Today in women’s history: Church of England ordains women priests

On March 12, 1994, the Church of England for the first time ordained 32 women at Bristol Cathedral. As the women were ordained in alphabetical order, Angela Berners-Wilson is considered the first woman to be ordained in England.

Ordination of women marked a momentous passage out of the exclusive male domination of the church, although other denominations within Christianity and in other faith traditions had already begun the process of opening up to women. In part this movement was a response to the growing worldwide feminist movement, and also to the increasing secularization of the population in advanced industrial nations. Church attendance in England is presently at an all-time low. Many churches have all but closed down for lack of interest and support.

About 700 male clergy members and unknown thousands of parishioners indicated they would leave the Church of England and join the Roman Catholic Church over this issue. The Catholic Church responded to the ordination by saying that it “constitutes a profound obstacle to every hope of reunion between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.” Other critical issues would also have had to be resolved for that to happen, of course, including recognition of the Pope as head of a reunited Church.

Some provinces within the Anglican Communion ordain women to the three traditional holy orders of bishop, priest and deacon. Other provinces ordain women as deacons and priests but not as bishops; others still as deacons only; and seven provinces do not approve the ordination of women to any order of ministry.

This day’s ordinations were not the first in the global Anglican Communion. In early 1994 about 1300 women priests were ordained in Anglican or Episcopal churches outside of Great Britain. But there are still earlier forerunners:

Technically, the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion was Florence Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained on January 25, 1944 by the bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong, in response to the crisis among Anglican Christians in China caused by the Japanese invasion. To avoid controversy, she resigned her license, though not her priestly orders, after the end of the war.

In 1971, the Synod of Hong Kong and Macao became the first Anglican province to officially permit the ordination of women to the priesthood. Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett were ordained as priests and at the same time, Li Tim-Oi was officially recognized again as a priest.

In 1974, in the United States, 11 women (known as the “Philadelphia Eleven”) were controversially ordained to the priesthood by three retired Episcopal Church bishops. Four more women (the “Washington Four”) were ordained in 1975 in Washington, D.C. All of these ordinations were ruled “irregular” because they had been done without the authorization of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. The ordinations were regularized in 1976 following the approval by the General Convention of measures to provide for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. The first regular ordination occurred on January 1, 1977, when the Rev Jacqueline Means was ordained in Indianapolis.

The first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion was Barbara Harris, who was ordained suffragan bishop (a bishop under the authority of another bishop or archbishop) of Massachusetts in February 1989. Approximately 20 women have since been elected to the episcopate across the church. The election in December 2009 and consecration on May 15, 2010 of the Right Reverend (Rt Rev) Mary Douglas Glasspool, who is openly gay and lives with her partner of 20 years, as a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles attracted worldwide attention owing to the continued controversy over gay bishops in Anglicanism.

The Episcopal Church in the United States has also elected the first woman primate (or senior bishop of a national church), the Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was elected as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church at the 2006 General Convention. She began her nine-year term on November 3, 2006. In 2014 she announced that she would not seek a further term when her appointment ends in 2015.

In addition to the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, there are six extra-provincial Anglican churches which function semi-autonomously and are largely self-determining when it comes to the ordained ministry. Several have provided for the ordination of women as priests for some years.

To date, the Episcopal Church of Cuba is the only extra-provincial church to ordain women as bishops, the first of whom was the Rt Rev Nerva Cot Aguilera, who was appointed as a bishop suffragan in 2007. Bishop Aguilera was appointed by the Metropolitan Council, the ecclesiastical authority for the Episcopal Church of Cuba. In January 2010 the church appointed the Rt Rev Griselda Delgato del Carpio as bishop coadjutor (assistant bishop with the right of succession). Along with Bishop Aguilera, del Carpio was one of the first two women priests ordained in Cuba in 1986. She was ordained to the episcopate on February 7, 2010, and installed as diocesan on November 28, 2010, following the retirement of the Rt Rev Miguel Tamayo-Zaldívar.

The appointment of women as religious leaders carries far deeper implications than the democratization of the church alone: It has far-reaching theological impact. Believers are open to seeing the role of women in the Bible and throughout history in a fresh light. The expanding participation of women forms an integral part of liberation theology. Women in positions of leadership in the faith community have contributed profoundly to the breakdown of patriarchal rule in the family and generally in society. Male chauvinist ideas that once seemed essential to the turning of the Earth are now seen as factors in human history that we are now able to supersede, even going so far as to challenge the notion of God the Father. Needless to say, however, progress does not always move in a straight forward line.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, Wikipedia

Photo: Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected in 2006 as the first female Presiding Bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church and also the first female primate in the Anglican Communion.  |  Wikipedia (CC)


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