A UMNS Feature by Vicki Brown*
On May 4, 1956, in Minneapolis, the General Conference of the Methodist Church approved full clergy rights for women. Half a century later, the fruits of that action are the nearly 12,000 United Methodist clergywomen who serve the church at every level, from bishops to local pastors.
A yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary includes worship services, books celebrating the lives of pioneering clergywomen and writings of other clergywomen, special observances at annual conferences, and a banquet and concert on Aug. 15 during the International United Methodist Clergywomen's Consultation in Chicago, Aug. 13-17.
"The decision forever changed the face of ordained clergy. Because of the General Conference action, bishops were required to appoint every pastor in good standing within theconference. The effect was that any woman in full connection and in good standing would receive an appointment," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, associate general secretary of the Division of Ordained Ministry of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
"That was the first step in a long journey of acceptance for many clergywomen. The church's celebration of this anniversary is a reminder to all of us of both the joys and heartaches clergywomen experience in the journey toward full acceptance in the church," Moman said.
Bishop Susan Morrison of the Albany (N.Y.) Area, episcopal liaison to the task force planning the celebrations, says that while the conference action opened an official door that was embarrassing to have closed, change was slow. And the anniversary is a reminder of that, as well as a celebration of the leadership and gifts of women clergy.
"In one way it reminds us that throughout history the church has not always been open to diversity and inclusiveness," Morrison said.
The Revs. Grace Eloise Huck and Marion Kline, two of the first 27 women accepted on probationary status in 1956, plan to be at the August clergywomen's gathering. Both women were received into full connection in 1958.
Both recalled simply following God's call. "I didn't know I was a foremother. I never dreamed I'd see women like this in the ministry. I only thought I was doing what God wanted me to do with my life," said Kline, who is 94.
"At one of my early churches, when the district superintendent told them he was appointing a woman pastor, one of the men pounded the pew and shouted, 'There will be no skirts in this pulpit while I'm alive!'" Huck recalled. She added that the man became one of her staunchest supporters.
Huck, 89, said the first clergywomen were women ministers, instead of ministers who happened to be women. "You go in just as a person now. It's not so unusual," she said.
Weaver, 96, did not consider where the church stood when she answered her call. "I felt eventually the church will grow up. I just thought a woman had a perfect right to be there," she said.
The Rev. Patricia Thompson, author of Courageous Past - Bold Future, noted the path of clergywomen has been complex.
"Although women in the United Methodist tradition have been called to preach since the early days of Methodism in England, and both the Methodist Protestants and the United Brethren in Christ began ordaining women as elders and granting them full clergy rights at the end of the 19th century, full clergy rights for women in the Methodist Church did not come without a bitter struggle and often tremendous personal sacrifice on the part of both women and men," Thompson said.
The struggle did not end in 1956, she said. "Many churches were still not open to women, and women of color have had an even more difficult time." Her book, published by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry and available next May, recounts the stories of the women who were the first to receive full clergy rights.
Still, clergywomen today serve at all levels, from pastors ofchurches of all sizes to district superintendents to the episcopacy. Currently, 16 bishops are women.
"Women had to fight so hard to be accepted as clergy, and there are still places where they are not accepted," said the Rev. Susan Ruach, co-chair of the 50th Anniversary Task Force that is coordinating celebrations. "We hope to celebrate the gains of clergywomen and recognize the contribution they've made, while hopefully encouraging women to see ministry as a possibility for themselves."
Many annual conferences have plans well under way. The Minnesota Conference is working out details for a worship service on the actual anniversary of the vote. The Detroit Conference Committee on the Status and Role of Women interviewed women about the joys and challenges of their ministry, then produced a DVD titled, "Celebrating 50 Years of Women Ordained in Full Connection in The United Methodist Church." The Southwest Texas Conference plans include a worship service at annual conference, a video depicting the journey of women's ordination, and a book about the history of women's ordination in the conference.
Ruach said worship services written by clergywomen around the United States for local churches and conferences to use will be posted at . www.gbod.org/worship/50thanniversary and at www.ghbem.org/clergywomen. In addition to Thompson's book, the Upper Room is publishing a collection of writings of United Methodist clergywomen, Courageous Spirit: Voices from Women in Ministry, available Dec. 1. And Huck has published her autobiography, God's Amazing Grace, by Sand Creek Printers in Spearfish, S.D.
The United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the Board of Higher Education and Ministry are working together to produce a poster detailing 50 ways to observe the anniversary. It will be mailed to all local churches.
"When I went to annual conference, I was sitting there with my colleagues, and they could all vote, and I couldn't. I thought, I want to be a full participant," Moore said.. Now a United Church of Christ minister, Moore believes women must still enlarge their understanding of power and expand their vision with the confidence that they can take on more.
"Not to take away from others," she said, "but to make the church truer to the gospel."
*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.