Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the nation's oldest African-American denominations, meeting for its quadrennial conference, weighed in on issues from Congress' conservative political agenda to same-sex marriages and the role of women in their church.
The bishops' message, read Thursday to about 1,000 conference delegates and visitors, is the definitive statement of policy and direction for the denomination, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.
"The cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil continue in life-and-death combat and the church is affected by it," the bishops stated.
Challenges to the church, they said, include recent moves in Congress to overhaul the welfare system, attempts to dismantle affirmative action programs and the rash of burnings of black churches.
"The call for welfare reform by the Republicans and certain Democrats and the Supreme Court decision to declare (unconstitutional) certain congressional districts held by African-Americans .
. set the stage for an uneasy future for people of color," they said.
The bishops voiced concern over attacks on affirmative action programs, saying that affirmative action has helped combat racial and gender discrimination.
Affirmative action "does not just redress an historical wrong, but it perfects a workable future," they said.
The bishops praised the Clinton administration for its work to apprehend those responsible for the burning of black churches, which included the St. James AME Zion Church in Maysville, N.C.
The AME Zion leaders reiterated their position on human sexuality, declaring homosexuality and same-sex marriages "morally wrong."
"The church's position has been, and continues to be, clear on not condemning any of God's children," they said. "However, the practice of homosexuality must be condemned."
Departing from the 30-page document, Bishop Clarence Carr of St. Louis added, "In other words, he (God) created Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve."
Citing Scripture and church history, the bishops spoke strongly about the significance of women's contributions.
"Women are veritable instruments for God's purpose wherever the Creator places them," they said.
The bishops cited verses from the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians in the New Testament that some people interpret as prohibiting women preachers. Rather than condemn women preachers, the AME Zion leaders said, the verses address "a specific situation that had caused disruption in the church."
They noted that women have been ordained as preachers in their denomination since the late 1800s. Today, the number of women entering the AME Zion ministry is increasing.
"They come spiritually and academically prepared to be used of God," the bishops said.
Of the 59 students enrolled at the denomination's Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, N.C., in 1995, 20 were female, the highest number ever recorded.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was founded in New York City in 1796, when a group of black members, denied access to the sacraments of the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal Church, established their own denomination. Counting among its members such historical figures as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, the AME Zion Church is known to its members as the "freedom church."
The bishops' address to the AME Zion General Conference, which ends Friday, also tackled the effects of environmental decay on minority communities, the importance of voting in the next election and the need for a policy on sexual misconduct.
Delegates responded favorably to the message, saying the bishops' ideas reflected the views of many members.
The Rev. Joel D. Miles, of Detroit, said he hopes church members will heed the message on ecology and "be more mindful of the Earth that God gave us and preserve it and not . . . use up its resources, vast though they may be."
Annette Braden, of Indianapolis, a lay delegate from the church's Indiana Conference, supported the bishops' call for a policy protecting all members and employees from sexual harassment.
"To have something down that will specify that it will not be tolerated is important," she said.
The Rev. Dwayne A. Walker, also of Indianapolis, said he was impressed with "the progressive mind" of the bishops.
"We are regarded as the "freedom church,' so we must be seen at the forefront of freedom and justice issues," Walker said.