When a Radically Progressive Christian Feminist Movement Was Sabotaged
In 1993, feminist theologians from all over the globe gathered for a massive conference to bring otherwise niche, academic perspectives to typical churchgoers. Then, the media attacks began.
Photo by Chelsea Victoria, via Stocksy.
Sara Wilhelm Garbers was raised an evangelical Baptist, taught to believe that feminism was “destroying the American family,” she says. But due to a family history of gendered violence, she was also concerned about women’s rights. She was, theologically, “a total mess all through college,” she recalls. “I was a feminist. I was a fundamentalist.”
Attempting to reconcile her conflicting worldviews, in 2002, Garbers attended a class at the University of Minnesota on women, religion, and spirituality and learned about a 1993 Christian women’s conference called Re-Imagining, where women preached, used feminine pronouns for God, and insisted upon LGBTQ inclusion.
“I, of course, was praying the demons would stay away,” says Wilhelm Garbers, “but—I was also intrigued.”
Garbers, like most people outside theological academia, had never heard about this seemingly radical departure from traditional church values—likely because it was short-lived. Not long after its inception, explosive backlash across multiple denominations silenced the movement’s public efforts, leaving little obvious evidence that a broad feminist movement had ever threatened the status quo of mainstream Christianity.
Between 1988 and 1998, the World Council of Churches called for an Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, timed after the United Nations’ Decade on Women (1975-85), which promoted equal rights globally but had little impact on churches. Leading into the Ecumenical Decade, in the US, the United Methodists had only just ordained their first woman bishop in 1980. And as recently as 1973, the Presbyterian Church of America left the more progressive Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PCUSA), partially in disavowal of women’s ordination. By the late 80s, many churches were still grappling with how much power to afford to women in churches.
But Mary Ann Lundy, then director of the PCUSA Women’s Ministry Unit, had a vision for uplifting women’s perspectives. In response to the call for solidarity, Lundy and a team of supporting women proposed Re-Imagining, an international colloquium highlighting the forefronts of feminism within Christianity. The proposal received funding from PCUSA’s Bicentennial Fund, and Reverend Sally Abrahams Hill, then Director of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Church Commission, took on the organizing. Hill, along with other Minneapolis-based church leaders, spent three years planning the conference. When it finally happened in November of 1993, it attracted 2,200 people from 49 US states and 27 countries all over the globe.
Organizers chose “expansive” language—such as the Biblical term “Sophia,” meaning Wisdom—to refer to God.
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.
In an attempt to make attendees of all denominations feel equally welcome, organizers bucked tradition and created new rituals of worship. “The people who planned [the event] knew you cannot have an ecumenical meeting and have communion,” notes Jordon. So organizers developed a milk and honey ritual centered on women’s bodies and experiences, instead. And while homophobia thrived, as it does to this day, within many mainline churches at the time, when a group of lesbian and bisexual women gathered spontaneously in the middle of the room, “the conference affirmed them with applause and tears,” remembers Lundy.
“It was really sort of this democratization of feminist theology… bringing feminist theology into the public sphere.”
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.”
To the powerful network of conservative Christian institutions in the US, that amounted to a major threat.
Immediately after Re-Imagining, a slew of scathing press attacked the event. Unofficial, conservative church publications and newsletters including the United Methodist Good News and The Presbyterian Layman demonized the conference, painting some aspects in a wildly different light than attendees recount and with details that organizers rebuked as misconstrued or fabricated. “They took pieces very deliberately out of context and created the fury,” says Jordon.
One Good News article, sent by mail to 72,000 church members, began with: “A standing ovation for lesbians. A service of milk and honey to the goddess Sophia. A presentation denying the atonement of Jesus Christ. What is going on here?” In a newsletter article about the event, the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD)—a think tank promoting and coordinating conservative messaging across Protestant denominations—warned “extremist feminism is a powerful movement at the highest levels of many US churches” and “its pagan forms of worship challenge biblical faith.” In other articles, references to Sophia were described as pagan goddess worship, the use of milk and honey as a gross replacement for traditional bread and wine, a painting partially depicting a nude woman and discussions of women’s sexuality described as “pornography.”
Talking about Re-Imagining soon became taboo at many churches.
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.)
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.”
In the following decade, the the organizers of the conference formed a community that sponsored six more conferences and produced books and articles, continuing their work on feminist theology. It was quieter work, rather than the thunderous impact of the first Re-Imagining. But, as Sauter notes: “We did not quit.”
“They blew open the doors..."
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.”
Among 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.”