Presbyterians hold prayer event

March 21, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

A Presbyterian congregation in Towson, one of many Protestant and Roman Catholic groups across the country scandalized by a women's theological conference, prayed last night for the reconciliation, repentance and renewal of Christians caught up in the controversy.

More than 300 people, a third of them from other congregations, attended the prayer meeting at Central Presbyterian Church on York Road.

"These are challenging times to be part of the mainline church," said the Rev. Ronald W. Scates, the senior pastor. He said the service was not intended to be a "political rally," but "a nonpartisan time of prayer."

It was intended, however, to prepare church members for an expected showdown on Thursday, when the Committee on Peace and Justice of the Presbytery of Baltimore will attempt to put local Presbyterians on record in support of the controversial feminist gathering held Nov. 4-7 in Minneapolis.

The so-called "Re-Imagining Conference" drew about 2,200 participants from most major Christian denominations. They came from 49 states and 27 countries. Only 83 men attended.

Critics of the ecumenical feminist event contend that it was not merely unorthodox but blasphemous -- in fact, nothing short of a scandal.

The Rev. Parker T. Williamson, a leader of the Presbyterian Church's conservative wing, said participants in Minneapolis worshiped "Sophia" -- the Greek name for wisdom -- as a pagan goddess in place of the Christian deity and specifically "rejected the atonement of Jesus Christ, celebrated lesbianism and called for adding books to the Bible that could then be used to justify radical feminist and homosexual activism."

One of the conference's strong defenders is the Rev. Herbert D. Valentine, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Baltimore. He was present at last night's prayer meeting in Towson but did not speak.

Earlier, he countered the criticism by saying that "intelligent Christian friends across the country" had informed him that the event was "singularly the best, most affirming [and] theologically sound conference for women they had ever attended."

Mr. Valentine said the critics were encumbered by a "severe, narrow orthodoxy."

The ecumenical Institute on Religion and Democracy, based in Washington, said protests over the use of church funds to pay for the conference have resulted in declines in contributions to some denominations, primarily the Presbyterian and United Methodist. The conference cost an estimated $400,000.

In Presbyterian churches alone, according to the group, more than $1 million has been withheld from denominational apportionments because of the theological controversy.

The Good News Caucus, a conservative evangelical group within the United Methodist Church, called on its bishops to censure a Methodist women's division for using church money to send 56 staff and board members to the Minneapolis meeting.

At Central in Towson, the church's Session -- or governing body -- unanimously renounced what it concluded was a celebration of pagan rituals, homosexuality and aberrant theology. It voted to "let our congregation know that we deplore the fact that Presbyterian money and people were used to help put on a conference which was at apparent cross-purposes with orthodox Christian faith."

The broadly ecumenical conference was organized in connection with a "Solidarity with Women" campaign of the World Council of Churches.

Sponsors said it was intended to address the question, "How can we together reimagine our churches so that every woman may claim her voice, her gifts, her loves and her wholeness?"

Financial, staff or other support for the event came not only from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) but from Church Women United, the United Methodist Church, Ecumenical Decade Committee, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, American Baptist Church, Catholic Sisters of Mercy, Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph, Episcopal Church, Disciples of Christ, Reformed Church of America, African Methodist Episcopal Church and United Church of Canada.

Denominations with the most participants at the conference were the Presbyterian, with 409 in attendance; United Methodist, 391; Lutheran, 313; Roman Catholic, 234; United Church of Christ, 144; various Baptist churches, 70; United Church of Canada, 58; Episcopal, 48, and Church of the Brethren, 25.

One of the strongest defenders of the conference, Elizabeth Dodson Gray, who is on the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School, referred to "perturbation in some denominational circles" about "some sensuous references in the closing worship to female bodily incarnation of Sophia."

She compared this to Michelangelo's famous painting of God in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel "as a very bodily male patriarch with long beard and bulging muscles."

She observed that "there was no cry of heresy about this, then or now," adding that the painting "became for centuries a visual icon for the theological axiom that 'God created man in his own image.' "

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