From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Pioneer Marjorie Matthews 'knew the call'

Date 05 Dec 2000 13:32:40

Dec. 5, 2000   News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn.

By Sharon Fulmer*

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (UMNS) -- When Marjorie Matthews became a United Methodist
bishop at age 64, newspapers across the country announced the news with
headlines like, "The bishop is a woman."

The year was 1980, and Matthews was the first woman to become a bishop in
the United Methodist Church. Though a pioneer, she served only one term as
bishop, leading the Wisconsin Area for four years before retiring in 1984.
She died in 1986.

Men and women gathered on Nov. 16 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of
Matthews' election as bishop and to reflect on the role that women play in
the church today. The event was held at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in
Rochester, N.Y., where Matthews graduated in 1970.

Bishop Violet Fisher, who was elected in July and appointed to the New York
West Area, noted that her own journey had taken "some of the twists and
turns" that Matthews faced. 

"I was told again and again, 'you can't do that,'" Fisher said. "I say, 'Be
persistent, trust the spirit.'" 

Fisher recalled some of the obstacles that she had to overcome in her career
and that injustices still exist today. But, she said, "I knew I was called
to this. Our sister knew the call."

Matthews was born in Michigan, one of six children of a barrel maker. In a
presentation on Matthews' life, the Rev. Kathy Sage, a staff member at the
divinity school, said the late bishop was "a very private person." 

Matthews began college at the age of 47, and on graduation from Central
Michigan College, chose Colgate Rochester because she wanted to study
theology in an 
ecumenical setting. Matthews and Sage met when Sage was working for her
deacon's orders. Sage was unaware that Matthews was on the conference Board
of Ordained Ministry.

Matthews became a mentor. "She was personable, historic, feisty," Sage said.
"Pioneers create their own pathways."

She quoted Matthews: "There are no models for me; I'll have to make my own."

While serving her four-year term in Wisconsin, Matthews strived to "accustom
people to the idea that either a man or a woman can be a bishop." Although
most accepted and supported her, Matthews told the New York Times in an
interview that the opposition she faced from churches sometimes surprised
her. "They would tell people in my church they were going to hell for having
a woman minister."

In addition to Fisher, two other bishops participated in the program.

Bishop Susan Hassinger, who leads the church's New England Area, told those
that it was two years following her own ordination in 1968 before a church
could be found for her to serve. The people in her area had never seen a
woman baptize a child or serve communion, she said. "It took me a while to
understand what it meant for me as a woman to participate in the rituals of
the church."

Bishop Leontine Kelly, the first African-American woman to be elected to the
episcopacy, remembered Matthews during a sermon. She spoke of her friend and
mentor in loving terms, preaching with Matthews' stole draped around her

"I stand in the presence of the candle" (representing the life of Marjorie
Matthews), Kelly said. "She was as close as this stole."

Matthews' time in service to the church were "very special days in a life
taken far too early."

She told the gathering to remember that despite the progress that's been
made toward a better world, much work remains.

"We don't proclaim ourselves," Kelly said. "We proclaim the love of Jesus
Christ. God will enable us to make a difference where we are."

# # #

*Fulmer is director of Information Management for the North Central New York
Conference of the United Methodist Church.

United Methodist News Service
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