HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Justice for Women Working Group of the National Council of Churches (NCC) brought a diverse group of 40 participants to a September 18-20 national ecumenical consultation on the state of the womens movement in U.S. churches. Conferees met at Hartford Seminary, the consultations co-sponsor. The consultation was funded by a grant from The Sister Fund and contributions from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Commission for Women and the NCCs Justice for Women Working Group. The purpose was to present an opportunity to church leaders to reflect on the status of womens organizing for justice and equality since the 1970s and to strategize about the future of this work in the wake of backlash and denominational struggles.
We hope that the consultation and report will provide a body of material helpful for historians and activists who seek to understand the recent history of women in the church and will increase awareness among foundations and individuals of the importance of contemporary feminist, mujerista and womanist empowerment in the churches, said Jennifer Butler, co-chair of the NCCs Justice for Women Working Group and Director of the Presbyterian UN Office. We also want it to serve as a starting point for new and innovative work.
The work completed at the consultation, along with a survey of the NCC Justice for Women Network, will be compiled and synthesized in a written report for conferees and other interested parties. Hartford Seminarys Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducted the survey and Adair Lummis, the Faculty Associate for Research at Hartford Seminary, offered an overview of the results for the Consultation.
Lummis identified key areas of concern that emerged in the survey, returned by 76 persons from 11 denominations. Concerns included the need to involve younger women, backlash from people who felt their power or prestige diminished by womens entry into church leadership, the persistence of racism and womens organizations loss of control over their financial resources.
In the works for a few years, the Consultation documented the backlash against feminist organizing in the form of challenges to womens commissions and organizations in the national denominations, among other attacks, said Karen Hessel, Program Director for the NCCs Justice for Women Working Group.
As it turns out, the timing was sadly prophetic, as a proposal was announced September 15 to dissolve the formidable ELCA Commission for Women as part of a restructuring in the ELCA. This conference, and more like it, are clearly needed to help us to mine our past stories and experiences and start thinking creatively about what to do in the future so that this vitally important work of women continues.
The 40 participants were chosen for their experience and expertise regarding the recent decades of struggle for full equality of women in all facets of life in the churches and in society.
They came from multiple denominations, including United Methodist; Episcopal; Presbyterian Church (USA); Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); American Baptist Churches; United Church of Christ; Progressive National Baptist Convention; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; International Evangelical Churches, Pentecostal, and Society of Friends. They were pastors, lay leaders, and seminary faculty, deans and presidents.
Aruna Gnanadason, Director of the Womens Program for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, also attended. She commended women in US churches for their strong awareness of the special responsibility of US women for advocacy from a faith perspective regarding US policies and their effects on women and children globally.
The three-day event included worship, panel discussions and table groups looking at the past and future for womens leadership in the churches and in society.