Space and voice are powerful. Although the church is called to be a sanctuary of safe space where Christians listen carefully to one another, it often is not. Those who do not identify with the dominant culture or prevailing theology frequently feel neither safe, valued, or heard in most churches.
Ecumenical feminists/womanists regularly challenge churches to provide opportunity for women to express the rich variety of their concerns and perspectives, a call at the heart of the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity With Women. The number of women is increasing in places where theology is created and transmitted and where churches are governed. But in such settings, we often feel like sisters in brother-land, foreigners in someone else's territory.
Whether or not churches meet the challenge of facilitating space and voice, Christian women repeatedly demonstrate remarkable ingenuity and perseverance in creating small and large places where we can be ourselves, affirming each other and our faith together.
The now famous November 1993 conference on Re-Imagining, held in Minneapolis in conjunction with the Ecumenical Decade, was quite different from most I attend precisely because it stretched participants into space unexplored by most. The gathering empowered the multiplicity of Christian women's voices in both choruses and cacophonies of concerns and perspectives we had not heard in quite the same way.
This kind of freedom for women sometimes frightens or startles other Christians. With few boundaries to define and confine us, women sometimes even startle ourselves. When we do, we usually step back, try to rearrange the space to make it more comfortable for everyone, invite voices with different perspectives to speak up, and include those who previously felt marginalized.
But those who are the most frightened, the harsh critics, react differently. They often move quickly to shut down the space and silence the voices when offended by what we do and say.
INITIATED BY local ecumenical councils in the Twin Cities, the Re-Imagining conference filled beyond expectations to more than 2,100 people (plus a waiting list) from a range of denominations in both Canada and the United States. Participants prayed in song, chant, liturgy, silence, and shared stories. We prayed for the blessings of wisdom, for guidance in our journeys, and for the transformation of the church. We celebrated our heritage as Christian women and the sacrifices of those who go before us in struggles for justice and peace. We celebrated the life God gives us, including our bodies, senses, and sexuality.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the folk group Sweet Honey in the Rock, sang and preached the old spiritual, "We'll stand the storm, it won't be long, we'll anchor by and by." Being in the storm, she said, is the only way to know what an anchor is. Many felt that we found a piece of that anchor that weekend, an anchor of shared faith and renewed Christian community. Departing Minneapolis, however, began our return to the storm.
Conservative groups, especially within the Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian (USA), and United Methodist churches, accuse participants of deviating from established church doctrine, of committing heresies. Although some reports of the conference severely distort what transpired there, these critics legitimately perceive diverse theological articulations that differ from some church traditions, traditions primarily created and dominated by patriarchal ideas and practices.
Creative reimagining of the Christian faith and the church was deliberate. We used our space and voice to envision and reconstruct feminine concepts of God. We found new and forgotten dimensions and stories of Jesus Christ. We challenged traditional doctrines and symbols that implicate us in reconciliation without justice, in forgiveness without genuine repentance by the offenders, and in suffering and crucifixion in return for a false sense of peace. We embraced the outcasts, the lesbians, and created community together.
Rather than heresy, however, these and other efforts by Christian women are part of a remarkable reformation sweeping the church. This is bottom-up ecumenism, uncontrolled and uncontrollable by religious authorities but deeply moving to women and men alike. In such movements, as in all reformations, some expressions of the faith are more authentic than others. Some are more deeply moving and useful in creating a new tradition; others will be discarded.
A range of reactions exists among those deeply appreciative of the conference. Some participants understood the liturgical focus on God as wisdom, Sophia, to be an exciting part of reimagining the Trinity. Others felt the emphasis too unidimensional and confining.
Witnessing incisive and at times provocative analysis in workshops, many long for further exploration of the material presented. For example, how can we apply a corrective to oppressive interpretations of the atonement without discarding altogether the redemptive understanding of the crucifixion? Or, in issues related to style and old habits, why do women sometimes become so academic in the workshops we organize at the same time that we criticize mainstream theology for being so out of touch?
OTHER QUESTIONS also arise. In addition to celebrating rather than repressing God's gifts of feelings, bodies, and sexuality, how can we together develop a shared ethic of responsible and loving conduct in our most intimate relationships?
Participants brought their own rich diversity to the Re-Imagining conference and departed with a wealth of interesting and sometimes conflicting responses. These are natural, good, and important in deepening future discussions.
But greater depth in future explorations of such matters is exactly what conservative critics fear most. In anger, they call for punishment and denunciation: Fire the national staff who supported the gathering! Chastise the groups who provided resources! Discipline the participants! For these critics, such calls represent a means to restore dignity and boundaries to doctrines they cherish. For conference participants, such calls feel like a witch hunt.
Time will test the ideas, liturgies, stories, and shared experiences of the Re-Imagining conference. Women will create more space and voice within which to challenge and support each other in discussions about these matters and others of women's experience. The grassroots of this reform will grow and be strengthened, or wither and die, with or without the permission of officialdom.
Scripture and tradition can offer a rich heritage of faith. Reform can bring a remarkable, sometimes wild, rushing wind of the Holy Spirit. Reason suggests that, rather than denounce and attempt to eliminate each other's perspective, we who claim membership in the body of Christ should reach across our differences to share in and learn from the gifts God gives us all.
For those of us who found space and voice together at the Re-Imagining gathering, no criticism, condemnation, or punishment will invalidate the authenticity of our experience—an experience of grace we found together, of renewed determination to achieve justice, of new challenges to test with each other, and of lasting commitment to the Christian faith.
Janice Love was an associate professor at the University of South Carolina when this article appeared. She was among the initial proponents of the Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity With Women.