Sherry Jordon, above, and Mary Kay Sauter
“We’d like to pass this part of the women’s movement on to another generation. Let them build on it, make it their own. I’m not sure it will happen, but a 25th anniversary gathering would be one way.”
– Mary Kay Sauter
When large numbers of feminist theologians, clergy, and laity from across the globe come to the table, it tends to attract the attention of the religious right, sparking controversy. At the Re-Imagining Conference in 1993, in fact, even the tables drew controversy.
Mary Kay Sauter, now a retired United Church of Christ pastor, co-chaired the 1993 conference. Held in Minneapolis, it drew more than 2,000 participants from 49 states and 27 countries. Most were Christian church members, from nearly 40 denominations.
The conference intentionally used round table seating. “It’s not relational when you’re in rows,” observes Sauter. Even that little detail had backlash for some clergy after attending, who were warned not to participate in round-table conferences “because it takes your power away.”
“Everything was very intentionally feminist,” says Sherry Jordon, who participated in the conference. Feminist theology was explored in presentations, worship and liturgy, and the word “Sophia” – the Greek word for “wisdom” in the New Testament – was frequently heard. Sometimes, whether intentionally or otherwise, this was misconstrued.
“One morning we had Heart of the Beast Theater puppets just for fun,” says Sauter. Later, reporting on the conference, Christianity Today ran a photo captioned: “The Goddess Sophia being worshipped.”
“I called them and said, ‘What you wrote isn’t true,'” recalls Sauter. “‘We’re not going to make a big deal over it, but it might embarrass you to know that these were Heart of the Beast Theater puppets.'”
“We tried to keep a sense of humor,” Sauter adds. “The things being said were so outlandish – desperate.”
A global gathering
The 1993 conference followed the declaration of an “Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women” by the World Council of Churches, which ran from 1988 through 1998.
Mary Ann Lundy, of the Women’s Ministry Unit of the Presbyterian Church (USA), had an idea for a global women’s colloquium. Sally Hill, a staff member for three councils of churches in Minnesota, envisioned a Minnesota women’s gathering. They subsequently decided to combine their ideas and hold a global gathering in Minneapolis.
Of those attending, two-thirds were lay members and one-third were clergy. Leading feminist, womanist (an African-American tradition), and mujerista (Hispanic) theologians from around the world spoke to, and with, participants.
“There were more women of color as presenters” than white women, says Jordon. This wasn’t tokenism. “We realized these were the voices we needed to hear from.”
Questions resonate today
The issues discussed and analyzed in 1993 are still relevant, says Jordon. “There are still debates over inclusive language, sexuality … and the placement of women as senior pastors has not progressed as much as it could have,” she says, referencing the so-called “stained- glass ceiling.”
The gathering raised many questions, Jordon adds – including whether Christian women can “do theology from their own experience as well as the Bible and tradition, and not be labeled as heretics and Pagans.” (They were labeled as such.) And: “Will a backlash succeed in silencing women and their commitment to doing theology and reforming the church?”
It did not. Actually, the opposite occurred.
“I don’t know that we would have continued if not for the backlash,” says Sauter. “We made a conscious decision not to take on the religious right, but just to do our thing.”
For 10 years after the conference, one paid staffer, a volunteer coordinating council (on which Jordon served), and many other volunteers operated a grassroots, ecumenical movement focused on dialogue between feminist theology and the church. They organized six more conferences in the Twin Cities; published a quarterly journal, a songbook, and a book of essays and liturgies; taught “faith labs” on feminist theology at churches; and organized small groups to discuss feminist theology and do feminist rituals.
Eventually, the ambitious volunteer-driven effort couldn’t be sustained – although a few small groups still meet.
“The rituals created were innovative,” says Jordon. “That’s part of what should not be lost.”
As an associate professor of theology, Jordon knows women’s stories are often devalued and lost without a conscious effort to preserve them. In that spirit, she’s on a year-long sabbatical focused on preserving Re-Imagining’s history and making its contributions available to others to build upon. The work involves oral interviews with presenters and organizers, digitizing the cassette tapes of the conferences, and creating a website to make materials available and continue the work of Re-Imagining.
“As 60-, 70-, 80- and some 90-year-olds, we’d like to pass this part of the women’s movement on to another generation,” says Sauter, 70, who chairs the new Re-Imagining Board. “Let them build on it, make it their own. I’m not sure it will happen, but a 25th anniversary gathering would be one way” to facilitate it. While nothing is firm yet, the idea of one or more conferences marking 25 years since the 1993 event is on the – presumably – round table.
“We’d also like this to be an umbrella for dialogue between Christian, Jewish and Muslim women,” Sauter adds. “We’ll see where the stream may take us.”