The Debate that Changed the Church: Celebrating 60 Years of Full Clergy Rights for Women

On May 4, 1956 the General Conference of the (then) Methodist Church meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota did something amazing. It changed the church’s book of Discipline to support full clergy rights for women. And the church has never been the same since. 

Despite much resistance and fears about what this might do to our churches, expressed by voices of both men and women, the General Conference, voted down compromise proposals and ended up supporting the boldest position offered  - full clergy rights for women with no exceptions.

This is a personal issue for me.  My wife and I are a clergy couple.  Having been ordained in another denomination, we chose to move into the United Methodist Church largely because of its support for women in leadership. We are proud of our UM Connection and feel privileged to serve as UM clergy.  We are also pleased that we were able to raise our daughters in a Church committed to having Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors.

But how times have changed over the last 60 years.  Reading the transcript from the 1956 General Conference Journal is fascinating. The petition for full clergy rights came out of the Ministry Committee – 84 members with 81 men and 3 women.  Though 8 of the committee members were from beyond the US, none were from Africa.  On the committee there were 4 members representing conferences in the (African American) Central Jurisdictions. 

The committee’s majority report favored clergy rights for women but only for non-married women.  The minority report favored no change in the discipline. The majority report passed by 40 -32. Later they proposed allowing married women serve but without any guarantee of an appointment.  Both were voted down.

And then there was debate on the floor.  The presiding bishop, Bishop Willis King, was the Central Jurisdiction (African-American) bishop stationed in New Orleans with an episcopal territory stretching from northern Mississippi to west Texas.  

One of the first members to stand for full clergy rights was a delegate who served a principal of a Methodist school in Calcutta, India. (Though he speaks in favor, it is about the strangest endorsement speech ever presented).  Another early voice in support was the Rev. Anderson Davis, an African-American pastor from West Virginia.  Nineteen men speak before we finally hear from a woman, Mrs. Henry D. Ebner of New Jersey, but she speaks against the motion, fearing that opening the clerical doors to women will result in fewer women being willing to serve as deaconesses.  Her argument is followed by a bold speech in favor by Mrs. Edwin Anderson, president of the New England Conference Woman’s Society of Christian Service.   She’s backed up by Miss Mary Lou Barnwell of New York (finally a woman not identified by her husband’s name). 

Slowly, it seems, the conference comes to realize it might have the votes not for compromise legislation but to do something really bold “full clergy rights for women with no exceptions.”  Who would have thought it? 

Just at this key moment in the debate, a delegate rises to make just such a proposal – Dr. Zack Johnson, president of Asbury College in Kentucky (he told those around him he was about to shock everyone there)  - coming to the podium he proposes in simple, clear language, a substitution for the main motion which officially would open the doors of the church to the service of women as full clergy, having the very same rights as men, no exceptions. 

Read this transcript of the actual May 4, 1956 proceedings.  Perhaps, even use it your church or Sunday School. This is how General Conference works and on some days it has even surprised itself with the boldness of its actions. 

Also check out  Lynn Hutton’s article “A Bishop Remembers” at http://www.hallsnews.com/shopper051506/columns/hutton.htm-21k