Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of TOP— by Elizabeth Dodson Gray
One of the Divinity School’s unique programs, known as the Theological Opportunities Program (TOP), is celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall of 1998.
To celebrate their 25th anniversary the Advisory Committee has planned an exciting fall lecture series entitled "This Is The Time For Women," with major lectures by Federal Judge Nancy Gertner, Jill Ker Conway, Clare Dalton, Jean Baker Miller, Christiane Northrup, Elizabeth Dodson Gray and Carolyn McDade.
The anniversary series this fall begins Thursday morning, September 24th at 10 AM in the Braun Room at the Divinity School.
TOP WAS BEGUN IN 1973 by Brita Stendahl and a committee of interested women. At that time it was a reformulation of the earlier "Ladies Lectures" (lectures on Tuesdays in April), which began in the late 1950s during the deanship of Douglas Horton.
In 1973 the lectures were redesigned as a spring and fall Thursday morning lecture series, intended to appeal to all those who were seeking and searching for just what the title says, "theological opportunities" in their lives and in their thinking. To the lectures were added mini-courses, taught by HDS faculty and only available to TOP participants, to provide for deeper and more intense theological reflection and inquiry.
It was a gateway for laywomen into the Divinity School, and numbers of women in the years since 1973 have gone through this gateway into regular enrollment as students at HDS.
Through the years, the mini-courses faded away, but the lecture series every fall and spring have grown in the fall from 4 sessions to 8 and in the spring to 10 or 11 sessions. The Advisory (planning) Committee, led since 1978 by its coordinator, feminist theologian and author Elizabeth Dodson Gray, has grown from a small committee of 10–12 to its present strength and diversity of 45–50 women. It is open to all who choose to join in the planning Thursday on afternoons after the fall or spring lectures.
THE LECTURE TOPICS HAVE SHIFTED from more conventional and traditional religious inquiries to questions that arise out of women’s life experience, for example, from "The Dynamic God and the Transformation of Biblical Symbols" to "What Does Love-As-Self-Denial and Love-As-Sacrifice Do to Women?"
During the deanship of George Rupp the Theological Opportunities Program was encouraged to find its speakers (there are no honoraria) from the wider Harvard community as well as the Greater Boston Area, looking for speakers to lawyers, legislators, authors, environmentalists, psychologists and psychotherapists as well as to academic professors and theologians.
Attendance ranges from 90 to 160 people for each lecture. There have been visitors from Iceland, Japan, Pakistan, Jamaica, England, Holland. Registration data shows that more that 1700 different women and a few men have attended in the last 10 years, and it is estimated that between 3500 and 4000 attended in TOP’s first twenty-five years.
In connection with the 10th anniversary series in 1983, the position of "existential focuser" was developed. This is a short (15 minute) speech which precedes the major lecture, and its purpose is to root or ground the topic of the morning in the life of one woman from the planning committee, who can speak about how that morning’s topic has been crucial, for good or ill, in her life.
After the major lecture, there is a question period, a short break at noon, and then a participatory discussion so that all who attend can have an opportunity to share their life-experience on this topic. Occasionally the subject of the morning is illuminated through a panel of 3 or 4 speakers who can witness to the diversity of perspectives on this question.
Because the morning experience, which begins at 10:00 AM and lasts through 1:00 PM, has a variety of speakers, questions and discussion, the morning is now best described as a half-day conference, and the 1998 fee is $10 per session, with a 20% discount for series subscribers.
The planning of the lecture series is at the heart of the TOP program, but through the years the creativity of TOP has generated other manifestations of its life. First came the support group which meets every Thursday morning when there is not a lecture, both summer and winter. This small, more intimate group has a "go-around" ritual, which encourages each woman to focus on the question, "What am I feeling about my life today, or this week?" The support group has itself initiated a process of telling Spiritual Journeys to one another.
But the generativity of the group has also birthed a monthly Sunday afternoon discussion group, Conversations Over 50 (only over-50 can attend), which focuses on the unique questions which women in their 50s through 80s have about their lives. Out of this Conversations group came for a time another smaller discussion group about "End-of-Life Decisions."
IN 1988 THE TOP GROUP WROTE ITS OWN BOOK, Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, based upon the fall 1985 lecture series of the same name. Co-written with articles by 29 TOP women and friends, edited by coordinator Elizabeth Dodson Gray, and published by Roundtable Press, the book has been hailed as a significant milestone in feminist theology.
The Very Rev. Dr. Lois Wilson, then one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, wrote: "Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience is an important book. It is one of the few theological books I know that addresses the meaning of the sacred out of the experiences of women. I could hardly believe it when I went through the index and found ‘myself’ there, having experienced (along with other women) housework, falling in love, giving birth, caretaking, raising children, creating a home. Naming the sacred in our own experience is an absolutely essential theological task for women." On the book cover, as lushly vivid colors swirl around, the words of Rosemary Radford Ruether are quoted: ". . . we are engaged in a new revelational encounter with the divine in and through women’s experience. . . . "
One participant, Priscilla Hinckley, has written: "Two important things happen at TOP: (1) lay women bring their issues of spiritual concern arising out of daily life to the Divinity School and explore them with students and professionals in the religion field; and (2) the program offers a supportive setting for an ongoing search into the meaning of female experience through the instrument of telling our spiritual stories to one another in small groups which meet at other times during the year.
"The presence of such a lay group within a theological school—bringing to the seminary the existential concerns of people in the pews, in order to think together with students and teachers—is, we think, unique in the United States."
Dieter Georgi, former HDS professor of Biblical Studies and long-time faculty advisor to TOP (now at the University of Frankfurt in Germany) has his own perspective as a professional theologian:
"The Early Church was first and most of all a lay movement, and women played a founding and stabilizing role in it and in its theological reflections. The same has remained true with all the major revitalizations of church and theology, not the least in the Reformation. . . . All good professional theologians to this day depend on intensive dialogues with the laity, sensors for the inspirational powers of the praxis of life, its social structures and its tendencies. Theology is supposed to condense and point these messages and test such pointed condensation in further exchange with the laity.
"Women have always played an important role in that ecclesial, social and theological evolution, even during the high times of patriarchy. . . . TOP has made the area circumscribed by Interstate 495 (more or less the range of its participants) into a home-base for lay theology, competing with the Wittenbergs and Genevas of yesteryear."
TOP PUBLISHED FOR ITS 25TH ANNIVERSARY a 120-page booklet, Weaving Communion Deep Within Life’s Grace. Eighty individuals wrote of their experiences with TOP over the years, and it is illustrated with their art and music. The booklet begins with these words:
"We thought we were doing a lecture series. But we became a women’s faith community, a place of learning but also of transformation, a safe place that validated our feelings and encouraged our unfolding, a place for tears of pain and tears of gladness.
"We created this place for one another. Over the years all of us together created it, and it has given us gifts beyond measure. But perhaps the most precious of all gifts, it has given us the experience of ourselves—empowered, authentic, full-voiced—the selves we are becoming."
DESCRIBING THIS WOMEN’S FAITH COMMUNITY, the coordinator says: "We are women who are Jewish, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Buddhist, post-Christian and Goddess. We are single, married, divorced, remarried: we are heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian. We are daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Most but not all of us are white. Most but not all of us are middle-class. We are teachers, clergy, housewives, psychotherapists, businesswomen, authors, composers, singers, gardeners, caregivers. A few of us have been senior corporate executives."
GEORGE RUPP, THE FORMER DEAN OF HDS and currently president of Columbia University, writes in the booklet:
"I have always been struck with how deeply TOP has affected the lives of participants. I am sure the three paragraph ‘verbal snapshots’ that are being collected will bear moving testimony to this impact. But along with its role in shaping the lives of individual participants, TOP has also served as a significant stimulus in the Divinity School as an institution.
"Preparing a talk for TOP has not infrequently provoked a process that in turn led to a new course or an article or even the germ of a book. . . . I am confident that the twenty-five year challenge to relate scholarly preoccupations to concrete experience has been salutary for the Divinity School community, and I hope and expect that this challenge will continue in the years ahead."
— by Elizabeth Dodson Gray