Mary Ann Lundy does not look like the heretical type. But she was branded a heretic by members of her denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and because of it she lost her job.
Yesterday, after 7 1/2 years as a top official of the Louisville-based church, Lundy walked out of her office to an uncertain professional future. She has accepted an invitation this fall as visiting scholar at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. Beyond that, she hasn't "a clue" what she will be doing.
"I don't know how employable I'll be in the Presbyterian Church," said Lundy, an elder. "When there's character assassination, there's a pretty good job of it." That she's 61 is "one of the hard parts. I'd hoped to get closer to retirement."
What derailed her plan was her role, real and perceived, in planning and running a feminist interfaith conference called "Re-Imagining: God, the Community, the Church" last November in Minneapolis. The four-day conference featured speakers and liturgical exercises that encouraged the participants, mostly women, to "re-imagine" God and reconstruct the worship experience.
Many Presbyterians protested the church's involvement, which consisted of appropriating funds and staff time, and called for Lundy's dismissal. It was not the exit she had envisioned.
A lifelong Presbyterian, Lundy left her native West Virginia to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York. She had worked for women's rights in the student YWCA in college and decided to continue her interest in the issue through campus ministry. She received a master's degree in divinity, married the Rev. Richard Lundy and accompanied him to Presbyterian churches in California, Idaho, Illinois and Minnesota -- two of them near universities where she could work with students.
Her life came full circle when she became director of the National Student YWCA in New York. Five years later, in 1987, she joined the staff of the Presbyterian Church as director of the Women's Ministry Unit, where she pursued what she calls "education for change."
The events that brought one of her greatest personal triumphs, along with her demise, began early in her tenure.
In the mid-1980s, the World Council of Churches launched "The Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity With Women (1988-1998)," a program designed to address international women's issues. In 1989, Lundy was co-chair of the program's U.S. committee, and with her counsel, the Presbyterian women's unit proposed eight projects for the church's participation in the program.
The one approved by the church was an international colloquium on feminist theology, and the church agreed to help fund such an event.
The event, staged by a consortium of churches in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, brought together more than two dozen theologians and 2,200 participants from 16 denominations.
Lundy calls it the "largest gathering of its kind" and a "life-changing event" for those who took part. Many not in attendance had a different view.
Word soon spread that "re-imagining" God entailed goddess worship, orgiastic rituals and caricatures of Christ, igniting a conservative firestorm. Conference supporters counterattacked, and church headquarters hired a public relations spokesman to defend the church's role in it. But the damage had been done.
On May 19, Lundy and her boss, executive director James D. Brown, signed an agreement that she would leave her job as associate director of churchwide planning on July 1. "Circumstances have made her goal of effective service to the church unattainable," read a terse communique.
Bound by a personnel confidentiality clause, she cannot discuss specifics of her termination for six months -- or risk losing her benefits. But she provided a clue at the church's national convention in Wichita, Kan., last month.
"Check the assumption that Mary Ann Lundy resigned," she told a cheering, overflow crowd at a rally in her honor. There was "no special deal made," she added in an interview.
What hurt most, she said, was the "incredibly vitriolic hate mail from people who don't know me and who I don't know." Questions arose about her personal life and beliefs, and PresbyNet, the denomination's electronic network, carried accusations of lesbianism and adultery.
Lundy told her supporters: "Check the assertion that all who uphold the rights of gays and lesbians are themselves gay or lesbian. No, there are many of us, not enough of us for sure, who are heterosexuals who will fight against the discrimination of homosexual persons and will help to educate about homophobia."
Tempers and ideological skirmishes finally subsided when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church ordered "critics of the church's leadership and critics of the critics to cease and desist and to allow healing to happen and trust to be built." The 10-page document in response to the re-imagining crisis was approved 516 to 4.
"It was an amazing thing," Lundy said. "Presbyterians almost never vote 98 percent on anything." Like most others on the assembly hall floor, she cheered, cried and hugged her neighbors. She joined the spontaneous choruses of "Amazing Grace," "Amen" and "Now Thank We All Our God."
Then people lined up to talk with her, some to express their appreciation, others to say it wasn't fair for her to be the controversy's sacrificial lamb. It was a sentiment she did not accept.
Instead, she mostly felt "great relief. Relief that there was some vindication of my role and the women's unit inititating the conference, that it was not a judgment on staff members who attended or a condemnation of the conference itself."
"I was very tearful at that point," she said. "It was the first time that happened on the floor."
It had been different, in private, day by day and week by week of the controversy. "I cried bushels, basketsful over the months," she said, "struggling over what I ought to do about leaving or staying, what the real issues were, whether my analysis was valid." She had concluded, in short, that the conference had exposed the church's fear of sexuality and its fear of the ongoing reformation of Christianity.
Standing up for a cause and facing the consequences was something she had done before. In February 1986, she was subpoenaed to appear in the trial of 11 leaders of the "sanctuary movement," an underground system that brought thousands of refugees from war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala to the United States. Lundy, who had helped transport a family of refugees from Tucson to Riverside Church in New York, refused to testify. She and two other "co-conspirators" were charged with contempt of court and placed under house arrest for the duration of the trial.
Three months later, eight of the defendants were convicted and received suspended sentences. Lundy and the others were released.
Release of a different kind came in Wichita. Shortly after the vote, Lundy rushed to catch a plane for a family gathering in Minnesota. She had been there the week before for her former husband's retirement from the ministry. Like many of her colleagues, he had spoken out in her defense.
Now she wanted to spend more time with their children and grandchild before making the eight-hour drive back to Louisville.
Their two children, Megan, 26, and Jeremy, 28, are both married and live in the Minneapolis area; Jeremy's son, Nathaniel, is 2.
Most of all she enjoyed playing with Nathaniel. She took him to the park, read stories and sang to him. "It was wonderful," she said, "because I don't see him very often. I felt like I was having a real life."
Reality takes Lundy to Hartford in September. Until then, she will work in her flower garden and relax listening to music -- classical, choral and operatic. She lives in a three-story brick house in Old Louisville built in 1895.
Lundy said her career path likely will involve other aspects of "global women's issues." Her affiliation, though, may be a matter of further consideration.
"I won't leave the Presbyterian Church," she said. "It's my church. It brought me up, nurtured me. I also feel I don't want to abandon it to those I believe may destroy it."
She paused a moment, then continued. "That's a little self-righteous to say I'll always be Presbyterian, isn't it? That's idolatrous.
"Yeah, I can be other than Presbyterian."