Sherry Jordon, assistant chair of theology at the University of St. Thomas, calls Re-Imagining “one of the most transformative spiritual experiences of [her] life.” In recent years, she has also become Re-Imagining’s historian, having compiled an oral history of the conference to capture stories from its organizers and attendees—although many have already passed away.Jordon’s archive paints a picture of a purposefully egalitarian gathering. Groups sat family-style at round tables (to avoid anyone placed at the head); oil cray-pas and paper were placed at each table to encourage “kinetic listening”; musical performances were participatory and avoided 4/4 time to create warm, flowing rhythms; and internationally recognized feminist theologians gave talks intended to broaden the lens of faith. Korean Chung Hyun Kyung, for example, shared how Confusionism informed her understanding of God; Hong Kong-born postcolonial theologist Kwok Pui-lan asked what it would look like to imagine Jesus in the diverse images of the women present; Ghanaian, Methodist theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye described how mutual care and collectivity could help overcome missionary mentalities; and American Beverly Wildung Harrison envisioned informing Christian ethics from women's perspectives in order to start grappling with modern moral quandaries around animal rights, reproductive justice, poverty, and racism.
Organizers chose “expansive” language—such as the Biblical term “Sophia,” meaning Wisdom—to refer to God.
Organizers chose “expansive” language—such as the Biblical term “Sophia,” meaning Wisdom—to refer to God, as well. Even now, Jordon emphasizes that theological language is metaphorical and “Christian tradition has been clear that God is not literally male.”The theological perspective that thrived over Re-Imagining’s few days wasn’t the result of church ladies suddenly gone rogue. Feminist theology had long been an area of academia and mode of worship for many people—it just wasn’t mainstream enough to cause a stir.Rebecca Todd Peters, a feminist and Christian social ethics professor at Elon University, was a program assistant at Re-Imagining when she was in her early twenties. She’d been reading feminist theology for years at that point, she says. To her, there wasn’t anything new about the ideas at Re-Imagining. What was radical was that these ideas were being presented to a lay audience: “It was really sort of this democratization of feminist theology… bringing feminist theology into the public sphere.”
“It was really sort of this democratization of feminist theology… bringing feminist theology into the public sphere.”
As articles mischaracterizing the event landed in churchgoers’ homes, along with lists of the church bodies that funded Re-Imagining, a drumbeat of angry letters poured back out from members to the involved churches—PCUSA and United Methodists in particular—threatening to withdraw membership and donations. Those that followed through cost PCUSA more than $2.5 million in contributions by the end of 1995, according to what Presbyterian officials told the New York Times in 1994. Seven months after Re-Imagining, Lundy, then highest-ranking woman in the PCUSA, was fired and the Presbyterian Women’s Ministry Unit disbanded. According to Lundy and Jordon, talking about Re-Imagining soon became taboo at many churches.“Re-Imagining was a perfect target for something that had been going on for quite a while,” says Jordon. “It's part of the culture wars, both politically and religiously.” Conservatives had “very different ideas about how to read the Bible, how to do theology, the role of women in the church, and how the church should relate politically to the world.”Following the backlash to Re-Imagining, many churches withdrew their support from feminist enterprises, recalls Jordon. (The United Church of Christ (UCC) though, remained supportive of Re-Imagining’s legacy, notes Mary Kay Sauter, Re-Imagining co-chair and retired UCC pastor.)
Talking about Re-Imagining soon became taboo at many churches.
According to Todd Peters, the 90s push for inclusive language within the church has been reversed in the past decade, even at seminaries. She adds, “I feel like we are definitely in a moment of backlash in the church… against women and the progress that women have made in the church and in the culture, politically.”
After coming together with other organizers and attendees for the recent 25th anniversary, Lundy says she learned that many small, “underground groups” have been studying and practicing forms of feminist Christianity in monthly meetings over all those intervening years. At 85-years-old, Lundy says she is beginning to realize that “there probably was more influence than I thought at the time, because so much of the negative was focused on me, so it was hard for me to see where.”Lundy noted, however, that she now sees PCUSA embracing more women in leadership roles—an observation that aligns with the institution’s self-reported data. “Maybe we don’t see that enough as a connection to the original conference, but it made visible women in a very different way—not so much serving suppers as being theologically forward.”For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our NewsletterAmong these new leaders is Wilhelm Garbers, now a feminist doctoral student at Loyola University and associate pastor at Colonial Church in Edina, MN. She helped plan two Re-Imagining anniversary events, which allowed her to “nerd-out” over names footnoted throughout her Christian feminist studies. While she could see “the cost this extracted from their lives”—the scandal, professional losses, the witch hunts—she also found joy being in their presence and recognizing the legacy she’s inherited.“They blew open the doors, even though sexism and patriarchy is still profoundly, obviously part of the church everywhere,” she says. “Still, it is better.”
“They blew open the doors…"