United Methodist News Service recently recalled prominent church personalities who died in 2017, among them longtime ecumenist and LGBTQ activist Jeanne Audrey Powers. I disagreed with and opposed her on every theological, social and political issue before our denomination that I can recall. But I personally liked her and wished her talents and high spirits had been instead directed in defense of orthodoxy. She would have been a superb ally. Instead she was a formidable and cordial adversary.
Shortly after I joined the IRD staff in late 1994 as its United Methodist director, Powers, as deputy chief of the church’s ecumenical agency, publicly announced in 1995 she was proudly lesbian, in defiance of church law. As one of my first reporting projects I phoned her office in New York to request the text of her speech and her news release, which she obligingly sent, fully aware it would be used for critique. I dutifully faxed her our news release declaring she should not retain church office while rejecting church teaching. Likely she relished this critique among others.
IRD and its then president, Diane Knippers, my predecessor, friend and mentor, had long tangled with Powers as a sort of frenemy dating back to the 1980s. Diane’s father, a navy chaplain, served in the same Minnesota Annual Conference to which Powers belonged as one of the first female United Methodist clergy. The biggest controversy was the 1993 ecumenical Reimagining Conference endorsed by Mainline Protestant denominations, with Powers as an enthusiastic organizer, and which infamously rejected the traditional biblical deity as patriarchal and heterosexist.
Reimagining offered as substitute a litany of alternative feminine deities, including ancient goddesses such as Isis, Astarte, and Athena. Sophia was prominently suggested as a feminine substitute for God, with many of two thousand women participants hauntingly chanting at one point “SO-FEE-YA, SO-FEE-YA, SO-FEE-YA! The wine and bread of Christian Eucharist was replaced with milk and honey in an eroticized liturgy. Speakers denounced Christ’s atonement on the cross as divine child abuse and “weird stuff.” Witches and shamans were extolled, while the example of China’s reputed 722 traditional deities was hailed as preferred to a single restrictive deity. It was all bizarre, heretical, absurd and incendiary.
Diane, sensing Reimagining’s explosive content, had dispatched an IRD reporter, Presbyterian clergywoman Sue Cyre, herself a theologian, who broke the story to the world, even appearing on Nightline with Ted Koppel. The controversy was still brewing when I joined the IRD staff a year later. Despite this adversarial stance, Diane maintained cordial relations with Powers and was a friendly interlocutor with the head of Powers’ United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity, Bruce Robbins.
I first personally encountered Powers at the 1996 United Methodist General Conference in Denver. She was concluding her last several years of stormy public controversies with retirement that year but of course was not departing quietly. As a reporter I attended a ceremony of the denomination’s chief liberal caucus, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, which bestowed a farewell award upon Powers. In this rite, feminist theologian Barbara Troxell on stage placed her hands on Powers and loudly pronounced, “I bless you now in the name of SO-FEE-YA!!!” Both Troxell and Powers literally shook and shivered during this “blessing” while the crowd of supporters yelped and screamed with approval. Afterwards I bought an official video of the event, unsure if my report would be fully believed without it.
The next day IRD hosted a lunch for General Conference delegates, featuring Diane and Bruce Robbins in a dialogue, and of course Powers showed up. She warmly introduced herself to me, said she saw me at her award ceremony the previous eve, and asked if I had “felt The Spirit” in the room. I responded that certainly I had felt “a spirit” in the room. “You mean the Holy Spirit?” she asked in clarification. “No,” I replied. “A spirit.” She laughed good-naturedly, as did I. Powers seemed to enjoy contretemps with critics and adversaries, for which she deserved credit. Many others become angry and embittered.
I think I met Powers a couple more times, if only briefly. Again, she was unfailingly friendly and open to debate. In retirement she continued her activism for provocative causes in the church. I think 1993’s Reimagining Conference that she helped orchestrate was possibly the apex of radical Protestant deconstructionist liberationism.
In 1995, after our IRD news release calling for Powers to resign, I got an angry letter from the head of United Methodist Communications, Judy Weidman, defending Powers. Afterwards she publicly announced that her agency would make it a chief purpose to publicly challenge IRD in an ongoing campaign. The United Methodist Reporter offered to mediate this public dispute. But some members of Weidman’s governing commission, which met in closed session, thought Weidman had gone too far in deploying her personal pique through the church’s communications agency. She was mandated into professional counseling, I was told, and required to visit Washington, DC to meet with Diane as part of reconciliation with IRD. Weidman flew in from Nashville and had a very cordial lunch with Diane. Not long after, at the 1996 General Conference, she cordially introduced herself to me.
Sadly, a few years later, Weidman announced to her staff that she had cancer and died in 2001. Several years later Diane announced her own cancer to the IRD staff and died in 2005, which we still grieve. We all leave this world by the same path and go the way of all flesh, about which we are especially conscious at this time of year, reflecting on those who have died in 2017.
Diane was expert and sincere in maintaining good relations with persons with whom she waged fierce theological and political battles. She was aware that even persons terribly in error still carry God’s image and merit respect. I’ve wondered if she and Weidman and Powers have since reunited for a final reconciliation. God’s grace covers all errors by everyone who looks to Him for mercy, which is our greatest hope, at this time of year, and all the time.