CINCINNATI, July 10 (AP)--Two women were in the running to become the African Methodist Episcopal Church's first female bishop Monday, but the delegates turned aside a proposal that would have guaranteed one of them would be elected.

The two were among 41 candidates for three open bishop positions for the 2.3 million-member denomination, the nation's oldest black church group. AME officials said 1,876 delegates would be voting. A majority vote is required to elect a bishop and multiple ballots are sometimes necessary.

On Friday, a group of AME activists introduced a resolution asking the Episcopal Committee, which oversees election of bishops every four years, to direct that one of the bishops elected Monday be a female. Delegates rejected that resolution Saturday by a vote of 716-667 after critics said it amounted to tokenism.

``The results of this vote mean there is no set-aside or automatic selection,'' said Bishop John R. Bryant, presiding officer of the conference. ``Women are free to run and this delegation is free to respond to each candidate regardless of gender.''

Jayme Coleman Williams, author of the defeated resolution, said she was disappointed the resolution was turned down, but said it wouldn't stop her efforts to push for election of a female bishop.

Having an all-male roster of bishops sends a message that the AME Church supports, or at least condones, gender discrimination, she and her supporters argued.

The two female candidates were the Rev. Carolyn Tyler Guidry, a presiding elder and former pastor who supervises 19 AME churches in the Los Angeles area, and the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie, pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore.

In another move, the Episcopal Committee decided late Sunday to declare a third bishop's position vacant. The church body had been expected to elect two new bishops, replacing men who have reached mandatory retirement age. The number was increased to three when another bishop asked to retire for health reasons.

The church has 20 bishops.

Women make up about 70 percent of the denomination.

The 20 bishops lead the AME Church in the four-year interim between the general conferences. Nineteen bishops lead districts in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, England and Africa; the 20th represents the church with other denominations, church spokesman Mike McKinney said. Bishops are required to retire at 75.

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