ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly 2,400 women converged on sacred Indian ground last weekend for the third WomenChurch conference, seeking a vision of unity amid a mosaic of cultural and religious expressions.
Participants seemed to generally agree on the conference theme, "WomenChurch: Weavers of Change," but it was clear that the road to change, in this case, is paved with debate, introspection and self-criticism.
Speakers at the April 16-18 gathering at Albuquerque's downtown convention center minced no words. Institutional religion of every denominational shade came in for strong disapproval from a string of theologians and religious leaders joined loosely under the conference theme.
"Feminist theology is under attack by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, fundamentalist preachers and Protestant churches," said Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, a Stendahl professor at Harvard Divinity School who has long been involved in the feminist movement in church and theology.
"In this climate, women are claiming feminist liberation theologies as their own. The rise of many women's voices in the world of theology and ministry makes this a unique moment for creative theological development," said the author of the forthcoming, "Escape from Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology."
The idea for such conferences originated more than a decade ago with WomenChurch Convergence, a coalition of more than 40 groups rooted in the Catholic tradition, but it also including women of other traditions.
Albuquerque was chosen as the site of this year's conference--the first was held in Chicago in 1983, the second in Cincinnati in 1987--because of New Mexico's cultural diversity.
Diversity itself, though, sparked a series of debates within the group.
Mary Hunt, a lesbian feminist author, conference organizer and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said, "The central question before us is how we can stand together against patriarchy" and be committed to diversity among women "without being co-opted."
The mix of races, classes, ages, nationalities, religious backgrounds and sexual preference provoked complaints from participants about the ways women can ignore one another, presume to understand each other's experience or take freely the attractive elements of one another's religions.
"Feminist theology is not a mutual admiration society," said Korean theologian and author Chung Hyun-Kyung, currently a resident scholar at Harvard Divinity School. Participants should strive to be "critically compassionate to each other" as they debate solutions to social problems and the need for female reinterpretation of history and religion.
Theology student Marie-Therese Archambault, speaking on behalf of Indians, said there is tension in deciding between "wanting to be hospitable" to the mainstream culture, yet not wanting white people to "take away" the rituals that American Indians are just now rediscovering in order to heal their own suffering.
Given WomenChurch's history in the Roman Catholic Church, that denomination came in for particular attention.
In a conference session titled "Women in the Church," Sister Marie de Porres Taylor, a former president of the National Black Sisters Conference who currently is an assistant to the mayor for job training and employment in Oakland, Calif., called the church "a sinful institution when it continues to harbor racism and sexism."
"Black women experience these two oppressions as a double blow to their relationship with the church," she said.
Recent problems the Catholic Church's clergy have faced, exemplified by recent events in New Mexico, intruded into the proceedings. The state is the site for a noted treatment center for priests who have been involved in sex abuse of children. And Santa Fe Archbishop Robert Sanchez resigned recently amid charges that he had made sexual advances toward several women and conducted a sexual relationship with at least one other woman 10 to 15 years ago.
Ironically, planners had settled on New Mexico long before the recent allegations against Sanchez, known as a supporter of the organization.
"We knew Archbishop Sanchez as one of the best-loved bishops in the country and as a strong supporter of WomenChurch," said Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, a conference organizer and national coordinator of the Women's Ordination Conference.
By the end of the weekend, the diverse group was ready to come together in worship. Members chose among more than a dozen American Indian, pagan, Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic-based services, though planners deliberately refrained from scheduling a Catholic Mass celebrated by a male priest. "Church does not consist of the hierarchy, or who is your pastor," commented Frances Wood, an African-American theological student and worker in the Center for Prevention of Sexual Violence in Seattle. "Church has to do with the people."
Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether agreed. "We're always being asked whether we are staying in this church or leaving this church--and this is not a question that's important to us. Rather, we should be concerned about being connected to the spirituality that brings life. And if the church wants to relate to us, then that's fine."