Presbyterians: Sex, Marriage And the Gender of God by Dianne O’Connell
Religion has traditionally been preoccupied with matters of sex and domestic life. This comes as little surprise when we recall that the roots of spirituality are deep in the soil of fertility. Only after praying for rain, and sunshine, and good hunting, and good crops, and many children, did the spiritual human turn to their gods for help in war against their neighbors. Much, much later, came prayer for coping with the stresses and fears of modern existence. Fertility of the land, fertility of the ocean, fertility in all forms, came first.
Jewish spiritual roots sprang from this source, as well. As the mark of community, of being a person of the One God, the male child was identified, not by a tattoo on his spear-throwing arm, but by surgery on that part of the body representing virility and fertility -- circumcision.
Religious leaders of all spiritual traditions have sought to influence their people with regard to sexual matters. Some have been more heavy-handed than others. I believe that concern for this most basic component of human life is a fitting and proper subject for theological debate, as well as for sensitive personal pastoral.
How much influence the church has over the sexual and resulting domestic lives of the people who identify with that church tradition is a subject for debate among the persons of that tradition. How much influence any one church has over the sexual and resulting domestic lives of persons who do NOT identify with that particular religious tradition, is a debate in which we all are required to participate.
During the early years of Presbyterianism in Alaska there was little debate. There was generally speaking a uniformity of belief as to what was fitting and proper in the realm of pre-marital sex, monogamous marriage, family planning, faithfulness, divorce, and gender-pairing. And everyone, or at least everyone willing to talk about the subject, knew that God was Male.
Western Christianity entered a village and, in event of theological/ cultural conflict, western religious/cultural values were held up as the One True Way. Or, at least, that is what we have come to believe. There were differences of opinion among the missionaries on the language issue in Alaska, for instance. In Africa today, there are Christian leaders who believe that as a church, in some cultures, we should take a new look at the practice of polygamy.
In a review of the minutes of the Yukon Presbytery, I did not find a reference to a difference of opinion on marriage matters until 1958. I cannot help but note how close we were verging as a culture to the tumultuous 1960s when our young people began insisting on opening nearly all our traditional values and procedures to re-evaluation.
The issue in 1958 seemed to focus on whether or not civil marriages in rural areas could be performed in the church building. One of the few public buildings where such an event could take place would be the church. The issue arose on St. Lawrence Island. The Yukon Presbytery Council recommended to the presbytery at-large that civil marriage ceremonies NOT be conducted in the church sanctuary. Why? We are not told. But we can speculate that persons wishing to be married in a civil ceremony were NOT members of the church and the church would prefer that they were.
Interestingly enough, the Presbytery did not concur with Council’s recommendation. Instead, the following motion was adopted:
"Civil marriage ceremonies may be performed in the church sanctuaries, with the permission of the church sessions, and that the standards of the Presbyterian Church be followed."
Realizing that this would be the first of many such issues, Presbytery also voted in 1958 to have its Committee on Ministerial Relations act as it’s authorized representative on questions of marriage.
The issue did become stickier and more personal when it came time to discuss the termination of a marriage. I believe that the members of Presbytery were sensitive, caring people who wished the best for their colleagues, but as members of a church with rules, they sought to follow these rules.
The first reference to the divorce of a clergy colleague came in 1963. By proper motion and vote Presbytery approved the recommendation of the Ministerial Relations Committee that the ecclesiastical endorsement of Chaplain Hubert Goss be continued. We are told that the committee met with Mr. Goss and investigated thoroughly the nature of the complaint and basis of his divorce, being satisfied that Rev. Goss was not the “guilty party.”
The question of guilt versus innocence was paramount, although today most of us would recognize the validity of “irreconcilable differences” and/or “no fault divorces.” (Goss, by the way, left the Yukon Presbytery and accepted a position in the Presbytery of Los Angeles in 1964.)
The question arose again in 1971, when upon the recommendation of the Ministerial Relations Committee, the Rev. C. Victor Clark was entered on Presbytery’s roll as a member in good standing. His divorce and subsequent remarriage had raised constitutional questions. There had been an inquiry by a Special Committee of Investigation into the circumstances of his changing marital status. Clark, too, left the Presbytery and accepted a call to the Fife Presbyterian Church, Fife, WA.
The first pastor to divorce, remarry, and STAY in the Presbytery was the Rev. Hal N. Banks. This occurred in 1971. A Special Committee of Investigation had been established in May of that year, in accordance with the Book of Discipline to investigate the pending suit for divorce between Hal and Virginia Banks.
"It shall be the duty of this Committee to investigate the circumstances of the divorce of the Rev. Mr. Hal N. Banks, a minister member of this Presbytery at such time as that divorce is finalized. The Committee shall determine whether charges against the Rev. Banks are warranted in the following manner:
"The Committee shall review all the facts of the case including the record of the civil court or courts, and its finding shall be spread upon the records of the Presbytery. If charges are warranted, the Special Committee shall prepare them for presentation to the Presbytery."
The Rev. Tom Handley gave a report of the Special Committee of Investigation in September. Apparently, it was favorable because Rev. Banks soon remarried and remained in the Presbytery for many years.
The Second Mrs. Banks (Eileen) was commended by Presbytery in March of 1972, for the fine issue of Alaska Presbyterian that had just been distributed.
Brian Cleworth demitted from the ministry March 9, 1973, according to the provisions of the Book of Discipline, Chapter VII, Article 5. The Ministerial Relations Committee recommends the establishment of a Judicial Committee to investigate the divorce of Mr. Cleworth. In November of 1973, Presbytery released Brian Cleworth from the ministry per his request of October 4, 1972 in accordance with Chapter II, Article 20, Book of Church Discipline.
This is the last reference to divorces and re-marriages of clergy people found in the minutes. We were soon to move on to sexual issues of another kind.
In February of 1977, the General Assembly Task Force on Homosexuality sent a request for information from any judicatory or church that has made a study of the matter. No one in Council knew of any church which had made such a study in the Presbytery of Yukon. More than 20 years of fiery and emotional debate later, the issue is still very much alive.
In 1978, we were just beginning to broach the heretofore, virtually unmentionable subject.
During the Council meeting of February 1978, the minutes include the following:
Study on the Ordination of Homosexuals: the Rev. Gordon Corbett briefly reviewed the advance report, reactions to it that he has received, and emphasized that it was only a report with recommendations, and would be considered by General Assembly for action by the whole church. At the present time, it did not appear to Rev. Corbett that the recommendation to allow Presbyteries to ordain homosexuals if they so chose would be accepted by General Assembly, and that the mood of the church was running against its adoption.
The issue of the ordination or non-ordination of gay and lesbian persons to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church was, obviously, a proper subject for discussion among Presbyterians. One might have differing views on the subject, but our collective right to discuss and take action based upon that discussion was, and is, obvious.
It was when one’s theological opinions left the realm of Church and entered Society at-large, that the discussion became more heated but more critical. Should persons who were gay and/or lesbian not only be banned from church offices, but also from holding employment, obtaining housing, and/or medical coverage? The issue became heated during the 1978 Anchorage mayoral race. One candidate supported the “open housing ordinance” and the other did not.
On October 13, 1978, the Presbytery of Yukon adopted the following resolution concerning civil rights for gay and lesbian people:
"The Presbytery of Yukon in conjunction with affirmations of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest and the General Assembly of the United Presbytery Church in the USA, urges the citizens of Anchorage and of all Alaska to work for the inclusion and protection of civil rights of all persons. The raising of the issue of civil rights of homosexual persons in the mayoral campaign is of concern to this body of Christians. We urge the citizens of Anchorage and all persons to work for the protection of the civil rights of every citizen of whatever race, religion, or affectional preference."
The Anchorage Times article that followed this action is included at the close of the interview with then associate synod executive Gordon Corbett. Not all Presbyterians agreed with the opinions of their co-religionists at Presbytery.
The Rev. Tom Teply of First Presbyterian Church, Anchorage, fired off a letter to Presbytery October 18, 1978 in protest. Some of his comments were:
“Several people in the First Church congregation” had expressed "great dismay" about the action purported to favor the civil rights of certain minority groups in our society, together with the absolute and unequivocal linking of that action with the mayoral campaign in the Municipality of Anchorage."
“People from College, Barrow, and Savoonga have no right...to get involved in the politics of the Municipality of Anchorage,” Teply wrote.
“Last Winter the session of First Church unanimously adopted a resolution whose thrust was quite contrary to Presbytery’s motion...”
“... members are leaving the United Presbyterian Church in large numbers, and will continue to leave it, because denominational leaders and judicatories seem more interested in supporting politicians and pressure groups than in serving the Prince of Peace...”
Undaunted, the Presbytery of Yukon maintained its concern for the rights of people on the political, as well as spiritual level. For instance, at its March meeting, the Presbytery instructed the Stated Clerk to write a letter to the Speaker of the House and President of Senate in opposition to any attempt to rescind the Equal Rights Amendment in Alaska.
Covenant of Life Digression
The 1980s were dominated by a plethora of heated discussions between and among the ”liberal” and the “conservative”, even “far right” Presbyterian Christians. The Rev. Dick Madden, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Anchorage served for five years on the committee which drafted the “Covenant of Life” statement, covering issues from prenatal care to end of life decisions. Science and politics were making the fields of bioethics, fertility drugs, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryonic and animal research, genetic testing, health care reform, living wills -- and abortion -- topics of theological discussion and debate.
"The Covenant of Life Statement was meant to cover all of these contingencies," Madden says today. "It was our answer to the Roman Catholic Humanae Vitae and, yes, it was controversial. It went through a multitude of revisions during those years."
Madden also served as a commissioner to the 195th General Assembly (1985) where the document was officially received.
The abortion issue is still very much alive among Presbyterians as we enter the next millennium.
The Presbyterian USA website states in 1998, “Presbyterians have struggled with the abortion issue for more than 25 years, beginning in 1970 when a General Assembly statement declared that ‘the artificial or induced termination of pregnancy is a matter of the careful ethical decision of the patient...and therefore should not be restricted by law...’”
The latest major statement on abortion by a Presbyterian General Assembly came in 1992, and reads, in part:
...There is (both) agreement and disagreement on the basic issue of abortion. The committee (on problem pregnancies and abortion) agreed that there are no biblical texts that speak expressly to the topic of abortion, but that taken in their totality the Holy Scriptures are filled with messages that advocate respect for the woman and child before and after birth. Therefore the Presbyterian Church (USA) encourages an atmosphere of open debate and mutual respect for a variety of opinions concerning the issues related to problem pregnancies and abortion."
The issue was re-visited by the 209th General Assembly (1998) with a call by Presbyterians supporting the "pro-life" perspective for a review to "determine whether or not the policy fairly reflects the diversity of positions regarding abortion within the denomination" and to help facilitate additional debate on the issue.
There were additional church-sponsored studies taking place during these years, and personal expression of sexuality was right there under the microscope. Locally, the issue resurfaced in 1990 when word leaked of the content of the Human Sexuality task force report which was to be presented that summer to General Assembly. Needless to say, the document was controversial.
The Rev. George Gilchrist of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Anchorage, moved, it was seconded to send the following overture to General Assembly:
Whereas, for almost twenty centuries the church has had clear unequivocal standards for sexual conduct rooted in Scripture, I respectfully petition Yukon Presbytery to Overture the 203rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to do the following:
1. Dismiss the Task Force on Human Sexuality with thanks.
2. Terminate the work of the Task Force.
3. Receive a current report as information only, and order the report NOT to be printed in the minutes of the General Assembly.
Roger Kemp moved, it was seconded and passed, to amend the above to affirm the Denomination’s present standards concern-ing sexual behavior.
After discussion, George Gilchrist moved, it was seconded and passed to extend the time of discussion by twenty minutes. A caucus was called. Gilchrist then moved, it was seconded and passed, to table the motion until 12:00 noon Saturday.
Later, during the Elders’ Reports, Gilchrist read a substitute motion which was to be considered Saturday.
The Rev. Ken Smith, Eagle River Presbyterian Church, moved, it was seconded and passed, to remove from the table the motion of George Gilchrist. Gilchrist moved, it was seconded and passed, the following substitute motion:
Whereas, the Scripture, our Reformed tradition and our confessions affirm that our sexuality is a good gift from the Lord to be enjoyed, but not abused, and that sexual intercourse is to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and
Whereas, our Presbyterian tradition places a hedge of protection around the marriage bond and affirms the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman as well as the need for fidelity within marriage and;
Whereas, sexual abstinence is the Bible’s and the church’s standard for unmarried persons and
Whereas, our denomination prohibits the ordination of “self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons”;
Therefore, we, the Presbytery of Yukon, meeting at Delta Junction, Alaska, on March 9, 1991, overture the 203rd General Assembly in considering the report from the Task Force on Human Sexuality, “Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice” to maintain and affirm our current standards of sexual behavior.
Neil Munro moved, it was seconded and passed, that the information concerning the above action be sent out to all churches in a bulletin-size format. Smith moved, it was seconded and passed, that the above overture be sent to all the news media, as well.
What was in the document which would be specifically prohibited from being printed in the General Assembly minutes? Not having a copy of the rejected document, I can only note that in 1998 the National Network of Presbyterian College Women was chastised at General Assembly for the utilization of a curriculum on women’s issues that among other things, “advocates holding a Bible study on the issue of homosexuality using the study document, Human Sexuality: Keeping Body and Soul Together which was rejected by the 203rd General Assembly (1991).”
The issue would not go away.
In 1993, the Rev. David Bleivik of First Presbyterian Church, Anchorage, offered the following statement to be affirmed by Presbytery:
In the context of the homosexual issue facing our society, Yukon Presbytery reaffirms its reliance on the authority of Scripture as its only rule of faith and practice. We affirm that the Bible calls us to value the family unit and healthy heterosexual relationships as part of God's plan for us in creation. We affirm the practice of homosexuality to be sinful. We believe that all sin can be forgiven through repentance. Further, we affirm that no one should be persecuted or wrongfully discri-minated against. As such, we call upon all of our members to stand for God's truth as revealed in Scripture and to do so with grace, justice and the hope of harmony.
The Rev. Delbert Burnett moved, it was seconded and passed, that the Policy on Gay and Lesbian Ordination be referred to the Christian Education Committee for a professional paper at the fall meeting of Presbytery, 1993. Reference should be made to the 1978 document on Human Sexuality and the 1979 revision and explanation, he stated. He also wanted assurance that the subject is to be in the context of, "Executive Session for Presbytery", and not open to the public.
During the March 18, 1993 meeting of Presbytery Council, Rev. Bleivik requested that his paper on ordination of homosexuals be taken to the floor of Presbytery for further discussion. Copies of the 1978 and 1979 statements from General Assembly regarding this topic were distributed.
Bleivik then moved, it was seconded and passed, that Council reaffirm the General Assembly summary statements of 1978 and 1979 on human sexuality and the church’s position on the ordination of homosexuals. He further asked that the Council distribute these statements to the churches of Presbytery.
In the next few years, the issue did not go away, but the focus changed to that of "Chastity in Singleness and Fidelity in Marriage."
The issue facing the Presbytery of Yukon and the Presbyterian Church USA was the same as that being faced by other mainline denominations during the same period. What should be to be the proper Christian response to persons we perceive as unlike ourselves, or persons we perceive as living outside traditional interpretation of the mores of Scripture and Church? The debate had previously focused on the ordination of gay and lesbian persons to the service of the church, either as elders, deacons, or Ministers of the Word. The implications of the revised debate, however, were much more far-reaching. Sexuality, after all, includes us all.
In the summer of 1996, the General Assembly adopted what was called Amendment B to the constitution of the church (Book of Order). It precluded the ordination or continued service of gay and lesbian people, as well as any other people not living in either chastity in singleness or faithfulness in marriage.
In the summer of 1997, the General Assembly overwhelming adopted a more pastoral version (or "watered-down", depending upon your point of view) of Amendment B. It was called Amendment A (or B+ by persons thinking that it was not strong enough). That Amendment was sent to the Presbyteries for ratification or rejection.
In the spring of 1998, two-thirds of the Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church voted to uphold an Amendment (Amendment B) to the Book of Order. One third of the Presbyteries voted to support Amendment A (B+). That amendment would have required persons seeking ordination "to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life."
The Presbytery of the Yukon voted to support Amendment B -- precluding the ordination of gays, lesbians, and other persons not living in either chastity in singleness or faithfulness in marriage.
This one-third, two-thirds pattern is worthy of observation. First, I personally find it encouraging that a full one-third of the church-going, Bible-reading Presbyterians in the nation are open to the concept of the ordination of Christian gay and lesbian persons to the ministry of our church and support the idea of fidelity and integrity in all relationships of life. The percentage was somewhat lower in the Presbytery of the Yukon -- the vote at the October 1996 meeting held at the Providence Alaska Medical Center was 50 to retain Amendment B, and 15 in support of Amendment A.
I believe that even this percentage would have been unthinkable a generation ago. I further believe that the crux of the issue is not so much the supposed Biblical teaching in opposition to homosexuality; if this were the case, we would have no practicing liars, gluttons, or moneylenders as ministers. I believe that the issue is whether or not people believe one's sexuality is God-given or human-made, or perhaps, a combination.
An interesting poll was reported in the August 17, 1998 edition of Newsweek -- 33 percent, or one-third of the general population say that homosexuality is something people are born with, not the result of upbringing or environmental influences. Some 56 percent of the population say that gay men and lesbians can change their sexual orientation through therapy, will power or religious conviction.
One-third of the population believes that a person’s sexuality is God-given and two-thirds do not. One-third of the presbyteries in the nation is willing to consider the ordination of gay and/or lesbian people and two-third are not. As the numbers change on the first question, I predict that the numbers will change correspondingly on the second. We will know more later -- when we have more light.
Immanuel Presbyterian Church was in the minority at the Yukon Presbytery level in their support for Amendment A, in particular; and gay and lesbian rights, in general.
More than a decade ago, the phrase “More Light” was coined to refer to those churches which had an open door policy with regard to gay and lesbians people. These people were willing to admit that they did not know everything about the origins of homosexuality, nor did some of them even care. They would seek “More Light” on the issue, true; but in the meantime, they would treat everyone who came through their doors with the same level of dignity and respect, and those who professed a belief in Jesus Christ, who showed leadership capabilities and who earned the trust and respect of other church members, would be elected to positions of leadership.
Today, those presbyteries, individual churches, and individual members within churches, have joined together to form a Covenant Community -- a Presbyterian community within a community -- dedicated to promoting the concept that God's Grace is for everyone. Immanuel Presbyterian Church has voted to become a “More Light” church and member of this community.
No, the issue will not go away.
Clergy Sexual Ethics
The 1990s also brought yet a different thrust to the work of the Presbytery of Yukon -- the proper sexual behavior for heterosexual ministers toward members of their congregations. The issue of “clergy sexual harassment and/or abuse” was rampant in the nation, with stories of misconduct by priests and ministers resurfacing after years of suppression.
The Presbytery of Yukon, while certainly not experiencing the worst of cases, was not immune to the issue itself. Procedures were slow in development, but caution, confidentiality, and sensitivity -- as well as justice -- were among the prime concerns.
Two things occurred during the March 1991 meeting of Presbytery.
First, a Special Disciplinary Committee was appointed to investigate a complaint filed with the Stated Clerk against a member of the clergy. Stated Clerk Alice Green reported that a Committee of Counsel of three members would be elected, as well as a Special Disciplinary Committee of three to five members.
Secondly, it was announced at the same presbytery meeting that the Committee on Ministry would be sending out to all presbytery members a Proposed Code of Ethics for Presbyterian Ministers to be studied and acted upon at the Fall Presbytery meeting.
This 1991 situation was not to be the last. At the February 1993 Council meeting, the Committee on Ministry was asked to prepare a plan for rapid response teams as provided for within the sexual misconduct policy. The Committee recommended that three teams be in place, consisting of an attorney, a psychologist, and an insurance representative in the Anchorage Bowl, Interior, and Arctic areas. The teams would require two or three additional members to bring them into general and/or ethnic balance. The teams would be freestanding committees under the surveillance of the Council with the assistance of the Committee on Ministry.
In March of 1993, the Stated Clerk reported correspondence necessitating two response teams. The first team reported no action on the complaint. The second team reported that further action was required. A special disciplinary committee was elected: Dianne O’Connell, moderator; plus Gene Straatmeyer, Paul Rookok, and Rita Allee. The team was directed to meet prior to March 24. A special assessment of $5.00 per capita passed to fund the cost of the Special Disciplinary Committee response teams.
During a May 25, 1993 teleconference, the following Special Disciplinary Committee was elected: Elders Donald Pollock and Richard Stewart; the Rev. Mable Rasmussen, the Rev. David Endriss and the Rev. Dean Hickox.
During the October 1993 meeting of Presbytery the Stated Clerk moved that the report of the Special Disciplinary Committee designated the previous March be received and that the Committee be dismissed with appreciation. The Committee had reached an agreement where by the issues were resolved.
The Stated Clerk then asked that the report of the Special Disciplinary Committee designated in May be received and the Committee be dismissed with appreciation. This Committee’s report was that in this case the allegations were not substantiated.
The following October, 1994, Ruth Benson moved that the proposed “Policy and Procedures Relating to Sexual Misconduct by Church Officers, Members, and Volunteers,” be sent to all the congregations for their study and comment prior to a formal vote on adoption the following spring.
The policy was adopted at the March 10-11, 1995 meeting of Presbytery.
In October 1995, the presbytery formed another Special Disciplinary Committee, this one consisting of Elders Elizabeth Hollingsworth, Rex Okakok, Sr., Ida Olemaun, and Rev. Samuel Simmonds. Elder Mable Hopson was nominated from the floor. The following March, the Stated Clerk reported that this Special Disciplinary Committee had completed its work and charges had been filed and transmitted to the Permanent Judicial Commission of Presbytery.
The Gender of God
During this "terribilis annum" of 1993, some folks in Yukon Presbytery were less concerned about the sexual misconduct of their above referenced colleagues than the perceived theological misconduct of other colleagues.
The issue had to do with the Gender of God, appropriate ways to worship that God, and names by which one might correctly refer to that God.
When I left for seminary some ten years earlier, the local press interviewed me. One of the reasons I gave at that time for leaving a relatively lucrative job and going off to theology school was that I wanted to learn more about liberation and feminist theologies. This I did. When I returned, I accepted an internship with a small American Baptist congregation in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The press interviewed me again, and lo and behold, the reporter discovered that I did not believe God was a Man. And, of course, if God wasn’t a Man, He must be a Woman! Some controversy ensued following the publication of the article. Fortunately, the small American Baptist congregation loved it.
I went on about my ministry, working as a tent-making associate pastor in charge of adult education at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, working with university students, and taking a year and a half to obtain my certification as a chaplain. I read and I studied and I sought out other women of various faith backgrounds with whom to have theological conversations. I spent a year as chaplain at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and soon joined the chaplaincy department at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Female imagery of the divine was not uncommon among the Catholics with whom I worked, and envisioning the Holy Spirit as embodying aspects of the female was not a foreign idea either.
It had been some time since I had attended a meeting of Yukon Presbytery. This was not to my credit, but in that I was not employed by a Presbyterian church, I had to utilize personal vacation time in order to attend.
However, people were beginning to notice that I wasn’t there. After my second or third personal invitation to "Come to Presbytery", I decided to attend the spring 1994 meeting at Barrow.
It came as a great surprise to me when I arrived at Barrow to learn that major components of my personal theology were under attack -- and what’s more, there was a proposal on the floor to ferret out heretics like me from leadership and staff positions within the church. I listened in awe.
Apparently the issue had been discussed at the Feburary meeting of Presbytery Council. At that time, the Rev. Ken Smith, an otherwise very nice person, had offered a proposed Overture from the Session of Trinity Presbyterian Church dealing with concerns about a Re-Imagining Conference held the previous fall.
The Rev. David Bleivik of First Presbyterian Church, Anchorage, had asked that Council request Yukon Presbytery to reaffirm the doctrine of our Confessions as related to the Re-Imagining Conference, and ask General Assembly Council to investigate and report back. Elder Kenneth Selby seconded motion. Elder Jim Anderson moved that it be tabled until the next Council meeting.
Trinity's proposed overture read as follows:
Whereas, in early November 1993, the
“Re-imaging...God, Community, the Church conference was held in Minneapolis, and,
Whereas, several members of the General Assembly staff were directly or indirectly involved, and,
Whereas, as many as twenty-two of the General Assembly national staff members have attended the conference, and,
Whereas, the Presbyterian Church (USA) provided financial support of at least $66,000 through the Bicentennial Fund, and,
Whereas, charged and counter charges have arisen as a result of this conference, and
Whereas, ordination vows to “further the peace, unity and purity of the church” appear to have been violated, and,
Whereas, our Reformed tradition, confessions, and Biblical faith appear to have been violated,
Whereas, it is reported that the Re-imagining conference promoted heretical teachings including pan-theism, polytheism, and the denial of Christ’s incarnation, divinity and atoning work on the Cross,
Therefore, the Presbytery of Yukon, meeting on March 11, 1994 at the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church in Barrow, Alaska, respectfully petitions the General Assembly Council to,
1) Recognize the outrage which this event and its fallout is causing members of the Yukon Presbytery and the Presbyterians who are members of churches of the Yukon Presbytery,
2) Inaugurate an investigation of this matter with a view toward making a complete and candid report to the church at large on matters which include, but may not be limited to:
a) The role of all national staff members in the planning and promotion of the Re-Imagining 93 conference,
b) The views which are held by those national staff members on issues which are at the core of the Christian faith, which were repudiated by convocation speakers, with a view toward evaluating their fitness to continue as national staff leaders,
c) A complete and accurate accounting of all monies which were spent through the participation of the PC (USA) and its national staff members, including Bicentennial Fund monies, scholarships granted by various agencies and groups of the church.
3) Exercise proper oversight and discipline of all individuals whose views and/or actions in regard to the Re-Imagining 93 conference are inconsistent with the guidelines set out in the Book of Confessions and the Personnel Policies for General Assembly Entities and Guidelines for Governing Bodies of the Presbyterian Church.
4) Adopt a statement of re-commitment to the historic Christian faith as it is outlined in the documents of the PC (USA) Book of Confessions, which will serve to reassure the church that, the PC (USA) remains a denomination which embraces those essential doctrines which have served for 2000 years as the foundation of the Christian faith and practice.
The motion adopted at Presbytery not only included the above, but also a direction to deliver a copy of the petition to the General Assembly Council within 24 hours of its approval.
Now I was not at the Re-Imagining Conference of 1993. I have attended other women's spirituality conferences, however, and I do know that they do not necessarily conform to the traditional Presbyterian liturgy that you might expect to experience on any given Sunday morning. I understand that there were women from around the world attending this conference and components of various cultures were included in the worship services and presentations. I also understand that the women allegedly "worshipped a goddess named Sophia."
These women did not affirm the Maleness of God.
Oh, my God/ess, I whispered to myself. “Sophia” is Greek for Wisdom. The Holy Spirit among us is often envisioned as Wisdom; “So God created man in his own image...male and female he created them” -- “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I said nothing. The overture was approved. I vowed I would not be quiet again.
The Re-Imagining Revival, held April 16-19, 1998 in St. Paul Minnesota, was organized by the Re-Imagining Community, a worldwide ecumenical community of women theologians, to mark the culmination of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade -- Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998). The gathering was the fifth event convened in the United States by the Re-Imagining Community since its inception following the original 1993 Re-Imagining Conference. The 1998 event drew approximately 900 women and men, representing 42 states and the District of Columbia. Additionally, persons of faith from eight other countries were also in attendance.
Church Women United -- who send eight national staff people to the original conference in 1993, but did not provide additional funding nor sponsorship -- reaffirmed its support of the goals of the group in 1998:
CWU reaffirms its commitment to supporting and advocating the right of women to develop theological understandings rooted in their Christian faith, culture, and experiences, as reveled by God’s Holy Spirit. CWU recognizes that there are diverse points of view among our ecumenical constituency that may, on occasion, lead to conflicting convictions. We do not always agree with everything we experience. Yet these differences can also be seen as gifts that challenge us to grow within our respective theological traditions, as we reflect on new ideas and understandings.
As an ecumenical movement of women of faith, CWU welcomes the opportunity to engage in prayer and dialogue, even when we do not agree. We trust in the Wisdom of God’s Holy Spirit, who alone gives persons of faith the insight by which to discern God’s truth and will for our lives.
It was with some joy that I read the August 10, 1998 edition of U.S. News and World Report: In it, they reported on the changing perceptions of women in the Bible. In answer to the question, “Is God a woman?”, the article snapped back,
“Well, of course not -- and not a man, either.... The God of Israel...was ultimately seen to be asexual, although female imagery was often used, “now I will scream like a woman in labor, I will pant and I will gasp,” says God in Isaiah. “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God that gave you birth”’ Moses tells his people in Deuteronomy. What about all those references to God as ‘father”? Most of them come relatively late in the development of Israelite religion, and altogether there are only about a dozen references to God as “father” in the entire Hebrew Bible,” the article states.
Women are admitted to the ministry in about 80 Christian denominations and to the rabbinate in Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism. Nearly one-third of the students currently enrolled in seminaries are women. As time goes on, more and more leadership roles in the church will be held by women and more and more female scholars will interpret Scripture.
All this is good in the eyes of this writer. Another way of affirming the lives and work of Amanda McFarland, Emma Stauffer, R.N., Ann Bannon, R.N., Alice Green, Mary Jane Landstrom, Mable Rasmussen, Jessie DeVries, Willa Roghair...
The next decade, the next century, the next millennium, will be exciting times for a Reformed church, that is always re-forming.
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