For those of you who are post-Christian, post-institutional religion, post-church, and those of you who are post-hip and find talk about women being elected bishops far less sexy to talk about Michelle Obama, Juanita Bynum, and Sex and the City, I ask you to indulge me today. After all, despite all the things I mouth off about here on this blog I really am a religion scholar and an ordained minister. Today I’m thinking out loud about denominationalism. I’ll lose most of you, but those of us who pay close attention to the intersection of religion and culture have a few things to talk about in light of [the growing number of women elected to leadership positions in churches].
Of course, the rest of you could stand a lesson, or two, in church history.
Take the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) finally waking up and electing more than a year ago its first female bishop, the Rev. Mildred “Bonnie” Hines of Los Angeles. I think congratulations are in order. But is it? Is it really an honor to be elected to head a church that’s dying from irrelevance? I ask this as someone ordained a minister over twenty years ago in a church with an illustrous history but an equally lacklustre present. The church that ordained me, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was once a church of fiery abolitionists and reformers like Richard Allen, Daniel Payne, Henry Highland Garnet and Jarena Lee, Frances Watkins Harper and Rosa Parks, but has become in the last century a church of leaders no one hears from when discussing the state of Black America and no one notices is absent from around the table.
I’m always stunned to run into otherwise smart women who know next to nothing about church history. Especially women born and bred in the Baptist church. “Baptist is a denomination, not a religion,” I have to tell my Baptist audiences from time to time. God is not Baptist. I repeat. God. is. Not. Baptist. Many people assume that Baptists got their name straight from the Bible and John the Baptist. This is not the case. Like most religious groups, Baptists were named by their opponents. The name comes from the Baptist practice of immersion as opposed to sprinkling or pouring water on new converts which was the practice at the dominant church (the Church of England) at the time.
And for those of you who are clueless about black Methodism. Here’s a Cliffnote you can keep in your purse.
The AME Church was the first of three historically black denominations to be created when In 1787, Richard Allen and other black Methodists walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia to protest their treatment by whites. Allen later helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church and became its first bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was organized in 1796 by blacks protesting discrimination at John Street Methodist Church in New York City. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (originally the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church) was created in 1870 as the result of an agreement between white and black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
It wasn’t until 1960 that women were ordained fully to the ministry in the AME church.
Most folks think Vashti McKenzie became the first black woman bishop when the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black denomination, elected her in 2000. But that is not so. That honor goes to Rev. Leontine T. C. Kelley who was elected bishop in the United Methodist Church in 1984. But it was the Episcopal Church’s election of Barbara Harris bishop in 1989 which was truly historic. The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican communion that grew out of the Church of England. Barbara Harris’s election was special because she was the first woman elected bishop in a church that traces its origins all the way back to the 16th English Reformation when Henry VIII rejected the authority of the Pope because he wanted to divorce and remarry, broke with Rome, and formed the Church of England in 1534. Never mind the fact the church he founded kept with most of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. What mattered was the king got to put away Katharine and marry Anne. What this all means is that all our roots go back to the Catholic Church, because the Church of England (later the Anglican Church, which in the U.S. became the Episcopal Church) was not significantly different from the Catholic Church.
Now hold on to your weave for this bit of history lesson.
Jesus, like most reformers, did not set out to start a new religion. He was hoping to reform his beloved Jewish faith. Likewise reformers John and Charles Wesley did not set out to break away from their beloved Church of England. But the church would not reform. They were eventually booted out, and began what was called the Methodist movement. Likewise the Baptist church was started by those who wanted to purify the Church of England of all traces of Roman Catholicism, beginning with baptizing by immersion rather than sprinkling or pouring. During all this time it was men who was at the helm of the church and women who were doing all the praying and tithing.
With all the pomp and grandiloquence in 1984 that marks such ceremonies, the AME bishop responsible for ordaining me laid his hands on my head back then and declared over me and some ten others kneeling at the altar waiting to be ordained, “The Lord pour upon thee the Holy Ghost for the office and work of an itinerant elder in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands.” (Not only is God not Baptist, neither does God speak 17th century King James English which black church folks associate with all things holy and divine. ) Ministers in the Methodist tradition are ordained into an itinerant system that was ideally suited for reaching the isolated populations spread out across the vast 18th century American frontier. Itinerant means journeying. Think of the Methodist itinerant minister and the image that comes to mind is of the circuit preacher riding her horse from town to town, over fields, through marshes, around forests, across rivers, and through brush arbors to bring the word of God to the people.
Women who entered the ministry over twenty years ago when I was ordained endured the mocks and jeers of family, friends, and male ministers in order to be ordained and had nothing to look forward to but assignments to a string of some of the smallest, poorest, and most difficult charges in the conference. We didn’t even know how to imagine the possibility in our life time of a woman becoming bishop. I avoided the itinerant pastor’s life of moving from church to church that many of my sisters accepted and chose to teach instead. But I could not avoid the itinerant inner journey.
Certainly this itinerant journey as a woman in ministry has been filled with unexpected bumps and lurches, twists and turns. And while it remains unclear how things are going to turn out, the one thing that will stand out about this century is the strides women have made in puncturing the glass ceiling of their denominations.
Historians claim, however, that mainline denominationalism will not survive past the century. Charismatic, neo-Pentecostalism has changed the landscape and attracted too many members away, leaving mainline churches mired in internal power struggles and gasping for relevance and identity. The Church Universal that Jesus talked about in Matthew 16:18 may be, and is indeed, inviolable and indestructible, but the denominations we humans create are not. Denominations and their traditions have to be continually reimagined and reconfigured in light of the changing times in which they find themselves.
With no disrespect meant to the women themselves who have worked hard for a chance to lead, I do find myself wondering sometimes whether elevating women to the captain quarters these days is too little, too late? Bringing women up from mopping the deck to trying their hands at the helm at this point in the church’s history is a little like inviting galley hands to the lavish main quarters for a game of musical chairs when below the boat has already begun to break up and has started its slow, but inevitable, sink into the sea.