Wednesday, July 12, 2000

AME church gets 1st woman bishop

Delegates to Cincinnati convention applaud choice

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Rev. Dr. Vashti McKenzie of Baltimore broke through the stained-glass ceiling of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tuesday, becoming the first woman to win election as a bishop in the church's 213 years.

[photo] The Rev. Dr. Vashti McKenzie of Baltimore.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        The Rev. Dr. McKenzie was elected from a field of 42 candidates by the 1,800-member AME delegation at its general conference in Cincinnati.

        The delegates also chose the Rev. Richard Norris of Philadelphia, Gregory G.M. Ingram of Detroit and the Rev. Preston Williams of Atlanta to join 16 other bishops serving 2.3 million church members around the world.

        The other female candidate, the Rev. Carolyn Tyler Guidry, finished fifth.

        This happened “because of God's favor,” the Rev. Dr. McKenzie said. “The stained-glass ceiling has been pierced and broken.”

        After two days of heated debate and delays, the crowd of 7,000 erupted in applause when the election results were announced Tuesday night. Some jumped up and down, others raised fists in victory.

        Mary Square of Lawton, Okla., sat in the front row praying, crying and hoping.

        “It's wonderful,” she said, red-eyed behind her glasses. “This is history ... (it shows) we're growing as women in the church.”

        The vote comes on the heels of a decision last month by the country's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists, to bar women from becoming pastors.

        “It's a landmark decision for all Christians,” said the Rev. Richard Greene of Cecilton, Md. The election sets a precedent for Southern Baptists, Catholics and other male-dominated denominations to open the doors of leadership to women, he said.

        “I think it's another act of the (Holy) Spirit,” said Sister Marge Kloos, a religion and pastoral studies professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph. “I think God wants for the community of believers ... to recognize the abilities of women and to allow women to participate in leadership.”

        The election is a sign of hope, said Judith Craig, who became the third female bishop in the United Methodist Church in 1984. She oversees 1,430 churches in the West Ohio conference, which includes Cincinnati.

        Still, Bishop Craig cautioned, “the first always faces a lot of scrutiny. People will watch everything she does. ... The first one carries the whole load, the whole freight of emerging women.”

        The Rev. Dr. McKenzie acknowledged the challenges of being a pioneer, but promised her gender wouldn't overshadow important issues of the church.

        She traveled to the podium with supporters four and five thick linking arms to protect her from the crush of admirers.

        She thanked the women who had served the church without recognition or acclamation who paved the way for the historic moment.

        “I not only stand on the shoulders of the called out women, but also on the shoulders of brothers,” she said. “God commanded that we partner in the plan of salvation. He mandated it from the beginning that he needed both man and woman to be faithful.”

        Bishop Craig offered her advice to the new bishop: Surround yourself with good friends who will keep telling you the truth. Keep a good sense of humor, and remember that the Holy Spirit is in it with you.

        Serving as bishop is “as bad as I thought and a whole lot better,” Bishop Craig said. “There are surprises and gifts of grace that just come at you with wonderful abundance.”

        Sister Angela Ann Zukowski said a woman must fight to retain her gifts of ministry in a male-dominated culture. A University of Dayton professor, Sister Zukowski was the first woman appointed to serve on the Vatican's Council for Social Communications.

        “The first woman who enters into this new challenge inevitably will have to suffer a lot,” she said. “In any religious tradition, as well as in any male-oriented business, women have to be twice as good, work twice as hard, and be twice as effective in order to demonstrate what they can do.”

        The Rev. Dr. McKenzie said she will continue her mission of making the church more relevant. Instead of giving people a handout, the Rev. Dr. McKenzie works to give a hand up and help people become self-sufficient. For instance, the church she serves beat out nonprofit and private applicants for a $1.5 million job-training grant.

        As bishop, the Rev. Dr. McKenzie said she would encourage the church to address issues of AIDS and sexuality. And she also will work to make sure her election isn't a one-time anomaly.

        “Whenever there's a first anything, it tends to draw attention,” the Rev. Dr. McKenzie said. “If we say it's going to be just one (female bishop) and that's it, that's tokenism. My look will be beyond just one. What's the matter with some?

        The election followed contentious debate Monday night over the upcoming budget and whether a bishop should be forced to resign. Delegates screamed into microphones, and security guards blocked the front aisles. A booming bass began singing “We Shall Overcome” to drown out the cacophony of dissent.




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