Saturday, July 08, 2000

Breaking the stained-glass ceiling

Women seek to lead African Methodist Episcopal Church

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Rev. Carolyn Tyler Guidry and the rev. Vashti McKenzie are candidates for bishop.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Women gather each night in the Rev. Marva Bywaters' hotel room to pray that hearts will change and their church will make history on Monday in Cincinnati.

        The oldest black denomination in the United States may elect a female to the top office of bishop for the first time in its 213 years.

        Women “have been the bulwark, the mainstay of churches,” said the Rev. Bywaters, who traveled from Houston to join 1,800 delegates at this week's African Methodist Episcopal Church conference downtown. “In the 21st century, women should not be left out. Our time is now.”

        As women increasingly secure equal positions in the secular world, congregations across the nation are debating the role of women in churches. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Bap tists, decided last month to bar women from ordination. At the same time, some Catholics question why the priesthood is reserved for men.

        “There are glass ceilings everywhere,” said Dr. Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic theologian at Xavier University. “We just have stained-glass ceilings.”

        “The understandings of people change slowly,” said the Rev. Dr. Marian Adell, a professor at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. “It took over a couple hundred years to abolish slavery, and we're still dealing with racism. It's going to take another generation or so for women to be seen primarily human as opposed to secondary creatures.”

        Many at the convention said the time has come to elect a female bishop to serve as one of 20 representing 2.3 million members worldwide. Both cler gy and lay members have passed resolutions supporting the election of a female bishop during the church's 2000 quadrennial conference. The denomination meets every four years to legislate and elect leaders.

        Booths for the 41 bishop candidates lined Exhibit Hall A of the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center. Campaign volunteers carried placards and handed out Jolly Ranchers, pamphlets and pins.

        Material from the two female candidates proclaimed, “It's time.” One candidate, the Rev. Carolyn Tyler Guidry, is presiding elder of the Los Angeles-Pasadena district and oversees 19 churches. The Rev. Dr. Vashti McKenzie, also a candidate, serves a 1,700-member congregation in Baltimore.

        “This isn't a whim,” said the Rev. Dr. McKenzie. “This isn't a passing fancy. And we're not looking to make history. We're seeking an opportunity to serve the wider church.”

        Observers say both of the women have a good shot at election into one of the two available slots.

        “Absolutely, most definitely, it's time,” said Annie Jenkins Smith of Clarksville, Tenn. Her husband, Glen, nodded in agreement. “If we've been called by God, who's to say we can't be a bishop?”

        Blazing the trail as female ministers in a denomination dominated by male leaders wasn't al ways easy for both candidates. Some left the churches she served, said the Rev. Tyler Guidry. Occasionally male ministers from other congregations refused to work with her. And she suspects her career climb was slower than if she had been a man.

        Still, the Rev. Tyler Guidry remained steadfast, building a 23-year legacy of ministry. She has led renovation projects and church expansions and established day-care centers.

        “I think that it's important the church is represented by all of the people,” she said. “I believe that God choses whomever God wishes; if he can use a jackass, I'm sure he can use me.”

        The Rev. Dr. McKenzie has won national acclaim for her groundbreaking work in Baltimore. Her church competed against other nonprofit and private groups to win a $1.5 million grant to provide Welfare-to-Work job training.

        The church has changed the way it delivers services, the Rev. Dr. McKenzie said. It offers a food pantry and clothes closet, but also the tools to empower people and teach them self-sufficiency.

        Still, the first church the Rev. Dr. McKenzie served didn't want a female minister. Neither did two others during her two-decade career. But when she left, each congregation said they would accept a male or female pastor.

        In the end, people want to know “Are you going to love me?” she said. “Will you visit the sick? Will you preach my eulogy? Will you respect me? Will you stick with me when I'm in trouble, in crisis? And will you love me? People don't care whether you're man, woman, black, white, pink, green, striped, polka-dotted. The bottom line is that's what they're looking for.”

        The election of a female bishop in the AME church could trigger other churches to examine what role women should play.

        The possibility of electing a female bishop “gives women of other denominations, including the Catholic tradition, a great deal of confidence and hope that the various denominations are beginning to recognize the leadership skills of women,” said Sister Marge Kloos, a professor of religious and pastoral studies at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

        The AME denomination could set “a powerful, challenging example to all the other Christian churches to listen to the message of Jesus seriously,” said Dr. Knitter. “I'm so grateful for the example they are setting to the rest of the Christian world.”

        Don't expect much change from the Southern Baptists, though, some in that denomination say.

        “We do not speak against any denomination,” said Dino Senesi, director of missions for the Southern Baptist Association for Greater Cincinnati. “They can make their own priorities before God.... But as we interpret Scripture, we would not have women as the pastoral head of the church.”


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