Nothing to Celebrate by Mark Tooley

Nothing to Celebrate

A Report from an Ecumenical Student Conference

by Mark Tooley

Which is more dangerous to a college student’s spiritual health: spring vacation in Florida or winter break at an ecumenical conference? Having attended a student jamboree organized by eight oldline Protestant denominations and a Catholic group early this year, I advise that a Ft. Lauderdale vacation may be the less harmful of the two.

“CELEBRATE! Gathering at the Crossroads” was advertised as an ecumenical occasion for college students and campus clergy to “celebrate” their “common unity in Christ Jesus.” In fact, it propagandized the next generation in radical politics and radical theology. Featured speakers included feminist theologians Rita Nakashima Brock, a “Re-Imagining Community” leader, and Edwina Gateley, who is affiliated with the dissident Roman Catholic group Call to Action.

Sponsorship and funding came from the American Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Moravian Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist denominations, plus the National Catholic Student Coalition. With this backing, the conference attracted 1,800 participants to St. Louis for five days.

The statement of purpose promised it would “not seek to conform or legislate belief.” In supposed fidelity to this pledge, plenary addresses and workshop leaders questioned orthodox beliefs about God, the Bible, and human sexuality. “This is really a diverse group of speakers. We had no agenda,” said Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) campus minister Kathy Campbell, a conference organizer.

Re-Imagining for Students

The students’ Bible study leader was Rita Brock a professor at United Methodist-related Hamlin University at St. Paul, Minnesota, and a director on the Disciples of Christ missions board. Brock was a featured speaker at the 1993 and 1994 Re-Imagining conferences, and defended Re-Imagining’s exaltation of feminine deities such as “Sophia,” Eastern mysticism, and lesbianism before a nationwide audience on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” last year.

Brock urged the students to “open up to new and unusual ways to speak about God,” asking them and the clergy to think of God as a “grieving mother.” She claimed “traditional cultures” like the Native American or Tibetan often have superior insights on spirituality. Brock compared Jesus’ baptism to a “tribal sweat lodge ceremony” and John the Baptist to a “Lakota spirit guide.” She praised “vision quests” and other altered states of consciousness.

Edwina Gateley was more flamboyant. She is a former lay missionary from Britain who now operates a mission for Chicago prostitutes. Strutting and gesturing effusively across the stage, Gateley declared, “I believe God lives about three inches from my belly button. If we’re in touch with the God-given seed in each of us then we know what we have to do.”

She explained that the “tiny, white British God” she took to Africa was “shallow” compared to the “big, big God” the “heathen” peoples there already knew. Gateley recalled the resistance of the Catholic hierarchy as she sought missionaries from “all religions” for a God who is “black and white, male and female, gay and straight.”

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy ( in Washington, D.C.

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