“Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Ministers”
CFT editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni interviews Jann Aldredge-Clanton about her exciting new book
Letha: Jann, you’ve titled your new book, Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Ministers. What is your definition of a “liberating minister”?
Jann: I began the book with a curiosity about ministers who are changing the church through changing worship language and imagery to include the Divine Feminine. My hunch was that other social justice changes would flow from this foundational theological change.
I did indeed discover that ministers who include female divine names and images in worship also take prophetic stands on race, class, sexual orientation, ecology, and other social justice issues. These ministers are working for freedom from interlocking oppressions, so I decided to call them “liberating ministers.” These “liberating ministers” believe that it is vital to include biblical female divine names and images in worship in order to have justice for women and all creation.
Letha: You mention in the introduction to your book that you chose to write about ordained clergy—not because you believe that they’re more valuable to the church than laypeople but rather “because they have the most to lose in advocating for change within the institutional church.” What did you mean by that statement, and what are some examples of what these ministers might risk or lose by advocating for change?
Jann: Ordained clergy depend upon the church for their livelihood, and most laypeople do not. So when clergy advocate for change, especially change that might not be popular, they take risks with their careers.
As we see in the stories of these “liberating ministers,” clergy who work to change the institutional church risk sanction by denominational authorities, loss of opportunities for promotion to larger congregations or to prestigious denominational positions, and often even loss of their jobs. Also, most of these ministers express the ideal of changing from a hierarchical to an egalitarian church structure, breaking down the separation between clergy and laity. But if the church takes this form, will it still support ordained clergy? If not, what will these ministers do to make a living and to fulfill their call?
Letha: One of the things I like best about your book is that you approached the topic through stories— real-life examples of women and men who realized that part of working for justice, peace, and egalitarian ideals was to “include female divine names and images in worship so that females are seen as valuable in the image of the Divine.” Can you tell us about a few positive and encouraging incidents that especially stood out in the stories the ministers shared with you?
Jann: I was inspired and encouraged as I learned of the life-giving changes that these ministers are bringing to church and society. For example, Rev. Stacy Boorn, pastor of Ebenezer Lutheran in San Francisco, tells about people who have felt alienated from the Christian tradition and who now experience a “whole new sense of church and communion through images of the Divine Feminine.” A Native American woman who had “sworn off Christianity because of how the church treated women and minority groups,” found self-worth through the liturgy of this Lutheran church, and she found community as she worked on the Faith and Feminism/ Womanist/Mujerista Conference, sponsored by the church. Stacy expresses her belief that the world will change as “we provide church in a different way,” because religious institutions are “so much a part of who the world is.”
Rev. Marcia Fleischman, co-pastor of Broadway Church in Kansas City, tells of a mystical experience of the Divine Feminine that helped her heal from her dad’s and boyfriend’s negative messages about women. She was questioning whether or not she was made in the divine image, and she heard God say to her, “Just as your daughter looks like you, you look like me.” A little later, Marcia was helping to lead the church to include the Divine Feminine in worship, and getting some resistance. In a Sunday worship service during this time, people spontaneously began changing the words of one of the songs, replacing “He” with “She.” With tears in her eyes Marcia tells me: “You could hear it across the whole congregation. They were singing about God as ‘She.’ It was a moment of joy.”
Letha: What about some negative examples—examples where serious problems or conflict arose in churches because of the changes these ministers were trying to bring about?
Jann: Church officials have excommunicated Bridget Mary Meehan, a bishop in the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement, because of her activity as an ordained priest and her use of the Divine Feminine in worship. When she officiated at the ordination of the first women priests in Florida, Bishop Frank Dewane threatened to excommunicate not only Bishop Bridget Mary, but everyone who attended. She reframes this conflict as a positive experience: “I don’t know how many excommunications I’ve had! I think they’re badges of honor actually. The bishop’s threat of excommunication just drew more people. My experience is that opposition can really be the source of growth and blessing.”
Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, has experienced conflict when trying to change the visual imagery in the sanctuary to include the feminine and to include diversity in race and sexual orientation. In this church, Nancy says, there’s more resistance to inclusive visual imagery than to inclusive language: “We have people who don’t want anything in the sanctuary to change. It’s hard to know if it’s because they don’t want the feminine imagery in there, or if they truly feel that this space was designed for the purpose and they don’t want it to change. My guess is that it’s both. Some people ask, ‘Why do we have to bring feminine imagery in? We have a woman pastor, and we know what we believe. Why is it important to put stuff on the walls?’ I keep saying, ‘Because it’s theologically the right thing to do.'”
Letha: How did you go about finding the ministers who were willing to be interviewed and share their stories in this book?
Jann: About the time I began this research, I read the book Grandmothers Counsel the World, by Carol Schaefer. The Appendix includes the story of Jyoti (Jeneane Prevatt), who initiated the Grandmothers Council, out of which the book developed. Jyoti had a vision of the Council, but felt overwhelmed and uncertain about how to find the grandmothers. She prayed for direction, and received the answer that she was to start with the relationships she had.
I decided that I would also pray for guidance to find the ministers, and that I would begin with relationships. Rev. Stacy Boorn and I had become friends at the annual Faith and Feminism/Womanist/Mujerista Conferences, so I started with her. Several other ministers I’d known personally or through their books were willing to be interviewed. Guidance came also in unexpected ways, as in my reading an article in the Dallas Morning News about Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan’s leadership with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, and then remembering her books on the Feminine Divine that I had on my bookshelf.
Divine Wisdom also led through people who gave helpful assistance in finding a diversity of ministers. Some leaders of mainline denominations sent emails with my statement of purpose to all the ministers on their distribution lists. I received many responses with suggestions of ministers to include.
Several ministers I approached expressed appreciation and encouragement for the project, but declined to be interviewed for fear of censure or loss of their jobs. One minister I contacted after I read online her powerful liturgy with the image of God as “Mother” responded that she would like to help with the book, but that she feared for her job because her husband had been fired from his pastoral position because of the controversy her liturgy had stirred within their denomination.
In my search I did not try to be exhaustive, but to find representative ministers who are changing the church through inclusion of female divine names and images. That holy number 12 lodged in my mind almost from the beginning of the project. So after I had written 12 stories, I decided to close the canon—at least on this book!
Letha: I see that the ministers who shared their stories in this book are for the most part women (female leadership of congregations in itself being an indication of changes in many churches). But you have also included chapters about two male ministers who consider Divine Feminine imagery and language to be as important for boys and men as it is for girls and women. One of the men is Rev. Paul Smith, whose book, Is It Okay to Call God Mother? has been reviewed in Christian Feminism Today and whose latest book, Integral Christianity, is reviewed in this issue on page 7. The other male contributor to your book is Rev. Larry Schultz, minister of music at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Could you comment on these words from your chapter about Larry Schultz in your forthcoming book?
“Many ministers of music are even more resistant to inclusive language than pastors because of the difficult tasks of finding inclusive anthems and hymns, of changing existing exclusive words, and of creating new hymn texts. Also, ministers of music often face copyright issues when trying to change words in more recent music as well as the resistance of choir members and congregations to singing new words. ‘You have to be brave enough and to find ways to bring inclusive music to worship,’ Larry comments.”
Jann: In many churches people become “inerrantists” when it comes to hymns. Ministers of music then don’t want to stir up people in their choirs and congregations by changing words in songs, and they don’t want to be accused of “tampering” with the original poetry. And Rev. Larry Schultz talks about how difficult it is to find existing anthems and hymns with inclusive language. Larry has indeed been brave enough to find creative ways to include the Divine Feminine in worship music, because of his strong belief in “all the benefits for women, men, and children.” He says that “what we sing in worship shapes us.”
Often it is much easier to create new music than to change existing hymns. For this reason, Larry and I have collaborated on two hymnbooks: Inclusive Hymns for Liberating Christians (2006) and Inclusive Hymns for Liberation, Peace, and Justice (in press). Larry is an accomplished text writer, as well as composer. These hymnbooks include some of his texts, as well as original compositions and arrangements of familiar hymn tunes. Both hymnbooks include female and male divine names and images to support the foundational biblical truth that all people are created equally in the divine image. The new hymnbook also has many hymns appropriate for interfaith settings. It is our hope that the hymns in both collections will empower people to take prophetic action on gender, race, interfaith cooperation, sexual orientation, ecology, and other social justice issues.
Letha: Tell us a bit about how you have handled the issue of God language in working with children, including writing music for children.
Jann: I agree with Larry that it’s vital to include the Divine Feminine and other expansive imagery for children so that “it becomes a natural and meaningful expression for them,” and both girls and boys grow up to know they’re valued. To bring inclusive language and imagery to children, I wrote God, A Word for Girls and Boys with an accompanying coloring book. To provide music resources with expansive imagery, Larry and I collaborated on Imagine God! A Children’s Musical Exploring and Expressing Images of God; as well as another book, Sing and Dance and Play with Joy! Inclusive Songs for Young Children; plus an animal blessing anthem and several other children’s anthems.
Larry’s story includes the mystical experiences that began our collaboration and that led Choristers Guild to publish the children’s musical.
Letha: I was also glad to see that you included at least two names of EEWC-CFT women, Becky Kiser and Judith Liro, in your book. In addition, it was great to see the racial and ethnic diversity reflected among all the ministers whose stories you share with us. Would you like to comment on a few of these women?
Jann: Yes, EEWC-CFT has been important to Rev. Becky Kiser and Rev. Judith Liro, as we see from their stories. Becky tells of her epiphany through your and Nancy’s book All We’re Meant to Be, and years later of connecting with you and becoming active in EEWC. My interview with Becky led to my reconnecting with EEWC. Her story includes excerpts from an article she wrote for the EEWC newsletter on her mystical experiences of the Divine Feminine. Judith’s story also includes her writing for EEWC. I quote an article in which she writes that the dominance of male imagery in traditional liturgy undermines “the possibilities for women to experience ourselves as beloved, gifted, and responsible beings.”
In Changing Church I tried to reflect not only racial and ethnic diversity, but also diversity in sexual orientation and Christian denominations. To pursue their calling some of these ministers have overcome obstacles not only of sexism but also of racism and/or heterosexism. “It’s very difficult as a black woman to get called to pastor a church,” Rev. Susan Newman says, but she finds power through “God’s WomanSpirit within.” Rev. Monica Coleman, a womanist theologian, in her book Making a Way Out of No Way uses images of black women as Saviors. Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon says that it takes courage to use her “voice as a woman and especially as a Latina woman,” but that the Divine Feminine, like the Virgen de Guadalupe, gives her strength. Rev. Isabel Docampo has also faced challenges as a Latina clergywoman, and finds hope through her vision of the Divine Feminine bringing healing as diverse people connect through sharing stories. Rev. Nancy Petty, even in a “welcoming and affirming” church, has experienced some prejudice as a lesbian pastor; she expresses hope that the Divine Feminine will lead the church to represent all people as equals.
Letha: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Jann. We’ll be looking forward to seeing your book in print soon. Meanwhile, I appreciated having a sneak peek at it ahead of publication so that we can call our readers’ attention to it. And I’d like to quote these powerful words from your introduction:
“My vision is for the Divine Feminine to shine forth in all Her glory in multicultural visual imagery and in the language of worship, supporting equal partnership of women and men. My vision is of a church where the Divine Feminine and women ministers don’t have to be defended or marginalized, but are fully and equally included throughout every worship service and every activity of the church. My vision is for the Sacred Feminine to be worshipped not only in Christian congregations, but in every religion all over the world, and for women to share equally in the leadership of every religion. My vision is for girls to believe they are equal to boys because they hear and see the Supreme Being worshipped as ‘She’ as well as ‘He.'”
Do you have any closing thoughts you want to add, Jann?
Jann: In keeping with my Baptist tradition, I’d like to close with an “invitation.” People may read this book and think, “Why didn’t she include so and so?” I hope that they do, and that they will write these stories. This book comes with the invitation to join these liberating ministers in changing the church and the world.
© 2011 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus – Vol. 35, No. 3 Fall (October-December) 2011