Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity has chosen Bishop Audrey Bronson as the first female president in the organization's 25-year history.

Bronson, pastor of the Sanctuary Church of the Open Door in West Philadelphia, will complete the term of the Rev. Ellis I. Washington, who has been reassigned to Boston by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At a news conference yesterday at Vine Memorial Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, where Black Clergy was founded, Bronson pledged to continue the group's work to "help the downtrodden" and those "pushed aside."

Bronson, formerly the organization's vice president, already had been tapped to succeed Washington in December, when his second one-year term as president will expire. She will complete his term and serve through 2010.

Asked yesterday why she had been chosen, Bronson surmised it was the "zeitgeist," or "spirit of the times."

She said she expected the organization under her leadership to continue searching for ways to reduce urban violence and opposing slots casinos in Philadelphia.

Bronson, who grew up in Florida, said she started preaching at age 14. A graduate of Cheyney University, with a master's degree in psychology from Howard University, she taught psychology at Cheyney for 18 years before she was "led by the Lord" to resume preaching.

"Teaching was my living," she said, but preaching is "my life."

In 1975, she began her congregation with a dozen members in her living room. Sanctuary Church of the Open Door, at 59th and Walnut Streets, now counts more than 2,000 members, about 70 percent of whom are female.

Her church also operates the 180-pupil Sanctuary Christian Academy; a preschool; a 37-unit apartment complex for the elderly; a family resource center; and a youth sports program.

Early in the HIV/AIDS crisis, Bronson encouraged clergy to be accepting of persons with the disease.

Bronson also holds a doctorate from New York Theological Seminary.

Black Clergy has about 200 members, according to Washington, pastor of St. Matthew A.M.E. Church in West Philadelphia for the last nine years.

The group was generally credited with being a decisive force in the Democratic mayoral primary in 1984, when W. Wilson Goode prevailed over a large field of candidates and went on to become the city's first African American mayor.

Although Black Clergy is not as influential as it once was, candidates for the leading elective offices in the city typically seek its endorsement.

The membership did not officially endorse any candidate in the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary. But at the organization's only candidates' meeting in that race, its then-president, the Rev. James S. Moore, allowed only Rep. Dwight Evans to address the group - a tacit endorsement.

Evans lost the nomination to Michael Nutter, who won election.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.