“Revisiting Re-Imagining,” by Dr. Sherry Jordon

reImaginingIn September of 1993 I first heard about Re-Imagining. A member of our Dallas Clergywomen’s group talked with excitement about her plans to attend the first Re-Imagining Conference scheduled for that November in Minneapolis. I liked the name “Re-Imagining” and the purpose of the conference—to explore theology from women’s experience. But I didn’t have the time or the money to go that year. I eagerly followed news reports from this groundbreaking conference. More than 2,000 people from 49 states and 27 countries, representing 40 Christian denominations, participated in rituals that included female divine images. The celebration of Sophia especially resonated with my study of the connection between Christ and Sophia.

The Sophia rituals sparked the most media attention and the greatest fury of conservative denominational leaders. Several administrators in mainline denominations lost their jobs because of their participation in the conference. Although I hadn’t attended the conference, I lost a book contract with a denominational press because of my book’s focus on Sophia. Not long after, In Search of the Christ-Sophia was published by Twenty-Third Publications (revised and updated edition, Eakin Press, 2004).

I determined to go to the second Re-Imagining Conference. There I had the joy of experiencing rituals led by feminist theologian and liturgist Miriam Therese Winter, and presentations by Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock and other feminist theologians I admire.

Dr. Sherry Jordon wrote an article for Christian Feminism Today (CFT) about the history and the revival of the Re-Imagining Community. Thank you to CFT and Dr. Jordon for permission to post this article here:

In November 1993, more than 2,000 Christians from around the globe gathered in Minneapolis to celebrate the World Council of Churches “Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women.” The gathering was simply titled “Re-Imagining.”

What might “solidarity with women” mean for churches?  What questions needed to be raised, and what ideas and practices invited re-examination? Those attending the Minneapolis gathering— clergy, laity, theologians, academics—were unafraid to use their imaginations in exploring such matters creatively. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to call the Re-Imagining Conference a watershed event in the history of Christian feminism. Along with so many others who attended the event, I found the experience nothing less than transformative.

Since that 1993 conference, three things have happened. First, the conference was followed by charges of heresy against many of the participants and organizers. Second, the Re-Imagining Community formed in response. And third, after having been inactive for a time, Re-Imagining has recently returned!

Re-visiting the 1993 Event

The 1993 Re-Imagining Gathering featured Feminist, Womanist, Mujerista, and Asian Feminist theologians from around the globe, including Mary Hunt, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Delores Williams, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Hyun Kyung Chung, Kwok Pui Lan, Beverly Harrison, and Elizabeth Bettenhausen.  These speakers re-imagined God, Jesus, Church, Sexuality, Language, and Ethics from a variety of feminist perspectives. We sat at round tables to discuss their inspiring presentations, we drew on the paper tablecloths, we sang, we danced, we laughed and cried. We worshiped as feminists, sharing rituals grounded in women’s experiences and using feminine language for God. These rituals included a milk and honey ritual that celebrated the goodness of women’s bodies and a song that affirmed the wisdom of women as created in the image of God:

Bless Sophia
Dream the Vision,
Share the Wisdom,
Dwelling Deep Within

Most of us left the conference encouraged, challenged, and inspired.

The Backlash

The backlash was swift and powerful. Concerns were angrily raised about many aspects of the gathering, with special ire directed toward the centrality of Sophia, the use of feminine language and imagery for God, the milk and honey ritual, and the positive acceptance of homosexuality, including the participation of lesbians in attendance.

The conference had received some denominational support and funding, especially from the United Methodist and Presbyterian (PCUSA) Churches. Conservative groups within those denominations, allied with the Institute for Religion and Democracy, charged participants in the Re-Imagining conference with heresy, demanded that they resign from church positions, and threatened to withhold funds from the denominations that supported the conference.

Unintended Consequences

This backlash had two unintended consequences: it made Christian feminism part of the national conversation, and it led to the formation of the Re-Imagining Community. During the ten years it was in existence, this community sponsored six more conferences, published a quarterly journal and several books, taught classes on feminist theology at churches, and organized small groups to discuss feminist theology. The Re-Imagining Community dissolved in 2003, however, because it could no longer sustain itself as a grassroots, volunteer organization.

Alive and Active Once Again—Preserving History

Almost twenty-five years later, the Re-Imagining Community has re-incorporated. Its intention is both to preserve its history and to continue to “re-imagine” Christianity.

Women’s history has often been lost or distorted, and the backlash against Re-Imagining in 1993 threatened to do that yet again. In order to preserve the stories of those involved, I conducted sixty-five oral interviews with founding members of the Re-Imagining Community, leading feminist theologians who presented at the conferences, people who were on the national staff of the women’s units in the Presbyterian (USA) and United Methodist churches, and authors who have written books related to Christian feminism and/or Re-Imagining. These interviews are filled with laughter and tears, stories of accusations of heresy as well as accounts of support and community. They will be added to the Re-Imagining collections found in several archives (including Duke University, Union Theological Seminary, the Minnesota Historical Society, and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities) and will inspire future generations with their examples of courage and wisdom. Duke is in the process of making these interviews accessible via their website. I will be presenting my research based on these interviews at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in a paper titled “Re-Imagining Re-visited: Conference, Controversy, and Community.”

Alive and Active Once Again—Continuing to Re-Imagine

The Re-Imagining Community is not only trying to preserve its history, however, but to continue “re-imagining” in this time of backlash against women, people of color, immigrants, and persons of various sexual orientations and gender identities. It is planning several events in 2018 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1993 Conference. Information about these events will be posted on The Re-Imagining Community website and Facebook page when the details are finalized. In the meantime, please visit them for digital versions of the speakers and rituals from past conferences as well as links to resources and other organizations (including Christian Feminism Today).

Our Organizations Have Much in Common

I had the pleasure of attending the 2016 Christian Feminism Today Gathering and I was very impressed by the warm welcome my sister and I received, the thought-provoking speakers, and the inclusive worship. Christian Feminism Today’s inclusion of younger scholars, its web resources, and its strong sense of community are remarkable. The Re-Imagining Community shares and celebrates Christian Feminism Today’s commitment to feminist theology, expansive images for God, social justice, and the equality and inclusion of all people in church and society.

The Re-Imagining Community defines itself as: “an ecumenical, radical, Christian movement. Together we pursue creative and relevant ways of understanding Womanist, Feminist, Mujerista, and Asian Feminist theologies, opening space for dialogue with the church, diverse religious communities, and the world. We are impassioned to participate in Re-Imagining by our love and search for God, justice, and a challenging, empowering, and inclusive church.”

I hope that our two communities will find ways to encourage and support one another in the years ahead. I am deeply grateful for all that you have done and continue to do.

Sherry Jordon, “Revisiting Re-Imagining,” originally published in Christian Feminism Today. Reposted with permission.

 

Dr. Sherry Jordon

Dr. Sherry Jordon

Dr. Sherry Jordon currently serves as Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota. She specializes in historical theology, particularly the Reformation period, and Women’s Studies. Dr. Jordon served on the Coordinating Council of the Re-Imagining Community from 1998-2003, spoke at the 2003 Re-Imagining Gathering, and wrote an essay on feminist theology for Bless Sophia: Worship, Liturgy, and Ritual of the Re-Imagining Community. She holds a Ph.D in Theology from Yale.

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4 Comments

  1. Colette Numajiri
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I always love when you tell a little of your story, makes me feel like I’m there. This is so exciting and inspiring, screw the backlash- we must keep charging forward and it sounds like change is happening!

  2. janna
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Colette, for your support of my work. You’re right about the backlash! We are moving forward and creating change! I greatly admire and appreciate all the wonderful work you’re doing to change the world!

  3. Gwen Graves
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Wow Jann! If you did not put in dates this reaction has been common throughout history when new ways of thinking are brought forth and we are asked to challenge the status quo because of injustice, blindness.
    The challenges to slavery brought on these kinds of challenges/ backlashes and people sincerely believed that they had rational arguments about why the African should be a slave. Women’s rights to vote they would quote bible and verse why women were inept at making decisions and how this would disrupt the natural order of things, African American rights to vote there was backlash because they had the mind of small children, integration for schools, neighborhoods should not happen because eventually there would be race mixing that was an abomination to God etc. There will always be backlash when challenging doctrines of those who simply fear that someone they will lose something.
    It appears the “greatest nation on earth” has a lot of fears, anxieties about evolving into inclusiveness and breaking down patriarchal systems that keeps us stuck, unkind and small minded.
    Is it really so frightening that women see themselves as part of the landscape of religion? As full participants with language and imagery that we identify with?
    I am not certain what faith describes this scenario” if given the chance to educate the son or the daughter, the son will rise up and become a great leader, but to educate the daughter she will rise up and educate the world and you will have many leaders”. That is a paraphrase that I heard many years ago from a woman from Turkey regarding her faith.
    I believe if I could have only one wish it would be that I would remove fear. It seems to drive the passions of hanging on to anchors as if they were life preservers.
    The backlash of opening up and reimaging that we all have an equal place in the journey of faith; that there exists something whole , loving and pure that is enough for whoever desires it does not fit with heresy. It feels like such a disconnect. Like people speaking in there native language because it is familiar and safe, but refusing to learn another languagereject the others language because there always need to be this hierarchy of sorts.
    As I was reading these charges and life altering consequences that people experienced from participating in the conference reimagining finding the divine in feminine perspective( finally) that I really would like to ask those that found this blasphemous, what do you fear? What do you think is being taken from you? And why do you feel that this traditional masculine, exclusive club entitles you to have but not others? What do you need to not be afraid?
    In order for change to happen we must challenge those who would close the door on others who desire to be included in a more inclusive Christian or any other faith experience.
    You have been a revolutionary for a long time just like Ms Jordon and others , and it is the persistence when something so important as helping to develop the divine feminine of God ,where when the “tide rises all ships shall rise.”
    I love heroines Jann. As a woman it makes me feel connected and I feel in my soul the power of this necessary movement. The energy from people like you Colette and others gets harnessed in a way that it begins to feel contagious.
    It is so beautiful when the feminine divine begins to show her power it materializes into this big loving safety zone that anyone can share the space. There is ALWAYS enough room.
    Thank you for you gifts of determination, persistence, and fearlessness.
    Peace

  4. janna
    Posted June 19, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Gwen, for your kind words and for all your insightful words in this comment! You also have been a “revolutionary,” contributing to justice and empowerment of people of all genders and races.

    I think you are so right to identify fear at the root of the backlash to progress. Yes, we do need to question people who object to equality about what they are afraid of.

    May the Feminine Divine continue to bless and strengthen you and all your work!

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