Re-Imagining “Re-Imagining” and the Next 20 Years

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25 mins read

Address at the Presbyterian Voices for Justice (formerly Voices of Sophia) Breakfast
220th General Assembly, PCUSA
July 3, 2012 Pittsburgh, PA

Author Sylvia Thorson-Smith
Author Sylvia Thorson-Smith

This article was originally published on the Presbyterian Voices for Justice (PV4J) website.

I’m overwhelmed by the honor of speaking to you this morning, in the company of the women who’ve preceded me, and I’m delighted that two of them are at this General Assembly — Johanna Bos and Nancy Ramsay [applause].

So, if it’s Tuesday morning, it must be Pittsburgh and the Voices breakfast! Some of you know Mike and I came here directly from Anchorage, Alaska where I attended my 50th HS reunion – and two weeks ago, we attended his 50th reunion at Occidental College in LA. While we were there, a current student got up to speak to us, pulled out her cell phone, and proceeded to read her speech from her phone! I want us to think this morning about the future and what possibilities it holds, but I assure you, I’m not yet prepared to use my cell phone to give this talk .

Twenty years ago, in 1992, I was positioned between two major happenings in the Presbyterian Church. One year earlier, the Baltimore General Assembly tried to put the genie back in the bottle with the whopping defeat of a human sexuality report to which I and 16 others had given three years of our lives. That report, “Keeping Body and Soul Together,” breathed a welcome, grace-filled Spirit into the church for many people, just as it aroused contempt and outrage by those who were successful in defeating it. Friends teased me about repeatedly being the centerfold in The Presbyterian Layman – but through all of the firestorm, I discovered how tenaciously some Christians cling to traditional norms and how ecstatically others are to find release from them.

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I discovered how tenaciously some Christians cling to traditional norms and how ecstatically others are to find release from them.
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Twenty years ago, the Presbyterian Church was recovering from an all-out struggle over human sexuality, while it was unaware that another storm was gathering – one that would bring the General Assembly to the brink of schism in 1994. A small group of women and men were meeting to plan a global ecumenical event called “Re-Imagining,” to be held in Minneapolis in November of 1993. The Women’s Ministry Unit of the PC(USA) – under the direction of Mary Ann Lundy – dreamed of this event in an effort to promote the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with Women.

Female Gender SymbolLooking back, I can honestly say that, to all of us working on women’s advocacy in the church at the time, it seemed so exciting and no big deal! We’d been having advocacy training events, theological colloquia, and feminist liturgical services for 20 years. The church had funded them, and recruited women and men to attend. One of the first I attended was a little gathering in 1977 on Women and the P Word – what do you think it was? POWER! I remember how scary it was to say those two words together – but no one in the church went ballistic over it! It was a different time, women were on the move, and our church was training us to be strong and competent. Re-Imagining was on a larger scale, but why would we ever think that the church would get so exercised because 2200 people attended a feminist conference? Why indeed?!

I want to do a little survey: how many of you in this room were at the first Re-Imagining conference in 1993? [about 20 raised hands] Well, for those of you who weren’t there, let me tell you a bit of what it was like. Two thousand women and 200 men sat at round tables (like you are here) covered with white paper on which we could doodle whatever we wanted during the proceedings. Over three days, we moved around to different sections of the large convention hall – women on the stage painted free hand drawings, we worshiped, sang, danced, showed our glee with shaker eggs, laughed, cried, attended workshops, and heard brilliant presentations by 34 women from around the world. We represented 40 different Christian denominations, 49 states, and 27 countries.

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The name, Re-Imagining, was chosen to reflect the conviction that theological work is artistic work – and that it’s everybody’s work, in this case, women’s work.
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The name, Re-Imagining, was chosen to reflect the conviction that theological work is artistic work – and that it’s everybody’s work, in this case, women’s work. Music, dance, visual arts, and drama were woven through the entire event, so that meals and everything we did flowed into one another. Feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies were presented and discussed with a passion. God was imagined – and re-imagined – by many names: Baker Woman God, Strong Mother God, Warm Father God, She Who Is and Who Will Be, Holy Wisdom, and Christ Sophia.

She Who IsWhat an exhilarating time we all had! Well, not quite all of us. Within days, representatives of conservative groups (mostly Presbyterian and Methodist) exploded in outrage and mobilized to denounce the conference. Several of them had attended, and they weren’t thankful for the experience. The Presbyterian Church had provided a substantial amount of seed money, and the director of the Women’s Ministry Unit – Mary Ann Lundy – had provided key leadership. Resignations were called for, and before long, Mary Ann was pressured to leave her position.

Mary Ann has described how the 19 members of her staff cried tears of joy as they walked into the Minneapolis Convention Center to see their dream realized (in the book “Re-Membering and Re-Imagining,” ed. by Nancy Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern). But I remember being in Louisville shortly after the event, huddling together in a closed room with women staff who had planned and attended Re-Imagining. They were praying and weeping, in fear of being fired — and ringing small bells on green ribbons (that each of you have at your places), signifying “we will not be silent.” All the while they knew that the pressure on women to keep silent would only grow in the coming weeks and years.

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So what was it about “Re-Imagining” that created a tsunami in the Presbyterian Church and rippled across other parts of Christianity?
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So what was it about “Re-Imagining” that created a tsunami in the Presbyterian Church and rippled across other parts of Christianity? I remember reading one analysis that said four things happened that drew the wrath of the Presbyterian Right (or Wrong — depending on how you see it):

"Sophia Wisdom of God" by Betsy Porter
“Sophia Wisdom of God” by Betsy Porter

One was the liturgical use of the biblical image of Sophia – but blown up as evidence of Goddess worship. Second was the milk and honey ritual – an ancient part of early Christianity, but attacked as a pagan substitute for communion. Third was womanist theologian Delores Williams’ dramatic reimagining of the Atonement, denouncing the idea that Jesus was a substitutionary “surrogate” who had to die for our sins in order to satisfy the demands of a patriarchal Father God. And fourth – and probably the most challenging to official norms – a large group of women spontaneously gathered on a stage and “came out” as lesbians, prompting a standing ovation and cheers from all of us who celebrated their liberating act of truth-telling.

Each of these elements of Re-Imagining fueled the backlash, but overall, the whole event marked a significant change in the women’s movement. Prior to Re-Imagining, feminist/womanist/mujerista theologies were primarily confined to the world of academics, apart from smaller events in separate denominations. What made Re-Imagining unique was that it was sponsored by the institutional church, ecumenically – and its global design suggested a movement that signaled the real possibility of systemic change. Rather than thank Mary Ann Lundy’s staff for imagining such a fantastic gathering, many Presbyterians and church leaders exploded, as if to say: “What? You want to re-imagine the way we do church? We’ll show you what happens to your re-imagining!”

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What made Re-Imagining unique was that it was sponsored by the institutional church, ecumenically – and its global design suggested a movement that signaled the real possibility of systemic change.
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The rest of the story is a contentious 1994 General Assembly, followed by endless conflict over theology, language, sexuality — and most of all, an aversion to risk-taking. It’s as though the Presbyterian Church pulled back from the brink of split, gave out a collective gasp, and resolved never again to give women the freedom to let their imaginations roam wherever God’s Spirit led them. Like our beloved foremother, Ginny Davidson, said after Re-Imagining: “they let the girls out of the corral, and now they’re trying to make sure they never get out again!”

84288859So why, almost 20 years later, remember (Re-member – put back together) Re-Imagining? This kind of word play makes me think of Mary Daly’s “Wickedary” and her terms like re-acting, re-forming, re-searching, re-sisting or re-sistering Stag-nation.

Women and egalitarian men have long organized for transformational change, and such herstories need to be re-membered and re-imagined for the present day. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza has told and re-told the story of the nameless woman in Mark to whom Jesus said, “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her…All the institutions of our culture tell us through words, deeds, and even worse silence that we are insignificant. But our heritage is our power.”

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It’s as though the Presbyterian Church pulled back from the brink of split, gave out a collective gasp, and resolved never again to give women the freedom to let their imaginations roam wherever God’s Spirit led them.
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So where is the power in our heritage that is Re-Imagining? And how will we direct our power for love and justice in the next 20 years?

First of all we need to ask if there will even be a Presbyterian Church, and if there is, what will it look like? Many thinkers are analyzing the signs of the times and predict that Christianity is going to look much different in a matter of decades. Many of you are probably familiar with the work of Phyllis Tickle and what she describes as “Emergent Christianity”? Tickle suggests that every 500 years or so the church has a giant rummage sale and discards its outmoded practices and ideas. When we studied this at our Tucson church, our pastor Scott Opsahl (sitting right there), said: “it’s 7 a.m. and the rummage sale has just begun!”

Photo Credit: WCC
Photo Credit: WCC

We may not know exactly where this is going, but we do know that we have a role to play in the process. We who carry forward the heritage of the Re-Imagining community can think of a number of outmoded practices and ideas that we’d like to include in the rummage sale – right?! So what do we passionate feminist/womanist/mujerista justice-lovers do to help shape the future — not only of the Presbyterian Church, but Christianity and even the world? I want to suggest several priorities — not in any particular order but of a piece:

We need to re-member what made Re-Imagining so powerful and profound for so many. For one brief shining moment, we experienced an entire space as sacred, as filled with the holy. That space was rich with art, music, worship, feasting, ritual, thinking, mutual relationship. It was what so many of us desire from church – the Divine Lover-God weaving us together in her web of creative, passionate energy for praise, community, and transformation of the world. We need so many more of these spaces where all of our senses are alive and engaged. This is a priority to Re-Imagine!

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For one brief shining moment, we experienced an entire space as sacred, as filled with the holy. That space was rich with art, music, worship, feasting, ritual, thinking, mutual relationship. It was what so many of us desire from church.
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We need to re-member that people live in bodies with particular experiences of race, gender, sexuality, age, and ability. As much as we might like to smooth over all the rough edges of these differences, we Re-Imaginers know that only by giving voice to the particularities of difference can we honor them all and truly be a community of equals. Naming the differences and giving voice to particular injustices is a priority to Re-Imagine!

earthIn my view, we as a church have really lost huge ground on the energy to Re-Imagine our language for God and worship. The Presbyterian Church has policies on inclusive language – now better-understood as expansive language. But far too often, Presbyterian worship has slipped back into the same old comfort zone of masculine names and images. What happened to Sophia – Wisdom? To all of the rich female images that we were bringing to speech? Whatever the church looks like in 20 years, I think its language is a priority to Re-Imagine!

Because of our nation’s propensity to saber-rattling and the use of military force to maintain a Pax Americana, the church of the next 20 years needs more than ever to speak truth to power and resist violent solutions to conflict. In addition, the earth on which we live is an endangered species. If we don’t do more to restore the earth and its peoples to more harmonious caretaking of each other and our planet, the future of the next 20 years is going to be mostly bleak. Establishing a more peaceful, flourishing earth is a priority we need to Re-Imagine!

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As much as we might like to smooth over all the rough edges of these differences, we Re-Imaginers know that only by giving voice to the particularities of difference can we honor them all and truly be a community of equals.
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Because the church of the future may look very little like what it does today, we need to build coalitions with Re-Imaginers in other denominations and around the world. John Davidson Hunter wrote 20 years ago about the culture wars that divide us socially and religiously. He suggested that we could see a realignment of progressives across denominations who have more in common with each other than they do with the conservatives in their own denomination. Just as Re-Imagining was a global ecumenical partnership, so are these coalitions a priority for us to Re-Imagine!

quotes-467Lastly, we need stay connected to our heritage of risk-taking. We need to ring our bells, shake our eggs, and wear our bracelets (you each have on that says IMAGINE on one side and RE-IMAGINE on the other). We need to resist our inclination to keep silent. We need Sophia God’s wisdom to help us sort out the stuff and put some of it in the rummage sale! Whether we are in circles of decision-making or on the margins, we must give voice to our imaginations and encourage the voices who are most silenced. I find inspiration in the words of mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who recently died but left us a legacy of energy and hope: en la lucha es la vida – in the struggle is life! We may not have a clear vision of what’s ahead for our church and our world, but we do know that pain sets the agenda. Our struggle for love and justice is a priority for us to Re-Imagine!

There are many more ideas about the future of Re-Imagining – you may each have others to add. It can start with the work of this assembly: Re-Imagine Marriage…Immigration…Health Care…Reproductive Justice…the Middle East…Human Rights…Other items of business.

In my years of doing advocacy with many of you, I’ve been sustained by two of my favorite quotes that I shared with many classes I’ve taught. One is by Flannery O’Conner who said, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” Accept and go with it! And the other is by the brilliant feminist Kate Millett, who said: “The work of enlarging human freedom is such nice work, we’re lucky to get it.”

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Lastly, we need stay connected to our heritage of risk-taking.
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Toni Cade Bambara, in her novel The Salt Eaters, describes the soaring, healing beauty of jazz and musicians who were “ready to go anywhere in the universe on just sheer holy boldness.”

PV4JIn 1995, a group of women and men came together with sheer holy boldness and (against the prevailing caution) named their new group Voices of Sophia and called for a future that reflected the “full and equal humanity of women and men.” Recently, Voices of Sophia merged with an historic justice-loving group, the Witherspoon Society, and because Presbyterian Voices for Justice. But at that time in 1995, 52 women and men gathered in St. Louis for a weekend and collectively wrote a faith statement – their ’95 Illuminations – for the future of the church. It’s a beautiful document that came out of the most feminist writing experience one could ever imagine (or re-imagine). You each have a copy of them at your place, and I’d like to close with us reading together the blessing at the end: [all read together]

As daughters of Sophia we prophesy,
as sons of Sophia we dream dreams,
and in our vision we call for all people to share in the dance of
liberation:
celebrating our particularities and our oneness,
promoting peace and well-being among the global family,
sustaining hope,
providing hospitality to all people,
delighting in the joy of play,
promoting harmony with all creation,
and embodying love and justice in passionate living.
May Sophia bless and give wisdom and voice to all.

Bless you! Thank you! And may God’s Sophia Wisdom bless all of the work of this Assembly.

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AUTHOR BIO: Sylvia Thorson-Smith lives in Tucson, AZ, and is retired from teaching sociology, gender/women’s studies, and religious studies at Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA.  She has served on women’s advocacy committees of the PCUSA and has written extensively on gender and sexuality issues for the church.  In 1995, Sylvia co-founded the Presbyterian affinity group, Voices of Sophia, in response to the backlash against the 1993 Re-Imagining event.

Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!

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