Barton Gingerich, feminism, feminist, General Assembly, goddess, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD Blog, PCUSA, Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), re-imagining, Voices for Justice, Voices of Sophia, Witherspoon Society, womanist theology
Rainbow-stoled church activists woke early in Pittsburgh to attend the Presbyterian Voices for Justice breakfast during General Assembly. Voices for Justice boasts a controversy-laden history. The caucus represents a merger between two far-left lobbying groups: Voices of Sophia and the Witherspoon Society. This morning’s event focused on the legacy of the former organization.
Entitled “Re-Imaging ‘Re-Imagining’ and the Next 20 Years,” the service centered on the influence and affects of the infamous feminist theology conference that took place in 1993. The event—funded and organized by the PCUSA and the UMC Women’s Division—shocked mainline Protestant moderates and traditionalists alike. The Re-Imagining insisted on referring to God in feminine terms. Although names like “Warm Baker God” and “Loving Mother God” stood as legitimate theological parlance, these were mere one-hit-wonders when contrasted with the eminently popular “Sophia,” in which God manifests…Herself…in a feminine deity of wisdom. Thus, the PCUSA Voices of Sophia was born. Other notable accomplishments included holding a communion service with elements of milk and honey, several female clergy publicly coming out as lesbians, and a rejection of the atonement (where Dr. Dolores Williams audaciously declared, “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping, and weird stuff”). These statements and activities quickly drew accusations of pantheism, goddess worship, and heresy from orthodox Protestants. In the years following, the re-imaginers committed themselves to such heretical causes as purging church documents and Bible translations of gendered pronouns and replacing the Trinitarian formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” In the meeting’s aftermath, the PCUSA organizer of the conference, Mary Ann Lundy, was summarily fired from her post.
Time has not boded well for the Re-Imagining movement. Most of the 130 or so attendees were over the age of sixty; only five or six were under thirty. After More Light Presbyterians executive director Patrick Evans led them in music, the participants enacted the mystical “Sophia blessing.” The lyrics were the following: “Bless Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within.” The unsettling, semi-occultic liturgical dance moves seemed to combine the hokey-pokey with the Macarena.
At last, Sylvia Thorson-Smith approached the lectern to offer the message. She described herself as “the centerfold for [the conservative] Presbyterian Layman,” recounting that she discovered “how devoted people are to tradition and how determined others are to innovating it.” Remembering the Re-Imagining golden age, Thorson-Smith proclaimed, “the idea of powerful women was such a turn in traditional roles.” She accused orthodox church members with seeing powerful women as “icky.” “Why would a church be so exercised over a feminist conference?” she asked. After portraying Mary Ann Lundy as a martyr, Thorson-Smith bemoaned “the pressure to keep women silent over the next four years.” According to the speaker, the theological battles resulted in “an aversion of risk-taking.” Nevertheless, the feminist theologian still hoped for a bright future: “Our herstory is our prayer.”
After referencing emergent thinker Phyllis Tickle, Thorson-Smith judged that the PCUSA was at a moment “where the church discards outmoded ideas.” “We who hold to the Re-Imagining heritage have a few ideas for the rummage sale,” she announced. The feminist speaker wistfully remembered, “At Re-Imagining, we experienced an entire space as sacred…God herself is experienced.” She also advised, “The church needs to speak truth to power,” challenging the “Pax Americana” and the “exploitation of the environment.” “We need to build coalitions with other re-imaginers in other denominations and across the world,” she concluded, “We need to reconnect ourselves to risk-taking.”
Not all was good news for the Voices of Justice. The spokeswoman mourned, “We’ve really lost ground on the language on how we address God and worship.” It seems that mainline Protestants of all stripes still refer to God in the traditional terms as outlined in Scripture. Perhaps old habits just die hard; on the other hand, perhaps some theological fads are blatantly silly.
The aging re-imaginers left with a sizable feminist benediction. It ended with the command “Go into this General Assembly with your Sophia spirit.” One enthusiastic participant exclaimed, “A-women!”