2 women in running for AME bishop

Historic first possible as four new bishops are picked from 41 hopefuls

July 11, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CINCINNATI - Delegates to the conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African-American Christian denomination, were poised last night to take a historic vote that could elect the church's first female bishop.

Two women, including the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie of Baltimore's Payne Memorial AME Church, are among the 41 candidates running for no fewer than three vacant bishop slots, and possibly as many as six slots.

The other woman running for bishop is the Rev. Caroline Tyler Guidry, a presiding elder in Southern California. Presiding elder is one step below bishop.

An executive committee worked all day yesterday and into the evening to determine the status of three active bishops - including Bishop Vinton R. Anderson of the 2nd District, which includes Baltimore - who may be forced to retire because they are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 75.

The committee's deliberations were delaying the vote, which had been scheduled for 10 a.m. yesterday. The vote was expected to take place late last night or early this morning, conference officials said.

Church officials have said that there is a good chance that a woman could be elected at this conference, which sets policy for the 2.3 million-member church every four years.

Some advocates for female bishops have called for at least one bishop slot to be set aside for a woman. A resolution that would have done that, however, was rejected by the conference on a 667-716 vote Saturday after a heated debate.`The results of this vote mean there is no set-aside or automatic election," said Bishop John R. Bryant, former pastor of Bethel AME in Baltimore and bishop of the 10th District that covers Texas. "Women are free to run and this delegation is free to respond to each candidate irregardless of gender."

There was a call by some for the AME church to make a statement that would contrast with the Southern Baptist Convention, which voted last month to include a provision in its statement of faith saying the office of pastor should be limited to men.

"I trust that this General Conference shall rise above the slavery mentality of the Southern Baptist that set aside the [pastorate] for males only," said the Rev. Lonnie C. Wormley, a presiding elder from Los Angeles.

Jayme Coleman Williams, the first female general officer in the AME church and the author of the defeated resolution, also urged her fellow delegates to make history.

"Let me just say, all we are doing here at the General Conference is of no interest to the outside world except for this one issue," she said. "We are going to look like the Southern Baptists if we don't have enough courage to elect a woman at this General Conference."

The AME church was established in 1787 by blacks who left a Philadelphia Methodist congregation after being discouraged in their repeated attempts to pray with white members. Several church delegates have recalled that initial injustice as they urge the groundbreaking election of a female bishop.

As the delegates awaited the election yesterday, supporters of the 41 candidates for bishop shouted, sang, paraded and cajoled for votes outside the meeting hall. Among delegates to the AME conference, there is unabashed, even joyful politicking for ecclesiastical office.

Partisans for Edgar L. James carried signs proclaiming him "a seasoned sage for a new age." Supporters of a South Carolina elder named Allen Wayne Parrot wore canary-yellow shirts urging delegates to "Fly with Parrot." Others gave out sports bottles, hard candy and bottled water featuring candidates' names and faces.

An enthusiastic din echoed off the convention center walls, but Jeanice Inghram was able to pierce through it with her soprano voice as she sang out "Fifty-fiiiiive," the ballot number of her candidate: Guidry, one of the female candidates for bishop.

"I'm supporting her because she's a Christian woman, and she's a strong Christian woman," said Inghram, a pastor's wife from Barstow, Calif.

About 20 supporters surrounded McKenzie as she made the rounds, shaking hands and posing for pictures. Her retinue accompanied her with a chant of "It's time, it's time to make a change. McKenzie's the one. She can do it!" as a tambourine kept the beat.

"We've been familiar with her for years," said the Rev. Joni Ross of San Antonio, who had McKenzie sign a copy of "Not Without a Struggle," McKenzie's 1996 book on leadership in ministry for African-American women. "She's made an impact, not just in her church, but in the community."

Sarah Smith of Northwest Baltimore, a member of Payne Memorial, was decked out in a red "McKenzie for Bishop 2000" T-shirt as she handed out stickers promoting her pastor. She admitted to some mixed feelings over the prospect of losing McKenzie to higher church office.

"We're sad, and also we're happy for her," she said. "We are prepared to let her go because we know wherever she goes, she'll do a fine job, because she cares about people."

Smith said she was attending her first general conference, and was enjoying all the activity. "But it's not all about politics," she said. "It's all about getting the right person for the church."

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