The Re-Imagining Community, convening for its Millennial Gathering in
Minneapolis this past October, offered participants the opportunity to
gather in both a large group setting to listen to plenary speakers and in
various small group caucuses to explore topics of particular interest with
one another. During the caucuses, groups assembled to discuss issues such as
how to establish Re-Imagining groups on local levels or the role of
third-wave feminists within Re-Imagining. Other caucuses were associated
with particular organizations including Goddess GATE, United Methodists, and
the Presbyterian-related Voices of Sophia.
As a Presbyterian woman who was attending Re-Imagining as a member of the
press, I was interested in attending the Voices of Sophia caucus in order to
join in conversation with others from my own denomination and to hear the
perspectives of those who have a somewhat different outlook than I do. When
I entered the room where the group would meet I approached the leader, in
accordance with the rules for press who were attending Re-Imagining, and
acknowledged that I was a member of the press and asked if she would allow
me to stay. She said that I was welcome to remain. Several minutes later the
woman returned and corrected herself, telling me that I was welcome to stay
until the group entered into a time of ‘personal sharing” at which point I
would be asked to leave. I made it clear that I understood the parameters of
The meeting opened with a song and then a Voices of Sophia member briefly
introduced the organization by reading through a pamphlet produced by the
organization. It was at this time that the leader announced that those who
were present as press should leave. My presence was allowed for
approximately ten minutes of an hour and a half meeting.
I want to make it clear that I do recognize the need for small groups of
believers to have a safe space in which to gather together in order to share
aspects of their personal lives that are not intended for public exposure.
And in light of past experiences I can see how some Voices of Sophia members
desire to be cautious. However, it was not my intention to take down names
or to conduct any sort of ‘witch hunt.” I wanted to be present in order to
know what issues were of concern within this group. And I wanted this
information not only for myself but also for others within the denomination.
I believe that members of a denomination have a right to have information
about the activities of groups who are associated with the denomination.
Those who make up the ‘conservative” and ‘liberal” factions of our church
need to be in conversation with one another rather than engaging in
name-calling, and it is exceedingly difficult to have a conversation when we
do not know the concerns of each party.
At the time of this meeting I chose to make no objection to my exclusion,
but since that time I have been troubled by the scenario. This was
particularly the case when I began to review some Voices of Sophia
literature. The Fall 2000 newsletter, _Illuminations_, contains a short
advertisement for the caucus event from which I had been excluded. It bills
the meeting as a time to ‘network with members throughout the country, share
information, and have fun.” I began to wonder just what aspect of this
description constitutes ‘personal sharing.”
In what I understood to be a public meeting, a meeting not limited to
members of Voices of Sophia or even to Presbyterians for that matter, I was
not welcome because I was press. No matter that I am a Presbyterian woman,
this group which claims to ‘hear and value individual stories,” which
‘calls upon the church to celebrate the theological and liturgical
contributions of women to the life of the community,” and which ‘unite[s]
as women and men of faith to take our place as partners in the expression of
that faith” had no place for me and closed it doors to me.
[*Editor’s Note*: Lest there be any confusion, the following paragraph
does NOT refer to the right of independent organizations to open or
close their meetings at will. Rather, drawing inferences from her
experience of exclusion by Voices of Sophia, Ms. Gerber concludes with
her opinion about the denomination’s open meetings policy.]
I suggest that our denomination needs to again review the open-meeting
policy regarding the presence of press and observers at non-business, group
meetings. The phrase ‘personal sharing” is too broad and remains wide open
to abuse. I wonder if there is perhaps some middle ground that we can reach.
For instance, might press members and observers be allowed to attend if they
do not publish the names or quotes of participants without their permission?
There must be a way for concerned members of the church to have access to
the general topics of discussion and the teaching presented without
compromising the safe space of individuals. We have yet to reach an