Earlier this month, America's oldest religious group of black Protestant Christians chose a woman as a major official for the first time. Delegates at a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church elected Vashti Murphy McKenzie as one of nineteen bishops. This organization has two-and-one-half-million members. They belong to about ten-thousand churches in the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, Britain and Canada. Bishops help direct the administration and policy of these churches.Reverend McKenzie is the spiritual leader of the Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland.
Under her leadership the number of church members rose from three-hundred to about one-thousand-five-hundred. Vashti McKenzie also started new programs for community development. She was named one of the greatest African American religious speakers three years ago by Ebony Magazine. And, she has written about the struggles of women as ministers.
This fall, Vashti McKenzie will go to southern Africa to lead the church's eighteenth Episcopal District. She will be responsible for two-hundred churches and ten-thousand members in Botswana, Mozambique and Lesotho.
The A-M-E Church is the first of three mostly black Methodist organizations to elect a woman bishop. The mainly white United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church chose women bishops in the Nineteen-Eighties.
((MUSIC BRIDGE ))About one in every eight members of the American clergy is a woman. Protestant groups increasingly are training women for work as their leaders.
However, fifty years ago, almost all leaders of America's churches and synagogues were men.
Only a few women served as spiritual leaders in this country. Probably the first religious group to officially appoint and confirm a woman minister was the Congregational Church. Antoinette Brown was ordained in Eighteen-Fifty-Two.
In Eighteen-Eighty, the Salvation Army was established in the United States. This international Christian religious and aid organization ordained both men and women. Over the years many churches in America also have permitted women to be ministers.However, some Christian religious organizations ban women from the clergy. For example, the Roman Catholic Church says the Christian holy book, the Bible, bars women from serving as priests.
The Bible contains statements that restrict how women may take part in church prayer. For example, the New Testament book of First Corinthians says women should not speak in church.
However, many experts now believe the words were added for mainly political reasons. They say this happened many years after the Bible was written. Both the Old and New Testaments tell of women as religious leaders.The Southern Baptist Convention is a Protestant Christian religious organization. It began ordaining women in the Nineteen-Twenties. But last month, a Southern Baptist meeting in Orlando, Florida, changed its earlier policy about women ministers. Southern Baptists now say both men and women can serve the church. But they also say only men can be ministers.
The Southern Baptist policy change came as bad news to about one-hundred women who are Southern Baptist clergy members. Most churches that have women ministers probably will not be influenced by the decision. It is unlikely that these women will lose their current jobs.
But Southern Baptist women ministers fear it will be difficult to get new jobs. They also question what will happen to the many women now being educated to become Southern Baptist ministers.
((MUSIC BRIDGE))Theology is the study of God and religious truth. In some American Protestant theology schools today, more than half the students are women.
Ministers in some churches do not need special training. But the large Protestant religious organizations usually require that people who want to become ministers must complete college. Then they study several more years in a school of theology. They learn about the writings, traditions, and ceremonies of their religion. They study history, ancient languages, and religious music. They learn about church administration. And they learn about helping the sick and troubled.People who want to be Jewish religious leaders prepare for many years. They study Hebrew writings and Jewish history, philosophy and law. Most also study many non-religious subjects. Women are permitted to be rabbis in most Jewish synagogues -- Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative. But they may not serve as Orthodox rabbis.
After they complete theology schools, most Jewish and Christian students still must pass more examinations and special requirements to be ordained. Finally, they must be appointed to a position in the clergy. And that is often difficult for women.Rabbi Kenneth Cohen is an expert in education for the Jewish clergy. He believes that people sometimes do not want to hire a woman rabbi because women traditionally did not play that part in religious life. But he believes such prejudice is ending. Rabbi Cohen says the tradition is changing as more women become rabbis. He says a woman spiritual leader does not seem so unusual today.
A woman minister in the Protestant Presbyterian Church in the middle western state of Michigan believes this also is true for Christians.
But she says it is still far easier for a woman to be an assistant minister or education director than to become the head minister of a church.
((MUSIC BRIDGE))Sometimes the most influential women in religious organizations are not clergy members. For example, Anne Graham Lotz is the daughter of famous Christian preacher Billy Graham. She travels around the country to spread her religious message.
As many as twenty-five-thousand people attend her speeches. She has spoken in churches and community centers from the southern city of Nashville, Tennessee, to the middle western city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many people have become involved in religion because of Missus Lotz.
Anne Graham Lotz says she has no interest in being an ordained minister.Another example is Mother Angelica, a Roman Catholic religious worker. She cannot lead a church because she is a woman. However, she is believed to be one of the most powerful women among millions of Catholics. Mother Angelica established the Eternal Word Television Network. People all over the world see her programs on the network.
Mother Angelica and Anne Graham Lotz have become well known. Thousands of other women serve their religious organizations in a less public way.Sally Smith is a volunteer worker for a Protestant church in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington,D-C. She was not educated as a minister. But she is very important to the people of her church.
Missus Smith serves on a committee that supervises church music and other business. She sometimes reads the Bible during church services. She takes flowers to sick people and others who cannot attend services. She takes food to several centers in Washington where hungry people receive free meals.A retired Protestant minister says he always valued the work that women performed in his church. He says women who want to be part of the top clergy should have the same chances as men. He says, "Women are our mothers and sisters and wives and daughters and friends. They are our lawyers and doctors and business advisers. Why should they not be our clergy?"
This program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. Our studio engineer was Efim Drucker. I'm Shirley Griffith.And I'm Ray Freeman. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.