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New lectureship in honor of first African American woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church

Feb 17, 2006
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary has established a lectureship in honor of the first African American women ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church.

On March 26, 2006, Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon will inaugurate the new lectureship at a weekend event of workshops and seminars celebrating the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The lecture, which begins at 7 p.m., will be held free of charge at Gardencourt on the Seminary campus. A reception and booksigning will follow.

The Katie Geneva Cannon Lectureship will become an annual program of the Seminary’s Women’s Center that will seek to invite a woman scholar who belongs to a racial ethnic minority in the United States and who raises a critical voice against the dominant oppressive structures and ideologies of the era.

Cannon’s lecture entitled, “Untethering Grace from Dogmatic Anchors: A Womanist Critique of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” will focus on a doctrine of transformative grace that emerges from the biographies of Africans who were dispersed throughout the American Colonies as chattel property. Through this history Cannon believes there is much to learn about “the divine gift of redeeming love that enables us to affirm, even in the most dire, oppressive situations, our dignity as beloved persons created in the image of God.”

Cannon said the honor of a lectureship was quite unexpected, very much like the “unexpected journey of my life,” which she describes as one of blessings and daggers – some of which she sees reflected in the unpredictable 50-year journey of clergywomen.

Growing up in rural Kannapolis, N.C., the heart of Cannon textile products, Cannon’s earliest years were shaped by the inhumane culture of a segregated mill town in the 1950s. “Blacks were not allowed to go to the library, eat at the restaurants, sit downstairs at the movie theater, or swim in the local pools and ponds” (Katie’s Canon, p. 12). She says black women had three choices in Kannapolis, “they could work as domestics, do hard labor in the mills, or a few could teach.” By the time she was in the ninth grade, Cannon discerned that this kind of society was inherently wrong, and she sought to become a teacher to escape its hold on her life.

At seventeen she enrolled at Barber Scotia College, several miles up the road from her home. She graduated magna cum laude in 1971. When she arrived in Atlanta, Ga., to attend Johnson C. Smith Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), she enrolled for the Christian education degree. It was there she met Dr. James Costen, who later became president of ITC in 1983.

James Costen questioned why she wanted to earn the Masters of Arts in Christian Education when job prospects were so limited. “Then sign me up for the Masters of Divinity,” she said. It was at that time Costen told her she would be the first African American woman ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in her Presbyterian denomination.

There are countless stories of courageous nineteenth century women who served the Church as missionaries and preachers, including Louisa Woosley, who was ordained by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1889. During 2005-2006, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is marking several anniversaries celebrating the ordination of women. It is the 100th anniversary of the ordination of women as deacons (1906) and the 75th anniversary of women ordained as ruling elders (1930). But only 50 years ago, Margaret Towner became the first woman ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1956. See Ordinations webpage for a timeline of the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Eighteen years would pass before Katie Geneva Cannon became the first African American woman ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the United Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A., following her graduation from seminary in 1974.

There have been other firsts for the woman from Kannapolis. From ITC, Cannon enrolled at Union Theological Seminary (NYC), where she earned the Master of Philosophy, and became the first African American woman to earn the Doctor of Philosophy degree (1983).

“As an African American woman student in the 1970s I was an oddity, not only because I was black, but also because I was a woman and a woman in ministry,” recalls Cannon. Today, she is considered the frontrunner in womanist theology and African American social ethics.

Cannon has taught Christian ethics for nearly 30 years in institutions such as New York Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and as Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn. In 2001, she was called to teach at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va., where she is currently the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics.

At Union-PSCE, Cannon teaches what she calls “high impact aerobic ethics. There is no time for navel gazing,” she said. “I teach with an urgency that this may be the class, or there may be one person here, who will feel called to make a change in this world. My students bring themselves to the questions I pose on white supremacy, the Sudan, medical ethics, euthanasia…these questions matter to me and I know it will matter to them down the road.”

She also prays for her students, especially African American women. “The backlash for women is still very real. They have faced segregation to desegregation to resegregation, where oppression is still operative, only hidden and indirect.” When women students talk to her about the issues they face, she listens to them, providing space for them to come up with their own answers and encouraging them to cling to the hope that is in the struggle.

Cannon is President of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. She is the author or editor of six books including Teaching Preaching: Isaac R. Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric (2002), Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (1995); and Black Womanist Ethics (1988). Currently working on a new manuscript, The Pounding of Soundless Heartbeats: A Womanist Mapping of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and participating in a Pan-African Scholar’s Research Seminar on Religion and Poverty in Africa and the African Diaspora sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

For more information, a schedule and online registration for the women’s ordination event, “Wind and Flame: Women Claiming Sacred Space,” visit the LPTS Women's Ordination webpage
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