From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
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
"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
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
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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