ecumenical dictionary

September 2003: "ORDINATION OF WOMEN". Author: MARY TANNER


SOME WOULD argue that the move towards the ordination of women to a ministry of word and sacrament began within the pages of the New Testament. Jesus’ treatment of women was revolutionary in the cultural context of his day, and he entrusted to women the news of his resurrection. Women held prominent positions in the early Christian communities and throughout the history of the church have exercised a recognized (though not ordained) ministry as confessors, teachers, theologians and abbesses.

Nevertheless, the 12 apostles were men, the ordered threefold ministry (of bishop, presbyter and deacon) from its emergence early in the 2nd century was male and, for 19 centuries, the ministry of word and sacrament has been exercised only by men. At the Reformation it was a characteristic of the radical movements, especially the Anabaptists, to accept women as ministers.

The movement to ordain women to a full ministry of word and sacrament began in the 19th century in the context of the changing role of women in Western industrializing countries. Women were moving out of the home to work in factories, education and social work. In the church, recognized but not ordained ministries developed. Roman Catholic religious orders for women burgeoned; women were accepted and sent as missionaries; in fast-growing European industrial towns women exercised a ministry as social workers, Salvation Army sisters, Anglican Church Army sisters, Wesleyan class leaders. The order of deaconess, revived among the Moravian Brethren in the 18th century, was instituted in 1836 in Kaiserswerth in Germany in Reformed and Lutheran traditions and spread to Protestant churches all over Europe and eventually to churches around the world.

Those churches which at the time of the Reformation had moved away from the threefold pattern were the first to ordain women. The absence of a “catholic” view of the priesthood* of the ministry had its effect. Moreover, since many of these churches emphasized the local or regional church, this development could take place without the formal agreement of a worldwide communion. For example, the Methodists in the US ordained women in 1956, in England in 1974; among Reformed churches, the Congregationalists of England and Wales ordained women in 1917, the Congregational Union of Scotland in 1929 and the Eglise réformée in France in 1965. By 1960 Lutheran churches in Germany, Scandinavia (except Finland) and the US had all ordained women. The ordination of women in the Church of Sweden in 1960 marked a significant development in a church which had maintained the historic episcopal succession and which had an agreement of intercommunion, based on the recognition of ministries, with the Church of England, a church which claimed to retain the ministry of the universal church at the Reformation.

A 1970 survey carried out by the WCC found Baptist, Congregational, Disciples, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed and United churches which ordained women. But many of the churches that ordain women had not taken this move in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Clearly the status and role of women in society in the different continents affect the practice of the ordination of women.

Since 1970 the number of women ordained in churches that ordain women has increased, and the practice has spread in the developing countries. Although no church has reversed its decision to ordain women, there is often resistance to the ministry of women, and positions of responsibility are slow in opening up.

In 1971 Hong Kong became the first of a number of Anglican provinces to ordain women (having already, as an emergency, ordained a woman during the second world war, an ordination subsequently set aside); the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, Kenya and Uganda followed, and by 1997 a large number of the 37 provinces ordained women to the presbyterate. The Church of England ordained its first women as priests in 1993 and by 1997 almost 2000 of its 11,000 priests were women. The Church of England continues to recognize the position of those who are opposed to women priests. By act of synod it has consecrated three bishops who are themselves opposed to the ordination of women and who minister to congregations who remain opposed. This act is the consequence of the Church of England’s understanding that the matter of women’s ordination to the ministry of the universal church remains a matter of discernment and open reception in the whole church. At the Lambeth conference in 1978 the provinces agreed to remain in communion with one another in spite of different beliefs and practices. However, the fact that the priestly ministry of women lawfully ordained in some provinces is not recognized in others means that there is in fact no longer full interchangeability of ministries, and thus not full communion, within the Anglican communion.

By 2000 the Old Catholic churches in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland had ordained women to the priesthood, while other Old Catholic churches are opposed. The situation is to be reviewed by the international conference of bishops to decide whether and how communion may be maintained with a difference of belief and practice on the matter.

The position in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches remains unchanged, although an unofficial movement favouring the ordination of women in the RCC has appeared, particularly in the Netherlands, the USA and England. The official Roman Catholic position is stated in Inter Insigniores, a 1976 declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The RCC is not free, it is said, to change the unbroken tradition of the universal church on this matter. In his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of May 1994, Pope John Paul II declared he had no authority to change the church’s tradition of ordaining only men to the priesthood. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a response in November 1995 stating that the teaching of the pope’s letter is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith and is to be held definitively.

The Orthodox churches remain opposed. In 1989 they held a consultation in Rhodes to set out their reasons for maintaining the unbroken tradition of the church. Thus the two largest and oldest churches continue to uphold the tradition of an all-male priesthood.

The movement to ordain women to the full ministry of word and sacrament, especially among the churches springing from the Reformation, has coincided with the movement towards the visible unity of the church. The one has clearly had an effect on the other, for the visible unity of the church involves the recognition not only of all its baptized members as members of a single community of faith but also of those who are called to be ministers of the one communion. As long ago as 1916 the Anglican William Temple expressed a view which many committed ecumenists have shared: “I would like to see women ordained;... desirable as it would be in itself, the effect might be (probably would be) to put back the re-union of Christendom - and re-union is more important.”

The conflict between the movement to ordain women and the move towards the unity of the church is illustrated by the experiences of uniting churches. The existence of women ministers in the United Church of Canada was one of the reasons that Anglicans did not enter union with that church in 1956. In the Anglican-Methodist scheme for unity in England in the 1960s, the Methodists delayed ordaining women in order that the two churches might consider the matter together. Only after the failure of the scheme did Methodists proceed to ordain women. In the subsequent covenanting proposals involving United Reformed, Methodist, Moravian and Anglican churches, the ordination of women was once more an issue. Since 1997, discussions between the Methodist Church and the Church of England have once more drawn attention to the difficulty of moving to visible unity when only one partner has women exercising a ministry of oversight and the legislation of the other church excludes the possibility.

When women were admitted to the full ministry in the Church of Sweden, it was argued that this step would gravely damage relations of intercommunion with the Church of England. In 1931 the Old Catholics and Anglicans entered into the Bonn agreement, one of “full communion”. The move of some Anglican provinces to ordain women met with grave concern among Old Catholics, and ultimately the Polish National Catholic Church terminated the agreement. At the consultation of united and uniting churches in 1987, the situation was summed up in this way: “For some churches the ordination of women adds to the hindrances to unity; but the united churches are clear that further union for them is being made a more open possibility by the willingness of those to share that ordination of women which they have found to be a creative element in their common life.”

The theological issues involved in the ordination of women have been clarified and developed particularly in the context of ecumenical conversation. The concern was already voiced at the first world conference on Faith and Order (Lausanne 1927) and has been a recurring theme in WCC assemblies, in the work of F&O and in WCC departments responsible for women’s concerns. The Council has proved both the most creative but also the most divisive forum in which to face the issue. The churches in the catholic tradition, particularly the Orthodox churches, have felt forced to face a question which was not on their own agenda and which challenged unacceptably their belief that the holy Tradition is clear and unchangeable.

The 1982 Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry does not treat the ordination of women in the main part of the ministry text but considers the issue in a commentary (to M18), which gives a short description of the positions of those churches which ordain women and those which do not. There is no convergence between the churches on the matter. Behind those short sentences lies a long history of debate and clarification of the issues, not least through the insights of the study on “The Community of Women and Men in the Church”, which in 1980 produced a book entitled Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective.

The contribution of the WCC has been to help the churches to set the discussion within the context of an emerging convergence on the understanding of ministry and priesthood and perhaps, even more important, within the concept of the unity we seek. The studies on the unity of the church and the renewal of human community have enlarged and enriched the perspective of this unity. Some have come to maintain that the churches’ ministry must include women in order to show to the world the depths of unity in human community and to make the values of the gospel and the vision of the kingdom credible in a broken and divided world. The unity of the church ought not to be set over against the unity of the human community. In the context of the WCC the challenge has also gone to the churches that “openness to each other holds the possibility that the Spirit may well speak to one church through the insights of another. Ecumenical considerations, therefore, should encourage, not restrain, the facing of this question.” The WCC provides the right context for deepening the understanding of the exegetical, doctrinal and pastoral questions which arise in relation to the ordination or non-ordination of women to the priesthood. The discussion continued within the work of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. It is increasingly recognized that all the different opinions and practices need to be acknowledged and no church marginalized in the ongoing debate.

Bilateral conversations, particularly those between churches with differing practices, have had to face the issue squarely. The matter has figured prominently in the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. Just as growth in communion and reconciliation of ministries seemed possible on the basis of the agreed statement on ministry, some Anglican provinces proceeded to ordain women, which led the pope to caution about this “grave new obstacle” to the movement towards unity. In an official correspondence between the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, some of the central arguments for and against the ordination of women were set out.

They include the question of the representative nature of priesthood and whether women may appropriately represent God in Christ, particularly in the presidency of the eucharist. The argument relates to the fundamental significance of the maleness of Jesus in the incarnation and the relation of maleness to the nature of God. It is bound up with the argument, used also by some in fundamentalist and evangelical traditions, for the headship of men and for the “proper subordination of women to men in the order of creation, which also precludes women’s ordination”. A third argument concerns how decisions are taken on a matter relating to the ministry of the universal church when there is division in the church. Some believe only a truly ecumenical council would have power to resolve the issue. The agenda revealed in ecumenical dialogue touches matters at the centre of faith regarding what is believed about the ministry, the church, men and women created in God’s image and, most crucial of all, the nature and being of God. Churches committed to unity are forced to face how they may move into deeper communion while remaining divided on the issue.

Until recently, developments have mainly concerned the ordination of women to the presbyterate. The first woman bishop, Marjorie Matthews of the United Methodist Church, USA, was greeted at the 1983 Vancouver assembly of the WCC. More recently, in England for example, women have assumed oversight roles in the Methodist and the United Reformed churches, both non-episcopal churches. By 1997 there were women bishops in Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and Germany.

The Lambeth conference in 1988 resolved that, should a woman be consecrated bishop in a province of the Anglican communion, every attempt would be made to maintain “the highest degree of communion” possible, despite lack of agreement on the issue of women bishops. The development would be tested in an open process of reception in the Anglican communion and the universal church. A commission was set up to monitor developments in the Anglican communion. In 1989 Barbara Harris was consecrated bishop in the USA and became suffragan bishop in the diocese of Massachusetts. In 1990 Penelope Jamieson was consecrated bishop of Dunedin, New Zealand, the first woman to become a diocesan bishop in the Anglican communion. With these two consecrations women became fully a part of the threefold ministry in the Anglican communion. In the 1998 Lambeth conference 11 women bishops took part for the first time, although not all provinces recognize the episcopal ministry of women. The Church of England recognizes neither women as bishops nor the ministry of those (men or women) ordained by a woman bishop. No male bishop refused to attend the conference, and the bishops passed a resolution affirming an ongoing process of discernment and open reception within the Anglican communion and the universal church. According to the Roman Catholic Church this development makes reconciliation of ministries between Anglicans and Roman Catholics more difficult.


E. Behr-Sigel & K. Ware, The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church, WCC, 2000 ¦ M. Hayter, The New Eve in Christ: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Debate about Women in the Church, London, SPCK, 1987 ¦ C. Parvey, “Stir in the Ecumenical Movement: The Ordination of Women”, in The Force of Tradition: A Case Study of Women Priests in Sweden, B. Stendahl ed., Philadelphia, Fortress, 1985 ¦ C. Parvey ed., Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective, WCC, 1980 ¦ F.W. Schmidt, A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church, New York, Syracuse, 1996 ¦ B.B. Zikmund, A.T. Lummis & P.M.Y. Chang, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, Louisville KY, Westminster John Knox, 1998.

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