Changing Church: Rev. Connie L. Tuttle, Pastor, Circle of Grace Community Church, Atlanta, Georgia

 

Rev. Connie L. Tuttle

Circle of Grace is a feminist Christian worshipping community. We are non-doctrinal and seek to re-imagine understandings of language and stories, symbols and metaphors. Our commitment is to inclusivity. We honor each one’s truth and each one’s journey and feel called into community as a way of faithful response. We understand feminism to be a critique of power.

This mission statement of Circle of Grace Community Church is printed in the weekly worship guide. Rev. Connie L. Tuttle founded this church in 1993.

In weekly worship services, this progressive, feminist, Christian worshipping community transforms traditional liturgy, including confessions and words of assurance. “At Circle of Grace we come to confession as truth-telling,” Rev. Tuttle explains. “We believe that speaking the truth is the beginning of all healing and transformation. We are invited to speak the truth to ourselves, to one another and to Godde that we might begin that journey.”

Here are some examples of confessions and words of assurance Rev. Tuttle wrote for Circle of Grace:

Those who come to Godde in genuine regret for the barriers they have met or helped erect in order to build Godde’s household to suit human design, She compassionately forgives. We are the household of freedom, the home of the Holy One.  May all who enter find welcome and find a home.

The good news is that Godde accepts us as we are and keeps on offering us new life. By the grace of Sophia Christ, we are forgiven.  Thanks be to Godde.

One fact remains unchanging—Godde has loved you. She will always love you. That is the good news that brings us new life!

“I bring theology to Circle of Grace inclusive of the Divine Feminine in language, images, metaphors, stories, prayer and liturgy—though not to the exclusion of male imagery,” Rev. Tuttle comments. “We choose the word ‘Godde’ (pronounced the same way as ‘God’) to express the presence of both the feminine and masculine within the term. It is one word we use to encompass the idea, especially in written liturgies used antiphonally. The visual reinforces our underlying shared assumptions.”

Connie Tuttle grew up as an “army brat” in a “church without the boundaries of denominations.” She says that her spirituality was thus “formed by chaplains of many and diverse denominations,” leading her “to understand Godde outside denominational boxes and dogma.”

Another formational experience as she matured on her spiritual journey was praying to Godde as Mother when she was in a time of crisis as a young adult. “I had not been exposed to the concept of the Divine Feminine; it was not part of theological dialogue at that time, but I reached out to Godde and met her from my need.”

When she was twenty-five, Connie felt called to ministry. As an ordained elder at Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, she became active in the church’s program for underprivileged neighborhood children, supported the church’s declaration of sanctuary and participation in the Underground Railroad for political refugees from Nicaragua, and helped begin Clifton Night Hospitality, a night shelter for sick and aging men, that Circle of Grace now participates in. Connie comments on her experiences: “Faith and social justice were always inextricably intertwined. As my understandings and experiences of the Divine expanded, the call to peace and justice widened to include women, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, and transgendered folk—and the earth, itself.”

In 1983, Connie graduated from Agnes Scott College with a degree in Bible and Religion. She worked her way through college as a carpenter and painter, and as a sitter with the ill and dying.

In 1986, she graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). However, at that time the Presbyterian Church did not allow openly practicing homosexual people to be ministers. “After graduating from seminary I was persona non grata in the Presbyterian Church (USA) because I was an open lesbian,” Connie says. “I left the Presbyterian Church because there was no place for me. Would I have lied about who I was to stay? It is the one option I was presented. My answer was no.”

For several years Connie directed the Atlanta Hunger Walk, and then served as administrator for the Southern Prisoners’ Defense Committee, a non-profit, public interest law firm that did anti-death penalty work and prison reform. She then became a pastoral counselor and has been in practice for more than seventeen years.

Connie taught classes entitled “Feminist Christian Theology and Spirituality, ” when she was discerning the shape her call to ministry would take. “Out of those classes emerged a group who said, ‘We want to do church this way.’ And so we did, muddling through what it meant to begin a church that was progressive, ecumenical, and feminist.” The first worship service of Circle of Grace Community Church was held on December 19, 1993. This church ordained Rev. Tuttle to ministry.

“We also call ourselves radically inclusive, anti-racist, pro-all the hues and textures of humanity, eco-feminist.” Circle of Grace Community Church welcomes “all persons regardless of race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, culture, age and religious background.”

Rev. Connie Tuttle comments on the power of language as foundational to this radical inclusivity and to justice. “The power of language is one thing feminist theologians have addressed from the beginning, and the issues are as true now as they were then. Language constructs our reality. Exclusion implies both the powerlessness and worthlessness of the excluded. And then there is the issue of how and who we see ourselves and others to be. What and who reflect the Divine? From where does our wisdom come? Our authority? All the people of the church must have their voices heard if we are to reflect the rich diversity of the Sacred. And if all are sacred, then we must work to make the world safe and just for all.”

Inclusive leadership and language are important in changing the church and the wider culture, according to Rev. Tuttle. “Including women pastors and feminine divine names and images in worship change the church and the world primarily because it shifts the power dynamic and opens one door to a better understanding of partnership in leadership, relationships, politics… In the wider culture it offers or can offer a concrete vision of a different kind of authority. Gender equality invites sexual equality.”

Rev. Tuttle emphasizes the connection between inclusive divine images and social justice for all groups. “My hope is that any group seeking justice for itself will be mindful of and committed to others who seek justice—because there are women (and men) of all races, abilities, sexual and gender orientations and so forth. Our working for justice must expand beyond the personal; as we find Godde in the feminine, so must we find the Sacred in the hues of humanity, the grace of differing abilities, and openness of different loving and differing gender identities. Women inherently see and make connections. It is one of the great strengths of feminist theology.”

“Including women pastors and Divine Feminine images in church challenges the status quo of the culture,” Rev. Tuttle continues. “We are all challenged by change. Opening images, metaphors, and symbols invites a freshness, unexpected insights, and challenges to rote ways of thinking. For children, it encourages wilder sacred imagination!”

Rev. Tuttle expresses gratitude for her church community’s encouragement to take risks with language, ideas, and symbolism, and to continue to expand language about the Divine. “At Circle of Grace we call ourselves a gracious heresy,” she says. “Pushing my own theological edges challenges me.”

Many challenges and questions come to Rev. Tuttle as she builds a community that seeks to include the differences of race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, culture, age and religious backgrounds. “How do you create worship that is inclusive of many traditions? To allow for many understandings? That include many perspectives and experiences? And that explore the theologically and experientially unfamiliar? We are fortunate to celebrate the richness of our diversity with constant vigilance to the questions: Is everyone’s voice being heard? And who is not at the table? As feminists, we are committed to honor each one’s truth. That is the value we keep returning to. We are not alike. We do not seek to be alike. So how can we travel together? Those questions are always open and before us. The folks who stay are willing to live with occasional discomfort, to be challenged and to find and make way for the Spirit to work. That means we talk frankly about race, sexuality, and the varieties of theological histories and spiritual experiences. We have found two things to be true: (1) the pain of rigid patriarchy, no matter what form it takes, is universal; and (2) we have to keep talking, even when it is difficult.”

In meeting these challenges Rev. Tuttle draws from many spiritual resources. “My relationship with Godde and my spiritual practices help me through times of criticism and setbacks,” she says. “Working with my spiritual director keeps me steady when I feel off-kilter. I get inspiration and strength from the people with whom I make community—from  those who wrestle with the challenges of severe mental illness to scholars worshipping with us who push the edges of theologies of disability or feminist/womanist theologies.”

Rev. Tuttle is changing the church and the wider culture through creating a radically inclusive, feminist church. As she creates liturgy inclusive of female and male and more, she has found that “reimagining Eucharist and baptism have been particularly meaningful and rewarding.”

“I don’t know what is likely or what will happen in the church universal,” she says. “Will there be a growing openness to the Divine Feminine? I hope and pray so. At Circle of Grace we are at a place where we must be mindful not to be exclusive of the Divine Masculine. A wonderful problem, isn’t it?”

Rev. Connie Tuttle’s ministry increases my belief that there will be a growing openness to the Divine Feminine to provide balance to the Divine Masculine, which still predominates in the church universal and in our culture. The prophetic work of Rev. Tuttle and Circle of Grace Community Church is contributing to a growing openness to the Divine Feminine and to the transformation that flows from Her.

 

I highly recommend this website for continuing news about the transforming, liberating ministry of Rev. Connie L. Tuttle and Circle of Grace Community Church: http://www.circleofgraceatlanta.org/

 

 







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