This week, the United Methodist Church took the apparently unprecedented action of holding a church trial to air allegations of sexual harassment by one of its ministers. The trial, held under church law, has prompted reflection by several local black women ministers about the problems of sexism within the black church.
Although the treatment of women is seldom discussed in public forums, some black women ministers here claim that verbal and physical harassment of black women churchgoers by a few black ministers is an everyday fact of life and part of a pattern of sexism that persists in some historically black churches.
According to the Rev. Mozelle J. Fuller, president of the Women Ministers of Greater Washington: " Sexual harassment is a problem in the black church. I have heard women discuss it. When I ask why they don't bring it out in the open, they say, 'It's my pastor; I don't want to cause him trouble.' "
The Rev. Imagene Stewart, founder of the women ministers' organization, agreed. Such allegations, she says, "aren't unusual. There've been plenty of cases . . . . It could have happened in any denomination."
"Some women ministers," added the Rev. Delores Carpenter, associate professor at the Howard University Divinity School, "have told me that other ministers have done things that were inappropriate, that would allude to them not having respect for women."
These women stress that not all black ministers are the subject of such allegations and the problem is not limited to the black church or any one denomination. The problems range from patronizing views of the black women's role in the church, as member or leader, as well as battles over sociological and theological issues.
But sexism is a different problem in the black church because that institution is so central to the lives of many black people. At the same time, according to sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, the black church historically helped to keep women "in their place" by affirming "the man's interest and authority in the family" and emphasizing the Biblical "sanction for male ascendency."
Although few black women have been permitted to rise as far as their talents could take them, they nonetheless have been instrumental in church development. In the l930s, the All Nations Pentecostal Church was founded by Lucy Smith. A great evangelist and former slave, Amanda Smith, preached in the United States, and in India and Africa as well.
But such exceptions aside, underlying the issue of sexual harassment is the inability of women to attain positions of significance in the clergy despite the fact that black women may make up as much as 80 percent of church membership.
Bishop Smallwood Williams, the influential pastor of Bible Way Church here, has stated publicly that he would never ordain a woman. One of the local organizations of black Baptist ministers, in an unofficial but powerful ban, adamantly opposes ordaining women and has refused fellowship to several local ministers who defied the ban and ordained women.
Although male ministers cite Biblical sanction for their actions, some women are not convinced. "It seems to me," said Fuller, "that they are serving men rather than serving God."
Such problems already have driven many young black women ministers away from historically black churches. Sixty-one percent of women finishing seminaries today join predominately white churches. "A third of them cite ordination and employment opportunities as the reasons," said Carpenter. "Women are going where the opportunities are. It's approaching a talent drain."
Increasingly, black women religious scholars such as Carpenter are challenging sexism in the church. Next month the Howard Divinity School will sponsor a four-day symposium on religion and feminism. The Rev. T.J. Jemison, head of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., says the church "will have to face the issue of opposing leadership roles for women forthrightly in the future, for there are so many [women] being called into the ministry."
Black male and female ministers desperately need to begin talking about their different interpretation of theological issues. Moreover, there is an equally pressing need to address problems of harassment. As Fuller puts it: "There comes a time when you have to move away from the old ways for your own self respect."