbyterian News 
Service that the Christian right has "largely succeeded" in silencing the 
voice of the great middle of society by destroying their belief in 
community-building kinds of politics. 
    "In spite of that, there's an amazing amount of resistance going on," 
she said.  "And there's some hope in it - but not from the denominational 
                       The Presbyterian role 
    More than 140 conference attendees came to the Voices of Sophia 
breakfast midway through the conference, some voicing distress that 
denominational staff were prohibited from using continuing education money 
or time to attend the Re-Imagining conference. That decision by interim 
General Assembly Council executive director the Rev. Frank Diaz was made 
months ago and was described by Diaz as being for "the good of the church 
 ... to not have to go through another Re-Imagining situation." 
    Since the uproar over the use of $66,000 in Bicentennial Fund monies 
for scholarships to the first conference, no PC(USA) dollars have been used 
in any subsequent "Re-Imagining" conference, though smaller-scale events 
have been held each year in Minneapolis since 1993.  Diaz' decision won the 
approval of Parker Williamson, editor of "The Presbyterian Layman," which 
led the attack on the first conference and has worked for tighter 
restrictions on church officers since then. 
    "I'm delighted," he said, "there's no denominational money and no 
endorsement.  That's an improvement." 
     Only the United Church of Christ contributed to the most recent event. 
A $2,500 grant underwrote the participation of South African ecumenist 
Brigalia Bam, according to Lois Powell, executive director of the UCC's 
Coordinating Center for Women. 
    Registration fees covered the costs of the conference, though $20,000 
in scholarship money was made available to participants, including a group 
of students from Agnes Scott College, a Presbyterian-related school in 
Decatur, Ga. 
    Yale Divinity School professor the Rev. Letty Russell interprets 
denominational withdrawal this way:   Mainline denominations - like the 
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) - are "trying to avoid this issue," she said, 
meaning "Re-Imagining."  "They want it to be as though it didn't happen. 
They don't want it to come up again," Russell said, citing increasing 
pressure conservatives have applied within denominations. 
    "But the most important thing [for participants here]," Russell said, 
referring to the spirituality and the community-building, "is to realize 
that you're not crazy and you're not alone.  There are many women of faith 
who want to continue to be part of a Christian community and believe it is 
important for the tradition to continue to be lived out, to be transformed 
 ... and for it to be a tradition that welcomes all people," she added, 
after participating in a call within the conference for solidarity with 
lesbians and gays with Presbyterian activist the Rev. Jane Spahr. 
     "It is possible to be a person of faith and to celebrate that with 
joy," said Russell, "to still believe that God cares about all people whose 
voices and realities are not heard in [normal] church liturgy and 
    That commitment is what keeps Presbyterian Sally Hill, the Minneapolis 
clergywoman who chaired the local committee for the first conference, 
involved in ongoing "Re-Imagining" events. But she's puzzled by ongoing 
attention of "conservative factions" to "Re-Imagining" since it does not 
rely much on the mainline - just for the "hungry" people, as Hill says, who 
come seeking spiritual nourishment. 
    "We won't leave," she said of Re-Imaginers' denominational 
affiliations, even if institutional backing  isn't there.  "We care too 
    There were nine conference speakers and one "revival" preacher. 
Subjects ranged from Mariology to the incarnation. 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  phone 502-569-5504             fax 502-569-8073  
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