The call of women to proclaim the Gospel in the AME Church goes back almost to its inception when the now “Rev.” Jarena Lee was licensed and allowed to preach in 1819 but was refused ordination. Parenthetically, in 2016 at the 50th Quadrennial Session of the AME Church General Conference, 197 years after her call to preach, the AME Church acknowledged Jarena Lee’s call and posthumously conferred upon her the title of “reverend.” Despite the undeniable gifts of Jarena Lee, the struggle of women called by God to ordained ministry in the AME Church was repeatedly met with rejection.
As the church evolved, men and women partnered to encourage the church to recognize the call of women to the preaching ministry. Yet, the petitions to license women to preach was rejected by the 1848, 1852, and 1856 General Conferences and the petition died on the floor at the 1864 General Conference. However, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner defied the law of the church by recognizing the gifts and calling of Sarah A. Hughes, ordaining her a deacon in the AME Church during the 1885 North Carolina Conference. Much to the despair of women who envisioned themselves experiencing that same joy and affirmation, the 1888 General Conference upheld Bishop Jabez P. Campbell’s 1887 rescission of the Rev. Sarah A. Hughes’ ordination but conceded and agreed to license women as local preachers. Unfortunately, this concession was met with restrictions that limited the “priestly functions” of women to that of an evangelist.
It was not until 1948 that the church affirmed women as local deacons with priestly rights. It was not until 1960—141 years after Jarena Lee was licensed—that women were given full ordination rights as itinerant elders in the AME Church. At the following General Conference in 1964, the Rev. Carrie T. Hooper of the New York Annual Conference offered herself for Episcopal service. This would be the first of five times over the course of 20 years that the Rev. Hooper would offer herself for Episcopal service.
In 1977, 17 years after women were granted the right of Itinerant ordination, a delegation of women met with the Council of Bishops in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to discuss issues raised by the Rev. Dr. Jacquelyn Grant’s 1976 Position Paper on the Status of Women in the AME Church. These issues were related to the need to eliminate gender discrimination, injustices, and lack of representative participation in the leadership and governing process of the AME Church.
In 2017, 40 years later, the Commission on Women in Ministry, which was birthed out of the 1977 meeting, initiated a survey to assist the church in tracking its progress so that we would not find ourselves suffering from what English psychologists refer to as “The Ostrich Problem,” the failure to track progress for fear that it will confirm what is already suspected – that things haven’t improved or progressed as they should.
A 2017 survey revealed the following:
- Only 35% of Episcopal District Finance Committees have female clergy members
- Only 3% of Annual Conference Finance Committees are chaired by female clergy
- Only 12% of Annual Conference Trustee Boards are chaired by female clergy
- Only 29% of Annual Conference Trustee Boards have female clergy members
- Only 13% of Annual Conference Board of Examiners is chaired by female clergy
- Only 22% of Annual Conference Ministerial Efficiency Committees are chaired by female clergy
- Only 31% of Deans of the Annual Conference Ministerial Institute are female clergy
- Only 31% of Annual Conferences have female Presiding Elders
- Only 24% of “#1 churches” in Presiding Elder Districts are pastored by female clergy
- Only 17% of Chairs of the Committee on Ministerial orders are chaired by female clergy
While this feedback is disappointing for some and a painful truth for others, a failure to face our uncomfortable realities is a commitment to remain where we are.
It is the sincere hope of AME/WIM that this information will challenge the church to live up to its renewed commitment to “champion economic parity and justice by affirming the right of women to equal treatment and placement in key leadership decision-making positions at all levels of our Church, our Institutions and our communities” (Resolution passed by the General Board on Gender Justice).
Perhaps divine partnerships between the sons and daughters of Richard and Sarah Allen will propel and provoke us to continue the work of addressing three major encumbrances facing clergywomen today: the affirmation of our call; access to information, resources, seats of power, influence, and authority; and advocacy through intentional and purposeful visible and vocal support.
How can you help fulfill the church’s commitment to gender justice, parity and equality? You could be of assistance by:
- Being open-minded regarding female pastors. Stop saying “I don’t want a female pastor.” Stop asking if a church will “accept a female pastor.”
- Intentionally regarding who and how you select persons to preach or participate in the worship experience. Do you invite women to preach on days other than Women’s Day and Missionary Day?
- Encouraging and creating opportunities for women to address inequality or discrimination.
- Praying for boldness to break the status quo. Choosing faith over fear.
- Being aware of patriarchal structures that may exist in your local church, presiding elder district, and annual conference.
- Fostering partnerships among AME components, i.e., the WMS, YPD, LAY, Sons of Allen, and Christian Education. Women in Ministry ALWAYS supports other components. Are you, as a member of those components, equally as supportive of WIM events and activities?
- Using gender-inclusive Stop for a moment and consider the fact that perhaps the preacher, pastor, or elder could be a woman before you refer to the leader as “he.”
The AME Church is a great church that can only be made greater by fulfilling its commitment to equality, fairness, and justice. At every level of the church, AME/WIM looks forward to fruitful dialogue and divine partnerships with men, women, clergy, and lay as we continue in our Quadrennial Theme, “Standing United. Moving Forward. Stronger Together.”