Authors: Irie Lynne Session, Kamilah Hall Sharp and Jann Aldredge-Clanton
Publisher: Wipf & Stock, 2020
Womanist theology is a form of theological reflection that centers on Black women’s experience, sensitive to issues of race, class and gender. It originated in the United States in the mid-1980s and has grown in scope, sophistication and influence, but until recently there has been no expressly womanist church. This book charts the founding and development of a womanist church from the perspectives not only of its pastors (Irie Lynne Session and Kamilah Hall Sharp) but also of its ministry partners (Jann Aldredge-Clanton and others).
Chapter one begins with a brief history of womanist theology, drawing from the works of Keri Day, Renita Weems, Teresa L. Fry Brown, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas and James Cone, with illustrations of how it has informed the sermon-writing of several pastors, both female and male. Its corollary, womanist ecclesiology, as worked out in theory and practice by The Gathering, welcomes all people, maintains an egalitarian organizational structure, reflects Black women’s experiences in all aspects of ministry, and models womanist church “through social justice priorities of racial equity, LGBTQIA+ equality, and dismantling PMS (patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism)” (9). Six characteristics of a womanist ecclesiology that grew out of research conducted by the Rev. Dr. Sessions were that a womanist church is artistically expressive, has a social justice orientation and a communal Christology, is organically trauma-informed, recognizes a universal God (including the female divine), and is a place where womanist preachers are the primary proclaimers (21-27). Rather than “members”, those who participate in The Gathering are “ministry partners,” and services feature a “Talk Back to the Text” session where the congregation is encouraged to engage in dialogue with the preacher/s.
Chapter two charts the history of The Gathering from its origins in Rev. Sharp’s search for a church where women could honor their call to preach, and her friend Rev. Sessions’ challenge by her husband to “be a Moses” and plant a church. Sessions’ idea for a Womanist Seven Last Words service on Good Friday, featuring seven womanist preachers from different denominations, crystallized in Dallas in 2017, and was “very well attended, with a diverse crowd, and well received” (12). Responding to attendees’ curiosity about where they could hear womanist preaching again, Sharp and Sessions began to consider how they could make it available regularly. Five churches in the Disciples of Christ denomination responded to their inquiry about providing space, and they chose Central Christian Church, Dallas. Their first service was held on Saturday, October 14, 2017, and it was so well received that they decided to continue. Initially, services were held in the Fellowship Hall, but due to scheduling issues, the service was moved to the sanctuary in December, much to the appreciation of attendees. At this point, Sharp, Sessions and Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais became co-pastors of what they now recognized as a church.
Chapter three contains testimonies from eight ministry partners, women and men, black and white, of differing sexual orientations. Common to their reflections is the centrality of womanist preaching, especially for participants from churches where women are not allowed to preach: “My cultural and religious experiences conveyed that women should not be allowed behind the pulpit; therefore, my embedded theology was that a woman should not preach” (Rev. Winner A. Laws, 33). A particularly striking statement is from Diana Clark: “The Gathering is different from churches I’ve been to in that women are pastors. That’s the main reason why it started. That’s the premise of The Gathering, to hear Black women preach. No men will be preaching there. That will not happen” (55).
Appropriately, chapter four, “Womanist Sermons,” is the longest. The fifteen sermons by the co-pastors are all grounded in biblical texts, informed by womanist theology. Social justice, anti-racist and LGBTQIA+ affirming themes are ingeniously woven together with contemporary social issues and pop culture references. For example, a sermon entitled “Delilah: You Don’t Own Me” on Judges 16:4-5 interprets Delilah as “an independent, freethinking, single woman, with her own crib and financial resources” (73) (following Wil Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Woman of the Torah and the Throne). This sermon makes powerful use of Kyla Jade’s performance of the eponymous song on “The Voice”: “The difference between the song sung by Grace [Sewell] and Kyla clarifies what is meant when we say, ‘Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.’ Same song, different social and cultural ramifications” (71). As a biblical scholar, I appreciate the preachers’ evocations of little-known figures like Sheerah, who built three cities (1 Chr 7:20-24) (60, 63), and the woman of Abel (2 Sam 20:16) who raised her voice to speak wisdom to the general Joab, reminding women that “we must raise our voices—like when our children lie dead in the streets because of the implicit bias of some police officers” (99). The powerful and challenging sermons are followed by the shortest chapter in the book, “Litanies for a Womanist Church,” all but one written by Jann Aldredge-Clanton.
My main quibble as a Canadian reviewer is that several times the authors speak of the “North American Church” (16, 20, cf. 22). Although non-Americans have much to learn from womanist theology, womanism is a U.S. phenomenon, and North America is made up of some 23 countries, defying broad generalizations. That said, this book is a ground-breaking work of womanist ecclesiology that will be instructive to anyone interested in founding a womanist or other alternative church community.
More information about The Gathering is available at: https://www.thegatheringexperience.com/
Mary Ann Beavis, Ph.D. is the author of several books, including The First Christian Slave: Onesimus in Context, commentaries on 2 Thessalonians and Hebrews in the Wisdom Series (co-authored with HyeRan Kim-Cragg); and Christian Goddess Spirituality: Enchanting Christianity.