From the Vault: Women Steering the Titanic (A Repost)

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.

HinesTake 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. McKenzie

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. KellyThe 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. Harris

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.

18 Responses to “From the Vault: Women Steering the Titanic (A Repost)”

  1. ms.P Says:

    I am not sure how to write/say this but I am concerned about, what AME can offer the community and (me). I am an ordained elder, graduate of seminary,with a lot of loan(s), a woman of 30 something, and a young minister who wants to believe that I have something to offer the AME church. Everybody wants an appointment, I just want to reach someone under 40, or 35. I go to church and no one looks like they came out of highschool after 96′ better yet 84. I feel alone, but I am still going, still ministering but with feelings of insanity,–doing the same thing expecting a different result. Non-denominational churches are growing, and I know why, but that why is not always a topic of conversation at meetings. I know I am here for a reason, but the more I think, the more meetings I attend, the more I walk away asking myself, now why did I get ordained again?
    I don’t understand but I’m still here!

  2. Wil Gafney Says:

    Thanks for this.
    As a professor in a denominational seminary I have no doubt that the church is changing and changing fast. And that if denominations don’t change, they will go out of business. I do think that some denominations are thinking about the ways in which they need to change in order to continue serving God by serving God’s people. I think that denominations and seminaries will be radically reconfigured in the next decade. And I think that if women leaders, bishops and other clergy and lay leaders are able to help facilitate and navigate those changes then their elections and ordinations will not be in vain.
    Many of us have watched women take broke-down churches that no one else wanted and transform them into thriving congregations. And then they were in many cases replaced by male pastors. My hope and prayer is that women leaders will usher the church into the next millennium.
    And, if I may add to your excellent history for the benefit of your readers: Women were ordained in the AME Zion Church in 1894 (Deacon Julia AJ Foote) and in 1898 (Elder Mary J Small) and continuing to the present day, making their (my former but still beloved communion) late election of a female prolate all the more ironic.
    And, when Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and others walked out of St. George’s, they joined in a social service organization caring for the needs Philadelphia’s black and white folk even though they formed different worshipping communities.
    Absalom Jones became the first black priest in the Episcopal Church and formed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (my church) in 1792.

  3. Hagar's Daughter Says:

    I often think of all the women who have gone before me and what they (and you) endured as I journey through the ordination process in the Episcopal Church. I wonder if it’s worth the time and effort…still debating.

    On Dec 4 & 5 the Diocese of Los Angeles voted the first woman bishop suffragan. In fact 2 women were elected. The diocese also elected its first openly gay bishop.

    It was interesting being a part of the process as a delegate and watching the politics of the church. The Bishop Diocesan made a statement that delegates should stop trying to “engineer” the Holy Spirit’s actions then he dismissed the black woman who was also a finalist by not acknowledging her willingness to serve as he had thanked the others who were not elected. We thought it was an oversight, but he clearly stated his feelings after it was mentioned. He showed his ***

    It left me with a bitter taste.

  4. cammie Says:

    I admire what Vashti Mackenzie has been able to do. We need more female voices in our churches, making decisions and ministering to needs otherwise not being met. I see now how lopsided ministry can be without the genuine input of women.

  5. Amanda Says:

    Dr. Weems: Being somewhat of a post-Christian myself (I say somewhat because everytime I declare that “I am something” I end up proving myself wrong, usually within a matter of days), I feel a little bit out of place in the middle of this discourse. Especially since when I was actively religious, my roots were in Roman Catholicism on the Polish side of my family - A far far cry from the AME.

    However… I just wanted to chime in and say that I have observed that people do their best work at empowering other people and living out Christ’s revoutionary spirit when they are in the midst of being booted from their comfort zone.

    Stagnancy seems to rear its head when the marginalized become mainstream (and I mean mainstream as in dominant over others in any way whatsoever). People acquire something, have something to lose and magically start becoming more conservative and much more conscious of how they are perceived within the culture that they once sought to turn on its head.

    Sometimes I wonder if the only way to truly keep one’s theological “edge” as it were is to be on the margins and stay there.

  6. Joan Speaks Says:

    Change is always possible. I have to remind myself of that truism daily. What I can see is not fully what is there. I start this way because I have not seen in the A.M.E.Zion church a willingness to imagine or create something different as a denomination. The past decade has been a time for quieting any voice of change. I am happy that Bonnie was elected, but using your metaphor of galley persons coming to the helm, I would suggest that one galley person sent to the deck with 11 other helmsman, may find a change of direction difficult. Some of the change needed may simply be in the political processes of the church, but real behavioral change occurs at the depth of what we believe, really believe. If the church continues to dismiss those who are willing to engage in conversations about who we are, and what we believe, change will not be sufficient to our ability to survive.

  7. SVR Says:

    Denominationalism may well be a sinking boat especially if it is not willing to cast off those things that cause it to break up and eventually sink into the sea. Being that it is a human institution and like all things human must change to be refreshed, renewed, and reinvigorated.But Christ did not go to Calvary and die on the cross and resurrect to sit at the right hand of the Father for denominationalism but for His Bride, a new creation without spot or wrinkle.
    Your question, “if women being elevated to the captain’s quarters in these days is too little, too late?” Not if the captain of the boat is Jesus, because once you accept His invitation to come on board you have become part of His crew with a specified assignment to sail the boat to His determined destination.

  8. K Says:

    strange as it might seem, i am anxiously awaiting something from you regarding the Tiger Woods situation. Dunno what. Just anything. I guess you do help me to think straight on current … affairs?

  9. snb Says:

    I was recently elected an elder in a Black Methodist body. I’m not sure if or when I’ll be ordained; it’s at the bishop’s discretion. However, the main reason I’m not sure if I’ll ever be ordained an elder is because I believe effective ministry and the ability to hold to one’s theological position is in the margins like Amanda said. I just completed a thesis on liberation and Methodist theologies. I too want our beloved denominations to be influential in people’s lives and the institutions that affect them. I pray that I’ll remain steadfast, vocal, critical, and helpful.

  10. snb Says:

    Historic Meeting of the Black Methodist Denominations AME ZION, CME, AME in Columbia, SC
    The Summit is scheduled to be held in the Columbia South Carolina Coliseum, March 3rd, 4th, and 5th 2010.
    I’m hoping that this will be a productive time and allow Black Methodism to regain its influence in America and around the world. I know I’m optimistic, but I’d rather call it full of faith.

  11. cp Says:

    Oh, how I have missed this blog for the last several months! And that I signed in to read while this is the standing post was very exciting for several reasons, primarily I just learned much of this in my first year/first semester here at the ITC in African American Church History w/ Dr. H.L. Whelchel. But, also because the blog you did over a year ago about how history will record the difference that women in ministry, such as they have been in the last 10+ years, will have mattered in the life of the church.
    I don’t know why this has held on to me such as it has, but it remains a major question for me. I suppose all thay I can do is try and make a difference in the best way that my gifts, talents, and the anointing of God on my life will allow, and then hope that others will choose to do the same.
    Happy Holidays, Dr. Weems!

  12. Esther Says:

    I heard you preach about Esther. I still remember it. Third New Hope, Detroit. It doesnt matter how Esther got to the throne room but she managed to get there and do the work she was called to do. So even if you are on a sinking ship, the view is much different if you are up on the main deck helping to navigate vs. down in the hold bailing out water. A sister can get the big picture view, learn more leadership, and creat a vision for a brand new ship for us all.

  13. Chandra Says:

    I was initially reared as a traditional Baptist, baptized in a concrete pool that was behind the church building. As I grew up, I began to ask questions regarding God, the Bible, and so forth. I received many of my answers from my cousin who, at the time, was in the Nation of Islam. This puzzled me. How could someone who is NOT Baptist (my thinking at the time) know more about the Bible than they? Because of this, I became discontented with being Baptist and stopped attending church services altogether. Shortly after college, I joined a ministry that was non-denominational and began to study the Bible with rigor and proper teaching. Now, as an adult, I refuse to affiliate myself with any denomination for the very reason that you stated (I am, as you put it, neo-Pentecostal). God is NOT denominational. It is my belief that denominational lines will be blurred in due time as the essence of the Gospel becomes the focal point. As a matter of fact, I already see evidence of this. In my sincerest heart, I believe that would be best b/c denominations, to some extent, have divided the church body and hindered its effectiveness.

  14. v Says:

    Great post. I am a woman who has been given the charge to save a shinking ship. My ship is not a church, but it is a church affiliated business. I approach this job with mixed feelings but the one that drives me the most is the theological principle of resurrection. In one of my classes on church leadership the teacher spoke about dying churches and asked can they be resurrected and if so, what type of resurrection will it be? Will it be a resurrection of new purpose, vision, and follow through or will it die and be resurrected in the final days? I hope that my current business receives a resurrection of new purpose and vision. I pray that as the Church body we diligently work towards a resurrection that makes us relevant for this age without subcombing to the empty thrills and pretense of this age. The church will survive and women will lead the way.

  15. Brigette Says:

    Thank you again and again, Dr. Weems! Your thoughtful and heart-wise analysis once again gives us reason to deepen our understanding and reconsider how we live the Word. May you continue to be blessed. And come visit the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ when you’re in the nation’s capital. We would love to welcome you. Peace & joy to you in this Christmas season!

  16. revmamaafrika Says:

    In the coming New Year, the church will definitely need resurrection, as we as a body face new, more hazardness challenges.

  17. Paula B. Says:

    Dear Rev. Weems,

    What a great post! As a long-time fan of your practical and truth-based preaching style, I wholly agree with your observations and concerns regarding the placement of women at the helm of churches, especially those in crises. However, just as I celebrate the election of the first African-American (literally) president who has been placed at the helm of a sinking economy, I likewise celebrate every worthy God-filled women being placed (finally) at the helm of churches of all denominations (even if some of them are sinking ships)! God KNOWS the worth of a woman. It’s recorded in the Word from Genesis to Revelations, and none of it is grounded in denomination, thank God. Time and time again, the enemy is delivered into the hands of a woman because of another woman’s obedience to God’s instruction.

    Fortunately, I am currently a member of such a church, and it is Reid Temple AME in Glendale, MD where my male pastor encourages women who desire to minister and pastor. However, in my past church associations in the Baptist and COGIC denominations, I have witnessed anointed women of God discouraged from ministry or relegated to the galleys. I pray that as we move forward in Christianity (whatever the denomination) that the people of God will accept and appreciate the worth of all God desires to use for his Glory — whether they be women, youth, disabled or transgressors of notoriety.

    Be Blessed,

    Paula B.

  18. Monique Says:

    Yes, this is a pitiful reality, but we will take the positions and do our very best to correct years of male driven mess.

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