| Mar 13, 2013
African-American bishops are not new. They have been around since the 1800s. Richard Allen became the first presiding bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816 and later Daniel Alexander Payne was consecrated as bishop in 1852. James Varick was ordained bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1822. William Henry Miles and Richard Vanderhost were the first bishops in the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church in 1870. In the early part of the twentieth century, Charles H. Mason became the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, Charles Price Jones presided as bishop over the Church of Christ (Holiness) and Garfield Haywood was bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Ida Robinson, a bishop in the Mt. Sinai Holy Church, was an exception to what was an early norm among African American churches, that only men could be bishops. Today, some African-American denominations have made small steps toward including women in the bishopric with capable leaders such as Vashti McKenzie in the AME Church and Teresa Snorton in the CME Church while others like the Church of God in Christ do not ordain women as bishops (or even as pastors for that matter).
As you can see, these people are all bishops in churches with an Episcopal structure, meaning churches that are governed by select individuals called ‘bishops.’ Bishops preside over churches in jurisdictions, regions or districts within a single state and sometimes preside over churches in multiple states. From a historical standpoint, the episcopacy in the contemporary Black Church is linked to the large number of African-Americans in the Methodist churches since the early nineteenth century, which later give rise to Holiness, Pentecostal and later nondenominational churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, all of which have bishops. Becoming a bishop takes time in these churches. It requires one to begin as a local pastor and advance to positions such as ruling elder or district supervisor for years overseeing pastors and congregations while working with a presiding bishop. Afterwards, one is appointed or elected as a bishop, which is a qualitatively different process than the one adopted by some African American churches today.
So, what’s the big deal? What is happening today that is causing so much controversy and debate? Two things are happening. First, there are an increasing number of bishops in churches that have not historically been governed by bishops. This is particularly true in African-American Baptist churches, which typically have a congregational polity. The Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, for example, is a clear deviation from congregational governance. Paul Morton serves as the presiding bishop of a fellowship of Baptist churches that have adopted an Episcopal structure. Furthermore, there are an increasing number of bishops in the National Baptist Convention. This trend is causing quite a stir as more traditional Baptist pastors question the validity of the office of bishop in the Baptist Church.
Second, there are an increasing number of predominantly African-American nondenominational churches. These churches are not affiliated with historic black denominations like the AME Church, CME Church, National Baptist Convention, the Church of God in Christ, or the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Yet they have adopted the Episcopal structure. Among these nondenominational churches, many pastors call themselves bishops. What is particularly ironic about this practice is that many of these bishops do not exercise oversight of a jurisdiction, region or district of churches with a host of pastors to oversee. They are mostly pastors of a single congregation and in some cases may participate in a fellowship of nondenominational churches. Today there are bishops who serve as pastors of churches with membership as large as ten thousand to memberships of 10 or 20 people. This too, has caused a quite a stir. And so I ask the following questions. First, what caused this shift within historic denominations and the emergence of nondenominationalism among African-American churches? Second, why has the episcopacy become so popular? Is it the love of an honorific title or is it a signal of important issues emerging in African-American churches. Tell me what you think, and I’ll explain my thoughts next time.