Pentecostal group gives women ministers added authority

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The Rev. Catherine Payne has traveled the globe, representing the Church of God of Prophecy and preaching in pulpits from India to Bulgaria to Ukraine. But wherever Payne preached, she could not baptize converts, officiate at Holy Communion services or perform weddings.

However, thanks to an historic vote taken at her 300,000-member Pentecostal denomination’s biennial general assembly in Louisville, Ky., which met July 8-14, Payne can now perform some ministerial functions that once were the exclusive domain of men in her church.

In addition, women members who for decades were prohibited from addressing denominational business meetings can again do so.”It’s a pretty significant change for us,”Payne said of the changes in her Cleveland, Tenn.-based denomination.

However, one restriction that remains for women ministers is that they cannot serve as bishops, said the Rev. Perry Gillum, spokesman for the Church of God of Prophecy.”It was felt that the biblical pattern of ordaining elders was done by bishops and this was a role that was not in New Testament times fulfilled by the lady people,”he said, referring to women in the church.

The Church of God of Prophecy has about 6,000 congregations worldwide, about half of them in the United States. Known for their spirited worship, members of the denomination believe in”gifts of the Holy Spirit,”such as spiritual healing and speaking in tongues. The racially integrated denomination, led by General Overseer Billy D. Murray Sr., teaches its members to abstain from alcoholic beverages and tobacco.

In an interview, Payne, 40, who lives in Cleveland, Tenn., seemed more concerned about what she now can do than what she cannot do in her church.”If that’s God’s will (women serving as bishops) for this church, in time he will bring it to pass. But at this moment I’m just rejoicing in new-found liberty and what God has done among us at this point,”said Payne, who holds what her denomination calls a”female minister’s license.” When Payne served as co-pastor of a congregation with her husband, John Payne, in Bakersfield, Calif., she could help plan weddings and baptisms, but could never officiate.

Now, she looks forward to the next time someone is”saved,”or accepts Jesus as their savior, at a service where she is preaching.”I’ll have the opportunity to take them right to the water and baptize them,”she said.

Leaders of the denomination also voted to give women the opportunity to again speak and vote at meetings. Although the denomination has supported women ministers almost since its formation in 1903, for some four decades no woman had been allowed to vote or speak publicly at a business session of the church.

Payne broke that taboo when she sought a point of clarification about tithing at the Louisville meeting.”I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been applauded for being a lady,”said Payne, the denomination’s international director of women’s ministries.”There were times when women would stand up in the meeting and if the moderator felt she had something significant to contribute, he could recognize her. But he also could rebuke her and tell her to be seated,”said Payne.”I’ve seen both.” Payne said there also were instances where churches would have”a meeting before the official business meeting”to allow women to contribute.”Now that pretense doesn’t have to go on,”she said.

Lee Grady, executive editor of Charisma & Christian Life magazine, which covers Pentecostal groups, said the Church of God of Prophecy is”getting more in line with where most … Pentecostal groups are.” He said many Pentecostal groups have supported women ministers since their earliest days, but backed away from that position in the 1960s and 70s as a sort of backlash to feminism. More recently, he said, some Pentecostal groups have begun to reconsider women’s roles.

For example, in 1986, the male ministers of the Church of God, another Pentecostal group also based in Cleveland, Tenn., decided that women could speak and vote at church meetings.

Gillum, the Church of God of Prophecy spokesman, said a two-year study preceded the changes put into effect at the Louisville meeting.”It’s a feeling by many of the bishops in this church that we should have indeed long ago freed the ladies up in this body, and so the bishops in this church took a very bold stand to do that,”he said.