Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series
with Kendra Weddle and Jann Aldredge-Clanton
on their book Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Mary E. Hunt
Good afternoon. I, Mary Hunt, am in the WATER office today, along with Diann Neu, and Anali Martin of Mennonite Voluntary Service. We greet you with Advent hope and Solstice light this month.
We welcome you to the December 9, 2020 WATERtalk with Kendra Weddle and Jann Aldredge-Clanton on their book Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018).
It is wonderful to have the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus/Christian Feminism Today here with WATER. We are sibling groups, among the few who bring feminist religious and spiritual values to bear for social and ecclesial change. Welcome to all of you.
Let us dedicate this session to the memory of our beloved friend and colleague Virginia Ramey Mollenkott who died recently. Virginia was the co-author with Letha Scanzoni of the landmark book Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response. While researching a short encyclopedia entry for Virginia, I reread her life story. And then when I reread our book for today, I saw so many parallels with Letha’s life in terms of how both were personae non gratae in the evangelical circles for which they provided so much scholarship and wisdom. What a loss to that community to shun them both. We lift them up in gratitude.
Like all of WATER’s efforts, this session is not simply an academic seminar, but a way to learn in order to bring our learning to the creation of a more just and equitable world. At this liminal time in world history, it is helpful to have role models like Virginia and Letha. While we might not agree with them on everything, their lives and efforts provide light and inspiration. Note that this book is about “Letha Scanzoni and Friends,” reminding us that we are never alone in this work. So, it is with great delight that CFT and WATER are friends in the struggles for justice.
You can relisten or point other people in the direction of the notes and recordings from this Zoom meeting by going here to WATER’s website.
Jann Aldredge-Clanton, PhD, is a feminist theologian and ordained minister. She serves as Co-chair of the group Equity for Women in the Church which is according to its mission statement “an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.” She is an adjunct professor at Richland College, and Co-leader of New Wineskins Community. Her many and popular books include Praying with Christ-Sophia (2007), Seeking Wisdom (2010), Changing Church (2011), and Earth Transformed with Music (2015) to mention just a few.
Kendra Weddle, PhD, is Associate Professor and Chair of Religion and Humanities at Texas Wesleyan University, where she focuses on the intersections of gender and religion. She is coauthor (with Melanie Springer Mock) of If Eve Only Knew (2015), and author of Preaching on the Plains (2007).
On our “What We’re Reading” page on our website, we wrote this about Building Bridges: “Letha Dawson Scanzoni gives evangelical feminism vitality and integrity as an extension of her own. This vividly written biography, based on texts, interviews, and reflections by colleagues, tells the story of a woman who, with her friends, created new spaces and new ideas that are still transforming an important sector of the Christian community. Their words have been read and heeded before, but now there is no excuse for not crossing the bridge to justice and equality.”
Jann, Letha, and I connected through EEWC-CFT, an organization founded to establish gender justice within the realms of evangelical and progressive Christian communities. Through this connection, Jann and I decided to work together to tell Letha’s story and how her life and writings had influenced others.
What we wanted to do with the book was to tell the story of Letha, but we also wanted to ensure that this was a feminist biography – by which we mean it would not stop with the person. We wanted to show that the work and legacy Letha created continues and has the ongoing circles of influence. We wanted to not only tell the story of Letha, but also interview people influenced by her and tell their stories.
Once we started interviewing and listening to these stories, it became evident that justice was very much at the center of everything. This was the crux of Letha’s work, specifically with feminism and LGBTQ persons. You can see it ripples out with what people have to say about Letha throughout the book.
As Kendra mentioned, Building Bridges includes narratives of many people influenced by Letha’s life and work. In the Introduction, we include our stories of transformation.
When I was teaching English at Dallas Baptist University, I read All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty. Although I had claimed my professional vocation, I had never questioned biblical interpretations that prescribed the subordination of women at home and at church. As I read All We’re Meant to Be, I discovered more than enough biblical support for gender equality. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had come out more than 10 years before, but I’d never heard of the book nor raised any questions about women’s traditional roles. The call to gender justice could reach me only through the Bible. All We’re Meant to Be transformed my life with new revelations from the Bible. Letha and Nancy gave such thorough, convincing biblical support for gender equality in all areas of life that I became an instant convert and passionate evangelist for these new truths.
I bought copies of All We’re Meant to Be and gave them to the leaders of our Baptist church, all men. I believed the copious scriptural evidence and the clear theological reasoning that had so thoroughly convinced me of the rightness of women’s equality would persuade them as well. But I soon discovered strong resistance to equality.
Growing up, I never saw a woman in the pulpit, except a missionary to Nigeria. And what she did was called “speaking,” not “preaching.” The messages I got from my church and culture were that women could be missionaries, teachers, or nurses, but certainly not pastors. When I read All We’re Meant to Be, a new world of possibilities opened for me. Because I found in this book such compelling biblical support for women as church leaders, my self-perception began to change. Even though I delighted in my teaching vocation, now I could see myself in other ministries as well. So, I was receptive when the call came to pastoral ministry that soon included social justice activism and writing on gender equality.
The more I tried to live out my call, the more I realized that the resistance to ordination of women is part of a larger culture that gives greatest value to white, heterosexual, able-bodied, financially privileged males. I came to understand that at the foundation of this culture is the image of a male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission. The suggestion in All We’re Meant to Be that God could be more than male planted a seed that would bloom into writing on expanding divine imagery and then into hymns, liturgies, and stories that include biblical female names and images of Deity. As I mined scripture for inclusive divine images and social justice themes, All We’re Meant to Be provided a model of responsible biblical interpretation; the foundation of Letha and Nancy’s interpretation is the liberating justice message of Jesus.
We want to share with you a few key points from Letha’s life:
She was born in 1935 in Pennsylvania, largely in small rural communities with her parents and brother. One important thing in her young years was nature, spending lots of time out in the woods. She remarks on the beauty of the sky and trees as being key elements in confirming, early-on, her sense of God’ love. Letha was involved somewhat in church, though not prominently. Her parents ran family businesses, so they were busy on Sundays, and she attended church with a friend on occasion.
As part of her young life, she took up music and became a trombone player. She became very well-known for playing trombone – she went all-in, as she does with everything. She’d go to her father’s shop as he fixed cars and practice for hours and hours. She had this dream because of her skill playing trombone and interactions with fairly well-known musicians that she would have a band. While she had this dream, she came across the book In His Steps in high school, changing the trajectory of her life. In this book, there’s a story of a female musician, and it’s at this point that Letha shifted her thinking from music being something on its on to being a way to spread the Gospel and the love of God with others.
She decided to go to Eastman School of Music – known for teaching well-known trombonists – for two years (1952-1954). She was continuing to process what we would call “a calling” of combining music and sharing the Gospel, and she saw an advertisement in a magazine for Moody Seminary, allowing study without tuition payments. So, she ended up transferring there.
Fast-forward 10 years, she’s married and has two children. She regularly read Eternity magazine. There was an article by Charles C. Ryrie who had said, “A woman may not do a man’s job in the church any more than a man can do a woman’s job in the home.” That really troubled her in terms of its assumptions about women, so she decided to write a letter to the editor – she was about 300 words in, was not done, and realized she had an article. She published that article, “Women’s Place: Silence or Service,” in Eternity (1966), which led to a second, “Elevate Marriage to Partnership” (1968).
These articles set the path for her as a writer. Overtime, she became part of Evangelicals for Social Action (1973-74), along with Nancy Hardesty – with whom she had been in correspondence since writing the Eternity articles. They, Letha and Nancy, ended up deciding they had a book together and wrote All We’re Meant to Be (1975, ’86, ’92). In 2006, Christianity Today identified it as one of the top fifty books influencing evangelicals, and in 2010, it was listed as one of the top one-hundred books that should or will create Christian culture.
Letha was then also part of founding the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, now called Christian Feminists Today. As the EEWC grew and Letha’s awareness and reputation grew, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott met and got together to write Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? (1978, ’94). It was supposed to be about ethics, but Letha wrote the chapter on sexuality, and Virginia read it and wrote back immediately, saying, “We have a book about this.”
So that’s the first part of the book – an expanded biography of Letha’s life. The second section is a selection of interviews on Letha’s influence.
This next section of Building Bridges draws from interviews with a diverse group of people influenced by Letha’s life and work, including Mary Hunt. She comments on the impact of ITHMN: “Letha and Virginia’s collaboration on ITHMN remains one of the happiest joint projects in the history of theology. This work had world-shaping impact.” Mary tells the story of meeting Letha in 1982 at a Women’s Spirit Bonding Conference and discovering the similarity between evangelicals and Catholics in the struggle for gender and LGBTQ justice. Mary felt a kinship with her evangelical sisters and the importance of feminists of all faiths working together.
Jeff Lutes begins his story: “Letha Dawson Scanzoni made me break one of the Ten Commandments. I was compelled by her work to commit a crime that altered the trajectory of my life for the better.” Jeff grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky, where his mother was a Sunday school teacher, and his father a deacon, and Jeff was active in all the youth activities. In his conservative religious and social circle, he knew he had to keep his sexual orientation hidden. In graduate school when he was completing his psychology practicum and “struggling terribly” to reconcile his faith and sexuality, he saw Is the Homosexual My Neighbor in his supervisor’s office. He didn’t want to ask to borrow the book because at that time he wasn’t ready to come out. So, one day when his supervisor got called away, Jeff snatched the book, planning to read it that night and return it the following day. But he was never able to find the right circumstance to return the book unnoticed. Now Jeff treasures his stolen copy of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor and says, “In no small part because of Letha Dawson Scanzoni, I’ve been able to express my sexuality in ways that are loving and life-affirming. There will be no hurdle for me at the pearly gates assuming that I can atone for that one act of unrepentant larceny!”
Is the Homosexual My Neighbor inspired Peggy Campolo to become one of the most powerful LGBTQ advocates, even for many years in opposition to her husband, Tony, a well-known evangelical author and sociology professor. After reading Is the Homosexual My Neighbor and realizing that Letha had risked everything to take such a brave stand, Peggy became a frequent pro-LGBTQ speaker to church and campus groups around the country, often serving on panels with her husband, who took an opposing view. She says that the book that Letha wrote with Virginia was one of the things that gave her courage to speak out against the grave injustices being done by the church to LGBTQ people.
Kimberly George talks about how relevant All We’re Meant to Be is to her 20-something generation—even though written before she was born. She says, “I felt as though women in my generation were trying to reinvent the wheel, because we didn’t realize our elders had gone before us and already done this brave writing.”
Womanist minister Leslie Harrison affirms Letha’s influence: “Letha has given me strength to flex my muscles as a confident, strong African American woman.” Leslie says that when she read All We’re Meant to Be, she found herself in the pages and could hear Letha’s voice and feel her passion, wisdom, and commitment to social justice for all.
Letha is still building bridges between generations, between feminism and womanism, between Christian denominations, and between biblical interpretation and liturgy. This song video illustrates the influence of Letha’s work on my writing of lyrics for liturgy. Since we’re in Advent, I chose one of my songs set to a familiar carol tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_20g6Ln3VA&ab_channel=JannAldredge-Clanton
Mary E. Hunt
We turn now to Q+A discussion.
I lived in Greensboro, NC in the 1980s, I was a campus minister, and I got to know Letha, and we gave out Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? to students and parents from the Presbyterian Student Center. Letha was so modest and let the public think it was all Virginia’s book. I was so inspired by her work. They turned and spoke back into the community from which they came. Their work was such a good resource for those of us who came from more progressive branches. The stories of lives of those like Letha can get lost, so thank you for sharing it with us.
This has been one of the things that amazed me about Letha – when you think about the number of people today in evangelical circles now willing to step forward and affirm LGBTQ persons as persons of faith, if you set that back to what Letha was willing to do, she was giving up any kind of place in the evangelical world. This would cost her everything personally, and that is in fact what happened. That’s stayed with me – that willingness to step out there and be courageous, seeing what it would cost and doing it anyways and not taking credit. Prophetic action.
I remember her outrage when John left, but there was never clear blame. Even at her angriest, she made room for peace and love.
Mary E. Hunt
For those unfamiliar with the background, to give a bit of history, All We’re Meant to Be came out in 1974, revised in 1986, and Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? came out in 1978, revised when Virginia Ramey Mollenkott came out as a lesbian.
There was no secret about how Letha felt about the end of her marriage.
Mary Grace Crowley-Koch
I’ve read your book, Jann, She Who Is, and you have a gift for taking songs and hymns and putting them into a feminine space. Is there a place we can access your music to use in our communities?
Yes, I have a YouTube channel. [Videos of her songs are available here: https://www.youtube.com/user/aldredgeclanton/videos]
My lyrics and all my writing have been strongly influenced by Letha’s works. So many people and groups come from and are influenced by Letha’s works. EEWC-Christian Feminism Today, Kendra’s book If Eve Only Knew co-authored with Melanie Springer Mock, New Wineskins Feminist Ritual Community in Dallas, Texas of which I am a part: all have emerged from Letha’s works.
Mary E. Hunt
Has the reception of feminism changed in evangelical circles? In Catholic circles, I can report more virulence on the part of the Vatican, more variety among women, and some women quite willing to cooperate with the clerics who oppress with the idea that working from the inside of a corrupt system will help. Any insights?
I think we’re in a period where it’s mostly worse. The early feminists in the Church were very evangelical in talking about a conversion experience, talking a lot about piety, etc. Evangelicals have been willing to go back and celebrate those individuals and an idea here and there, but there’s fear when the idea of liberation extends beyond where they might want it to go. If there is a need for re-envisioning, that’s where there are barriers. There are boundaries that cannot be transgressed.
Mary E. Hunt
And a high price for transgressing them.
As Kendra was noting, there’s a long history of evangelical women fighting for social justice, using that as a platform into the pulpit. It appears as though the pulpit is still largely inaccessible. Is the pulpit more accessible given our history of women fighting to get this right? Where do we stand today? How’s the battle going?
Our goal in Equity for Women in the Church is to facilitate receptivity of clergywomen as pastors. It hasn’t gotten much better – some groups are better/further along than others, but they’re exceptions. We’ve found only 10% of pastors are women. It’s both/and. Some things have gotten better, but it is still a struggle, especially for clergywomen of color. Male clergy have been so predominant in civil rights movements, etc., that it’s hard for women of color to find pastoral positions in Black churches, and many white churches resist hiring them. So we’re trying to break down this black-church/white-church division and encourage the creation of multicultural churches.
Diann L. Neu
I’ve been scanning the people on this Zoom – I’m amazed at who is on this call. I want to raise up the power of prophetic persistence that is here. Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, CFT, women priests, Women of Dignity, WATER, all people doing the constant work of justice. There are people from lots of different countries, there are musicians, authors, pastors on this call. The patriarchy has tried to silence us, and we have continued to raise our voices because of women like Letha. Thank you.
In the evangelical churches where women are pastors, are they identifying as feminist? Are they bringing the next generations along?
Mary E. Hunt
Many of us who are feminist-identified, who have paved the way and opened the doors – we watch the women who sail in behind us. What kinds of women are they?
I think it’s telling the quote that was up earlier from a young person saying, “We didn’t know that our elders had already done this work.” When I’m at women’s conferences and the women my age – middle-age – look at the young women there and say “Oh my gosh, good, the young women are here.” And the young women look at all the women my age and say, “Oh, look at all the old women here doing this work! We didn’t know!” So, somehow, we have to figure out how to connect with each other and support each other across generations and claim the language.
Mary E. Hunt
We can’t blame young or old women but look at the systems that have been recalcitrant. That’s where the gap is.
This is a great example of how Letha built the bridge. There’s a blog on the EEWC/CFT website where a young woman, Kimberly George, contacted Letha, and an extended conversation happened which led to a cross-generational blog that addressed faith and feminism. Instead of throwing up our hands at the challenge of this gap, Letha took a proactive stance for the benefit of everyone. [https://eewc.com/72-27-index-posts/]
It has been a patriarchal lens, and it is not just one lens or one country. It’s worldwide, and it’s very important.
[The end of official hour-long session, but good conversation continued.]
I’m interested in the publishing process of the book.
Wipf and Stock, of which Cascade is an imprint, is very receptive to books that might not be best sellers. They see the importance of the content, particularly of theological books. They do a great job of marketing and copy-editing. We had gone to a couple other publishers before finding Cascade/Wipf and Stock.
When younger women take for granted their freedoms in the church, I see that as a wonderful sign, meaning that what we did worked. But of course, the worry would be that taking it for granted would allow for a gradual narrowing again.
Growing up, the moderate Presbyterian congregation of which I was a part never questioned my calling to be a minister. But then I got to Princeton Seminary and found that the attitude among my fellow male classmates was, “Why are the few of you here? Once you find husbands, you won’t need this.” It took about 24 hours for me to become a raving feminist because I had never encountered such idiocy before. When I was ordained in 1972/73, women had been ordained in the Presbyterian church for a couple of decades, but I was still only #123, and the certificate had all male pronouns. Some years back I checked again, and it was about 15,000 or 16,000. I am glad some women can take advantage of being here. But of course, there is still work to be done.
When I was in seminary, I was one of two women in my homiletics class, and the male classmates were very critical – not of the content, but of the delivery that was “affected.” The male teacher said, “How many of you have heard a woman preach?” and none of them had.
The question was raised: “Are the pastors feminist?” It bothers me that inclusive language doesn’t seem to be paid as much attention anymore. A clergywoman friend’s students have said, “Well, that was important when you were struggling to be ordained but not anymore,” without realizing the patriarchal structures and hierarchy and the issues with masculine images of God. I’m discouraged when a woman in the pulpit uses masculine references to God and all male pronouns in hymns; it makes me wonder, “What’s the message that she’s giving?”
Mary E. Hunt
That’s it, that in fact the doors have been opened to women who will do that as the price of their ministry.
I always quote something Virginia said about language: “The human mind is exceedingly literal, so when the person hears God referred to as ‘He,’ what the mind pictures, in spite of ourselves, is a male God. When believers are referred to in masculine terms, what the mind pictures is all men.” Language is important. In the Presbyterian Church, we’ve come a long way, but there’s much more to do.
I’ve noticed less emphasis on inclusive language. I went to a service at Duke Chapel led by two women, and the language was all male. In the 70s and 80s, all that had been repaired or fixed by the people on the staff. We see that in local churches, where the staff really wants inclusive language and people will be careful, and then those people die or leave, and it goes back. It helps that in the Presbyterian churches a lot is already printed in inclusive language. But the language about God continues to be terrible.
Mary E. Hunt
Jean Martinson, who worked for the Lutheran Church, did a lot of work on inclusive language. Fast-forward twenty years and we had a young woman from Luther Theological Seminary at Gettysburg who was writing a church history paper about the language in the Lutheran Church and the work Jean had done. And there was no use of that inclusive language in everyday worship, even though they were conscious about it.
To what extent does politics influence how the pulpit responds to women?
And Gail, what has been your perception of the barriers you encountered in your leadership as ordained in the Presbyterian Church, how you were accepted or rejected?
My experience overcame the barriers. My husband and I pioneered our way into co-ministry partly to show equality of men and women. There was a man, early on, who asked specifically only for my husband to do the funeral of a loved one. That was the one and only time. When he got to know me in the pulpit, that went away.
I don’t have an answer to the political question, but a recent book that might give some insight is Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.
Mary E. Hunt
I regret to end this session and want to thank everyone for being with us. Thank you to Kendra and Jann, to Letha, and to all of you for a rich hour (and more) of sharing.
Resources and Related/Referenced Materials
- Jann Aldredge-Clanton’s YouTube Channel with her music: https://www.youtube.com/user/aldredgeclanton/videos
- Book recommendation from Barbara Middleton:
- Braiding Sweet Grass by Robin Wall Kimmerer – indigenous people honored Mother Earth and our kin – the teaching of plants and Mother Nature! Mother of us all abounds. The teaching supports the feminist world.
- Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
- 72-27 Blog – an intergenerational dialogue between two Christian feminists, Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Kimberly B. George who were 72 and 27, respectively, at the start of the blog
- Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (Harper & Row 1978, HarperOne 1994) by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
- All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today (Word Publishing 1975, Eerdmans 1992) by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty
- Jann Aldredge-Clanton is a part of New Wineskins community in TX
- Younger evangelical feminists on Twitter: @JoryMicah @BaptizeFeminism @EzerRising @MargMowczko
- First conference of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus:
- The Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South: www.rcwms.org
- Christians for Biblical Equality: https://www.cbeinternational.org/
- Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary: https://www.upsem.edu/cwl/