|The floor of the 1956 General Conference of the Methodist Church, where women were granted full clergy rights. Photo courtesy of the General Board of Archives and History.|
but not equal until ‘56
by Patricia J. Thompson
2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic decision by the 1956 Methodist General Conference to grant full clergy rights to women.
Even though clergywomen had been part of Methodism since John Wesley licensed Sarah Crosby to preach in 1761, the vote on May 4, 1956, in Minneapolis was the first to give Methodist clergywomen privileges equal to those of clergymen. It meant that, for the first time, ordained Methodist women could be full members of their annual conferences and, if in good standing, were guaranteed annual appointments.
The history of ordained women in the United Methodist Church incorporates the histories of five predecessor denominations.
The Methodist Protestant Church and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ ordained women and granted them full clergy rights starting at the end of the 19th century, but Methodist Episcopal women had a much longer struggle.
The Methodist Episcopal Church (the northern church in the United States after the denomination split in 1844 over the issue of slavery) granted women the right to be ordained as local deacons and elders in 1924.
When the Methodist Episcopal Church merged with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939, women from the southern church gained the right to ordination for the first time. Methodist Protestant women gave up full clergy rights in the merger, although they could be ordained as local deacons and elders. All of the women in the Methodist Church would have to wait until 1956 for full rights.
In 1946 the Church of the United Brethren in Christ united with the Evangelical Church to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Though United Brethren women had enjoyed ordination with full clergy rights since 1889, Evangelical women had never been granted any rights as clergy. Bishops from both denominations generally agreed not to ordain women in the new Evangelical United Brethren Church. Since the agreement was never voted as official policy, some annual conferences continued to ordain women and grant them full clergy rights.
|The Rev. Maud Jensen, of what is now the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference, was the first woman to be granted full clergy rights. Photo courtesy of the General Board of Archives and History.|
In 1968, when the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church, all women were finally eligible for full clergy rights.
The 2004 General Conference urged all annual conferences to celebrate the anniversary and honor clergywomen in their conferences during their 2006 sessions. Every local church was also urged to celebrate the anniversary either during Women’s History Month (March) and/or on Heritage Sunday – May 21.
Many resources are available to help conferences and churches mark the anniversary.
Conference commissions on archives and history and commissions on the status and role of women can provide specific information on the history of clergywomen in any particular annual conference.
—The Rev. Patricia J. Thompson is a clergy member of the New England Annual Conference and president of the Historical Society of The United Methodist Church.
50th Anniversary Resources
• Bulletin Inserts, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, download at www.gcsrw.org or call (800) 523-8390.
• Worship resources, General Board of Discipleship, www.gbod.org/worship
• “A Story to Tell Our Grandchildren,” anniversary celebration drama, General Board of Church and Society
• United Methodist Clergywomen Web site, www.gbhem.org/clergywomen
• Anniversary theme page
• Courageous Spirit: Voices from Women in Ministry [Upper Room Books, (800) 972-0433]
• Courageous Past, Bold Future by Patricia J. Thompson [Cokesbury, (800) 672-1789]