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

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

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

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

Another woman, the first female to serve as a general officer of the AME Church, has mounted a campaign to encourage the election of a woman bishop 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 African member of the church appointed as a bishop.

"The General Conference made a conscious decision that one of the people 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 concerns about whether they're ready for a woman bishop or whether a woman bishop would be comfortable with an appointment to Africa--traditionally the first assignment location for new bishops. But Williams views those as excuses rather than real problems.

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

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

The denomination's General Board passed a resolution in 1995 urging a woman be elected in 2000. The Connectional Lay Organization of the AME Church passed a resolution in 1999 affirming the board's action and seeking a commitment to elect a woman this July 10.

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

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

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

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

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

As pastor of the Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, a 1,700-member congregation, she has overseen the development of a faith-based nonprofit agency that offers community service projects offering job training for people on public assistance and technology courses for youth. She would like to see more of such programs developed throughout the denomination.

She has been in ministry for about 25 years, having served at Payne Memorial for 10 years and previously in other preaching and gospel broadcasting capacities.

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

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

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

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