Rising Above The Stained-Glass Ceiling

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VASHTI McKENZIE: Bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Church

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If S.B.C. leaders hoped that the sanction would shame "that woman," however, they were wrong. "Paul did have some pretty rigid things to say" about women, the Rev. Shelton admits. "But you have to consider it in historical context. Paul also said in Galatians, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.'"

The daughter of a renowned pastor, Shelton, 47, was encouraged by a professor to preach at one of the S.B.C.'s seminaries before its hard rightward turn starting in 1979. After long stints in such typical "women's jobs" as education minister and associate pastor, she had a difficult conversation with God in 1999. "I'd been in the ministry for about 20 years, and I still didn't have a pulpit," says the mother of two sons. "I expressed to the Lord that I was going to retire early and let another generation be called." But the following year, Covenant Baptist offered her an interim post that she later lobbied to be made permanent.

It was a good match. Covenant was founded in 1970 during an earlier inclusion controversy, when 250 members of Birmingham's First Baptist Church walked out to protest its denial of membership to a black applicant. Shelton, says deacon Orbie Medders, is "an outstanding preacher and pastor. And she has a nurturing side to her that is stronger than anything I have ever seen in a man. She sets a tremendous example in terms of a broader spectrum of unconditional love, in the way she loves all who come seeking Christ."

Shelton likes her job, although she says it is not without its sorrows. She mentions the illness and death of congregants: "You get close to it," she says. And then there is what she calls her "professional sadness," to "realize the slow changes that occur in churches, the lack of openness to accept those who may be different, when we could focus on sharing what we have in common."

Put Faith Before Politics

A few years ago, when Carol Anderson, rector of the wealthy and prestigious All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, Calif., needed to fill an associate pastor opening, she chose a woman. It is telling that the move shocked some of the denomination's feminists, who do not count her in their number. This in turn shocks Anderson, who replies, "I'm not an antifeminist. But I'm not in the movement for the sake of the movement. I just move on, not from a position of getting ahead as a woman but getting ahead because I'm on a mission of Jesus."

In the 1970s, the Rev. Anderson, already established as a civil-rights activist, took naturally to the fight for female priesthood in Episcopalianism. "A few of us moved things along," she says. "It wasn't unlike the struggle for gays and lesbians today." But with that goal achieved (and her ordination shortly thereafter), her energies turned toward the church's charismatic renewal movement, which valued theological conservatism and belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit alongside social activism. The trend attracted relatively little Episcopal attention in the U.S. at the time but exerted a greater fascination on the denomination's Anglican mother church. Anderson was one of just six Americans invited to the 1991 enthronement of George Carey, the evangelically minded former Archbishop of Canterbury.

And it was her evangelical piety, in addition to her administrative talents, that won her one of Episcopalianism's prizes. In 1988, although the church as a whole was about to elect its first female bishop, Anderson was a dark-horse candidate for pastor of All Saints, which was more conservative back then. Yet as her intelligence and zeal became apparent, a search-committee member recalls, "hearts were changed," and Anderson was chosen unanimously over 10 other candidates.

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