It was a little like being the first woman on the moon, said the Rev. Dr. Majorie Matthews just after she became the first woman bishop in the Christian church in nearly 2,000 years,
"I think anyone who goes out for the first time doing something that's never been done befoe has a sense of apprehension, of uneasiness," said Mathews, a few minutes after he election in Dayton last week as a bishop in the United Methodist Church.
But back in her Traverse City, Mich., office this week, Matthews was beginning to put her historic election behind her and was winding up her five years as a district superintendent for the church. She will become bishop of Wisconsin on Sept. 1.
"I'm trying to get ready to pack," she said between constant telephone calls. "There's been nothing but affirmation so far in the reactions I've gotten from people."
She believes her election and her service during the next four years (church laws will require her retirement after one term) will cast shadows far beyond the 9.7 million-member United Methodist Church.
Matthews and she thinks her appointment "will have a significance to other churches. I think we will all be taking a closer look at our theological untrepretation of the scriptures. We affirm that every person is due honor and dignity, because that's the way that God treats people."
Less than a week after her election Matthews said that her mail, which "is usually very heavy," had tripled. "Many of the letters start out: 'You don't know me but --,'" she reported. Many of them are from members of other churches, congratulating and wishing her well.
United Methodists divide the country into five regional jurisdictional conferences that elect and assign the church's 45 active bishops. The nine-state North Central Jurisdiction, convening in Dayton last week, had three positions to fill as three, men were retiring.
Matthews did not emerge as a serious contender until the convention had elected the first new bishop, Bishop Edwin C. Boulton of Des Moines.
Then, in ballot after ballot, Matthews and Bishop Emerson S. Colaw of Cincinnati began leading the pack, with half-a-dozen others in their wake. But neither could gain the required two-thirds majority.
Finally, after 29 ballots, delegates greeted with thunderous applause a motion to elect Colaw and Matthews by acclamation.
Of the election, Matthews said later, "I knew it was the [Holy] Spirit moving."
Mathews' election came just 100 years after the denomination first ordained a woman to the ministry. But Anna Howard Shaw was considered only a "local preacher" of the Methodist Episcopal Church, as it was then called. It was not until 1956 that the church granted full ministerial standing to women.
Three years later, in 1959, Matthews was orgained. Divorced and rearing a son, she was pursuing a business career with an automotive parts manufacturer.
"But I was always interested in the church -- always active in the church," she recalled this week. "I was interested mainly in missions. I hoped to go overseas as a missionary."
The United Methodist Church requires its missionaries to be college graduates, but Matthews had only a business school education. So she took some correspondence courses and attended a summer session at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
"I enjoyed it so much that when my son graduated from high school and didn't want to go on with his studies, I said to him: 'If you're not going to college, I am!" she said.
So she went off to Central Michigan University -- "with my son's friends; we had a great time" -- and graduated summa cum laude while working part time as a secretary and serving two United Methodist parishes on weekends.
She finished the three-year bachelor of divinity curriculum at Colgate University in 2 1/2 years, including a summer study program in Israel with a University of Wisconsin group. "I'm looking forward to seeing those people again," she said. Her new office as bishop is located in a suburb of Madison, where the university is located.
Matthews has also earned a master's degree and a doctorate from Florida State University.
What problems does she anticipate as the first woman bishop? "I don't know," she responds. "They keep telling me there will be a lot of difficulties. But I always tell my pastors (under her direction as district superintendent) that when you have a difficulty, look at it as a challenge."
She is equally diplomatic about her plans for her tenure. "What I want to do is to sit down with the cabinet and staff and leadership [of the Wisconsin church]. I want to see where they want to go, what they want to do."
In her run for the episcopacy, Matthews had the promised support of delegations from the Detroit, Northern Illinois and West Michigan conferences, as well as the women's organizations and the black caucus.
She said the only argument she heard against her selection was that because of her age, 64, "I would have only four years to serve. There may have been other reasons they weren't talking about, but that's what they hung it on."
Feminists in the United Methodist Church, both male and female, have been actively struggling for eight years to elect a woman bishop. "I'm not sure whether or not there will be more women elected in four years," Matthews said, "but I am confident the day will come when we will elect women as well as men and not make very much fuss about it."