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American Clergy: Still Mostly a Man's World, but Women Make Gains

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein. This week our subject is women clergy.


A new leader begins a nine-year term this November as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Katharine Jefferts Schori will become the first woman to lead one of the churches in the Worldwide Anglican Communion.

There are almost eighty million Anglicans in all. More than two million of them are members of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Bishop Jefferts Schori won election in June at the church’s General Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Episcopal bishops elected her on the fifth ballot. She was the only woman among seven candidates.

Some Episcopalians wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury to object to the new presiding bishop-elect. The archbishop, Rowan Williams, is leader of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. He says Bishop Jefferts Schori will bring "many intellectual and pastoral gifts to her new work." But he also noted that her election "brings into focus some continuing issues."

The Church of England has just recently begun steps toward letting women become bishops. But that might not happen before two thousand twelve.

The Episcopal Church is almost four hundred years old. The American church accepted women as priests and bishops thirty years ago. But church leaders in California, Illinois and Texas still bar women clergy.

The fact that the next leader is a woman is not the only issue. Bishop Jefferts Schori is now bishop of Nevada. The Episcopal Church in her state permits blessing ceremonies for the relationships between two people of the same sex. She believes homosexuals should be fully included in the church.

In two thousand three she supported the election of a gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. The subject has divided Episcopalians and other Anglican churches.

Katharine Jefferts Schori is fifty-two years old. The next leader of the Episcopal Church says she brings “different life experiences” to her work. She has a doctorate in science. She studied oceans.

And this former oceanographer is also a pilot who likes to fly a small plane. She and her husband have a daughter who is a pilot in the Air Force.


Antoinette Brown Blackwell is credited as the first woman in the United States to be officially appointed as a minister. She attended the seminary at Oberlin College and served in a Congregationalist church in South Butler, New York.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell became ordained in eighteen fifty-three. A person who is ordained is given the full responsibilities of a member of the clergy. But she left the church less than a year after that. She later became a Unitarian.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the oldest religious organizations in the United States. In two thousand, Vashti Murphy McKenzie became the first woman elected a bishop in the A.M.E. Church.

Now another woman minister hopes to become a bishop. She is Reverend Debora Grant of Saint John A.M.E. Church in Columbus, Georgia. The election for bishop of the A.M.E. churches in Georgia will take place in two thousand eight.

Religious groups in the United States commonly require ministers to have studied in a seminary. This is true especially of major denominations.

The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada collects information from more than two hundred fifty seminaries. In the school year that ended in two thousand five, the association says, one-third of students in ministry programs were women.

Future ministers learn not just about religion. They often study archeology and sociology, as well as art and music related to religion. And they learn about administration and about helping the sick and troubled. Most seminary students gain experience as student ministers before they graduate.

Many religious groups continue not to accept women clergy. Different groups offer different reasons. But custom, tradition and a desire to honor what is believed to be the will of God, often as expressed in holy writings, all play a part.

Leaders of the Mormons, for example, say men hold the priesthood offices of the church because God has stated that it should be so. However, the church says women have important leadership duties, and teach and pray The Roman Catholic Church has faced a lot of pressure to let women become priests. The church has expanded the duties that women can perform, but they still cannot become priests.

Among Protestants, not all groups accept women clergy. And some churches limit the service of women ministers.

The biggest Protestant denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention. For many years, women could serve as senior ministers in its churches. Senior ministers have the most responsibilities and earn the most pay. But in two thousand the Southern Baptists decided that women should no longer enter these jobs.

Many Protestant denominations do let women become senior ministers. Even so, some women believe there are unwritten rules that can keep them from getting jobs.

In some denominations, a church official appoints ministers to their jobs. In other denominations, ministers must find their own church.

A Protestant minister in Washington who works with hospital patients has looked for a senior ministry position for a long time. She asks not to be named. She says: “People would be happy for me to work with children or sick and old people. But many places do not want a woman for the top job.”


In the Jewish religion, women can become Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative spiritual leaders.

In nineteen seventy-two Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi to be ordained in the United States. Hebrew Union College in Ohio ordained her as a rabbi in Reform Judaism. Two years later the first woman graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.

The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York serves as the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism. The seminary ordained its first woman rabbi in nineteen eighty-five. That followed more than ten years of intense debate.

Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis. But a small number of women are said to have completed studies in Orthodox seminaries.


Amina Wadud teaches Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Professor Wadud made international news in March of two thousand five. She led a group of men and women in Friday prayers.

At least eighty people gathered in the Synod House of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, an Episcopal church. Other places refused the event because of reports of bomb threats.

Some Muslims denounced Professor Wadud. They said the prayer leader, or imam, should be a man and that men and women should not have prayed together. Conservative Muslims said her actions violated traditions of Islam. But many liberal Muslims praised what she did.

A seventy-year-old woman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says she has been a loyal Roman Catholic all her life. She says that years ago, she agreed with the belief that women should not become priests.

Now she disagrees with that. “Women have always cared for homes, families and communities. Why not let them care for people’s spiritual needs?" she asks. As long as people have an answer, this issue will continue to be debated in America and across the world.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein. You can download transcripts and archives of our shows at And we hope you can join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.