Controversy continues to swirl over the participation of several United Methodist Women in a recent conference where critics say unacceptable comments and rituals were performed that promote a female deity over Christ and glorify lesbian relationships.

Nine of the United Methodist women who attended a November 1993 conference, "Re-Imagining" in Minneapolis, have expressed concern over the hostility pointed toward "outspoken, creative and courageous women of faith."The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Committee of the Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women, reportedly included prayers offered to the female goddess Sophia and other feminine images of deity; feminist theologians who questioned Christian doctrines of incarnation and atonement, program elements linking sexuality and spirituality, and lesbian speakers.

As a counterpoint, a group of United Methodists affiliated with the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy urged this week that "decisive and appropriate disciplinary action" against church leaders who supported the conference.

A report in the institute's spring newsletter alleged that speakers had fashioned "a new religion while retaining tenuous and self-interested links to the Christian faith . . .

"The issues and fissures underlying the Re-Imagining conference present the church with the most grave crisis of this generation," the IRD's letter to the United Methodist Council of Bishops said. The signers called on the bishops, "as overseers of the United Methodist Church, to `guard what has been entrusted to your care.' "

Speaking for conference participants,the Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers of New York told reporters during a March 8 press conference that the participants believe such reaction is to issues revealed by the conference rather than to the conference itself.

A statement released during the press conference, and accompanied by petitions with the signatures of more than 800 United Methodist women from 40 states, said, "We are convinced that people frightened by fresh theological insights and by challenges to narrow orthodoxy are attempting to discredit and malign women . . .

"We stand strongly in the United Methodist tradition which honors theological diversity and encourages openness to emerging theological initiatives."