By Woody Woodrick
As she looked over the congregation Tuesday, the Rev. Vicki Hughes spotted her father, the Rev. Jack Loflin.
Seeing her father during this particular worship service touched Hughes’ heart. Tears began to flow down her cheeks.
“I looked out and saw my dad and all the mothers and fathers sitting there with all the people who have loved and supported us, and it was incredible,” she said.
Hughes wasn’t the only person crying in the service celebrating 50 years of full clergy rights for women in the United Methodist Church. She was one of nine clergywomen who participated in the service as readers. Several participants shed tears, as did many in the congregation.
“When I looked over the faces of all races and genders and ages, I remember when there were only four or five of us,” said Hughes, who has been serving as superintendent of the East Jackson District of the Mississippi Conference. “I felt the power of God give sustaining love to all of us up there.”
The service held during the 18th session of the Mississippi Annual Conference featured clergywomen reading the words of their sisters who struggled for the right to be recognized by their denomination. The 1956 General Conference voted to give women full clergy rights, and the denomination is celebrating the anniversary throughout 2006. Ruth Wood became the first United Methodist clergywoman in Mississippi in 1959 and became an elder in 1967. Mississippi now has 123 women among 840 clergy.
All clergywomen in the conference were invited to process in and sit together. They filled four long pews and spilled over into others.
“Returning to the Well” was the theme of the service, referring to the Samaritan woman at the well who gave water to Jesus. “We are drawn again to the well of God’s life-giving water to be refreshed,” said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward.
Conference worship leader Marcia McFee performed a sketch about the Samaritan woman, and then Hughes and others read the words of women throughout history who sought to preach the gospel but were denied or discouraged.
Wood shared the words of Rebecca Jackson, who in 1835 felt the call to preach. Not only was Jackson told not to preach at the meeting house but was ordered not to visit homes to speak. Only a drunkard allowed her to speak in his house, and the townspeople filled the house.
The Rev. Victoria Sizemore Tandy read the words of Anna Oliver from 1877: “You know, I believe I was called by the Lord to study for the ministry. I told the Lord that no seminary would admit me; if one did, perhaps I would not be successful and would only bring myself into unpleasant notoriety and be abused by my enemies and rejected by friends. I was not anxious to make myself a martyr. I brought every argument against it I could find, but the Lord overturned them all and bid me go on.”
Hughes quoted Margaret Henrichson, who in 1953 cited the dual duties of ministry and home she bore: “Yes, the trouble was that having chosen to be the minister I had also chosen to be ‘her wife.’”
One of the most moving segments of the service was when the congregation was called on to proclaim the names of women who had ministered to them. The clergywomen were also asked to call the names of all who had ministered to them. More and more people were moved to tears as names were called.
Wood delivered the benediction.
“It was a service filled with the Spirit,” said the Rev. Chris Brooking. “It was good to remember the past and look to the future.”
The Rev. Emma L. McNair, a chaplain, said the service strengthened the sisterhood of clergywomen. “This is the body,” she said. “We are affirmed as being part of the body (of Christ).”
McNair said she believes the service could also encourage young women to enter the ministry. “This could help them free themselves and affirm their calling as we did. We didn’t have the support, but they have a group of women to mentor them.”