by Irie Lynne Session, Kamilah Hall Sharp, and Jann Aldredge-Clanton
Wipf & Stock, 2020
Reviewed by Chandra D. Snell
Ever since Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” in the 1980s, many scholarly texts by and/or about women of color, as well as others concerned with human equality, have examined its theoretical implications for myriad disciplines, with theology being no exception. From the pioneering works of first-generation womanist theologians such as Jacquelyn Grant, Delores S. Williams, Katie G. Cannon, and Emilie Townes to the more recent scholarship of Monica Coleman, Mitzi J. Smith, Nyasha Junior, and others, there is much to glean from womanism, which upholds the flourishing of all peoples. Nevertheless, the “what” of womanist theology has perhaps garnered more scholarly attention than the everyday “how.” Session, Sharp, and Aldredge-Clanton help change this with The Gathering: A Womanist Church.
Here, the authors ably and concisely chronicle their mission to move womanist theology from the ivory tower to the pews by starting and leading one of the first self-proclaimed womanist churches, thereby providing direction for others wishing to do the same for and those who simply would like to be more inclusive in their worship spaces. Womanist worship, the authors contend, “moves theology and biblical interpretation from the head to the heart.” This quick, engaging read is, in fact, a practical “how to” for this movement and, indeed, for this very moment, as recent events have exposed the deep divisions in U.S. society.
In brisk, jargon-free prose (no mean feat for academic theologians), Sessions, Sharp, and Aldredge-Clanton delineate their journey of “Defining,” “Creating,” and “Experiencing” a womanist church (Chapters 1 through 3), as well as share womanist sermons and liturgies (Chapters 4 and 5). Along the way, they provide illuminating and entertaining anecdotes from each of their personal perspectives as pastor-theologians.
In Chapter 1, “Defining a Womanist Church,” the authors explicate the theoretical underpinnings of their project by defining womanism as well as describing womanism’s practical application in the mission and other characteristics of The Gathering. This practical application includes the identification of The Gathering’s defining traits of inclusive welcome, egalitarian structure, “tag-team preaching,” and “ministry partners.”
Chapter 2, “Creating a Womanist Church,” narrates the beginnings of The Gathering, notably including its challenges along the way—namely, finances. As well, the authors recount their intentional implementation of an explicitly “womanist ecclesiology,” an area that certainly deserves more scholarly examination. They also flesh out a “constructive framework” for this ecclesiology, which comprises: Artistic expression; Social justice orientation; Communal Christology; [to be] Organically trauma informed; Universal God; and Womanist preachers as primary proclaimers. The latter is especially noteworthy for its pivotal role in moving womanist scholars and practitioners “from the margins to the center,” as feminist scholar bell hooks [sic] would say, in the church. Finally, the authors conclude this rich chapter by providing clear guidelines for establishing a womanist church, including prayer, partnership, and a redefinition of “success,” which does not include necessarily attracting a large membership.
The next chapter, “Experiencing a Womanist Church,” is the most personal (and my favorite), featuring the first-person experiences of diverse ministry partners’ participation with The Gathering, including Aldredge-Clanton, who, commenting on the first sermon she heard on domestic violence, notes, “At The Gathering I was discovering why I needed womanist as well as feminist perspectives.” Chapter 4, “Womanist Sermons,” highlights several of these word-for-word, thereby giving the reader the next best thing to hearing them. Finally, the work concludes with “Litanies for a Womanist Church,” which mainly features the creations of Aldredge-Clanton; one of which, “Celebrating the Second Anniversary of The Gathering,” reads, in part, encapsulating The Gathering’s purpose:
All together we have power, rising up against all wrong;
All together we have power, rising up to sing freedom songs.
All together, we are changing the world!
Upon first encountering this book, I thought, Is such a thing as a womanist church really possible? Short answer: Yes, it is!
 Jann Aldredge-Clanton, “All Together,” 20-21.
© 2021 by Christian Feminism Today.
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Chandra, thank you for this inspiring review! The book sounds like a must-have for women who seek alternative forms of worship with “inclusive welcome, egalitarian structure, ‘tag-team preaching,’ and ‘ministry partners.'” I also want to read about experiencing a womanist church, including Jann Aldredge-Clanton on “why I needed womanist as well as feminist perspectives.”
Thanks, Anne–you would enjoy it, for sure!
Thank you, Chandra, for your compelling review! Yes, Anne, it is a “must-have” for women who seek alternative, egalitarian forms of worship. I would love for you all to read my story of experiencing The Gathering, A Womanist Church. I invite you all to attend; we meet each Saturday at 6:00 p.m. (CST), now livestreamed on Facebook on The Gathering FB page.