WASHINGTON, July 3 (RNS)--It's time.

That's what both of the female candidates for bishop of the AfricanMethodist Episcopal Church say about the possibility of becoming thefirst woman episcopal leader of the prominent African-Americandenomination, which has about 2.5 million members.

When delegates gather for the quadrennial meeting July 5-12 inCincinnati, the election of bishops will be a focal point.

In the running are the Rev. Carolyn Tyler Guidry, a presiding elderof the church in Los Angeles, and the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie, pastor ofa prominent church in Baltimore.

Another woman, the first female to serve as a general officer of theAME Church, has mounted a campaign to encourage the election of a womanbishop at the church's General Conference.

Jayme Coleman Williams, the former editor of the AME Church Review,compares the campaign to one more than 15 years ago to have an Africanmember of the church appointed as a bishop.

"The General Conference made a conscious decision that one of thepeople to be elected was to be one of our overseas brothers," she said."I'm simply doing the same thing for the women."

Grass-roots members of the denomination sometimes voice concernsabout whether they're ready for a woman bishop or whether a woman bishopwould be comfortable with an appointment to Africa--traditionally thefirst assignment location for new bishops. But Williams views those asexcuses rather than real problems.

"This is the 21st century," she said. "I think the church is amicrocosm of the larger society...We're just slow catching up."

Some church organizations already have been outspoken about the needto appoint a woman bishop.

The denomination's General Board passed a resolution in 1995 urginga woman be elected in 2000. The Connectional Lay Organization of the AMEChurch passed a resolution in 1999 affirming the board's action andseeking a commitment to elect a woman this July 10.

The resolution is expected to be brought to the floor before theelection, when more than 30 candidates are expected to run for as few astwo open positions.

Guidry, who ran unsuccessfully for bishop at the last GeneralConference in 1996, said she is "extremely optimistic" about thepossibility of her becoming a bishop this year.

"People know me by face," she said. "They know my work in thechurch, which is very helpful. I supervise 19 churches and pastors withbetween 6,000 and 8,000 members."

In 1977, Guidry was the first female to be ordained an "itinerantelder" in the church's Southern California Annual Conference. She servedas pastor of California churches in Indio, Bakersfield and Los Angelesbefore her appointment as the first female presiding elder of the LosAngeles-Pasadena District in the church's Southern CaliforniaConference.

McKenzie said her experience in local ministry has prepared her toserve at a higher level in the denomination.

As pastor of the Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, a1,700-member congregation, she has overseen the development of afaith-based nonprofit agency that offers community service projectsoffering job training for people on public assistance and technologycourses for youth. She would like to see more of such programs developedthroughout the denomination.

She has been in ministry for about 25 years, having served at PayneMemorial for 10 years and previously in other preaching and gospelbroadcasting capacities.

"I have the track record ," she said. "I have the tenure. I have thequalifications. I have the skills. I'm not running just because of mygender. I'm running because I'm qualified."

McKenzie said with two women running, there is a greater likelihoodone may win.

"I think that a lot of the general sentiment has been that we cannotgo into the 21st century without being diversified and liberated, as wesay we are," McKenzie said. "That's not to say there aren't pockets ofpeople who say `I'm not quite sure.'...There's always someone who wouldrather judge by gender rather than by skill."