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Ordination of women

Related subjects: Religious disputes

Background Information

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In general religious use, ordination is the process by which a person is consecrated (set apart for the administration of various religious rites). The ordination of women is a controversial issue in religions where either the office of ordination, or the role that an ordained person fulfills, has traditionally been restricted to men because of cultural or theological prohibitions.


In the Old Testament Miriam, Deborah and Huldah are described as a prophetesses. Eve, Esther, Sarah, Ruth, Naomi, Rachel, Rebecca and Abigail are also important figures. In the New Testament there is evidence that women such as Phoebe took important roles in the early church, but the nature of those roles remains disputed. Mary, Martha, Elizabeth, Eunice, Dorcas and Lydia of Thyatira are also mentioned by name. In later centuries women have often been excluded from becoming office-bearers and preachers, although there are notable exceptions such as Catherine of Sienna, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen and Teresa of Avila. This only began to change in the mid-nineteenth century (see Some beginning dates for ordination of women below).

In Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, ordination is distinguished from religious or consecrated life and is the means by which a person is included in one of the priestly orders: bishop, priest, or deacon. In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches ordination to the priesthood is restricted to men only and some Anglican dioceses do not allow women to be ordained.

In Protestant Christian denominations that do not have a priesthood, ordination is understood more generally as the acceptance of one for pastoral work. About half of all American Protestant denominations ordain women and about 30% of all seminary students (and in some seminaries over half) are female.

Orthodox Judaism does not permit women to become rabbis (instead, the women in leadership positions are often Rebbetzin, wives of a rabbi), but female rabbis have begun to appear in recent years among more liberal Jewish movements, especially the Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform, and Humanistic denominations.

Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders. The imam serves as a spiritual leader and religious authority. Most strands of Islam permit women to lead female-only congregations in prayer (one of the meanings of the word imam), but restrict their roles in mixed sex congregations. There is a recent movement to extend women's roles in spiritual leadership.

Within Buddhism, the legitimacy of ordaining women as bhikkhuni (nuns) has become a significant topic of discussion in some areas in recent years. It is widely accepted that the Buddha created an order of bhikkhuni, but the tradition of ordaining women has died out in some Buddhist traditions, such as Theravada Buddhism, while remaining strong in others, such as Chinese Buddhism.


Roman Catholic Church

Doctrinal Position

The official position of the Roman Catholic Church, as expressed in the current canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that: "Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination." Insofar as priestly and episcopal ordination are concerned, the Church teaches that this requirement is a matter of divine law, and thus doctrinal. The requirement that only males can receive ordination to the permanent diaconate has not been promulgated as doctrinal by the Church's magisterium, though it is clearly at least a requirement according to canon law. In asserting this position, the Church cites her own doctrinal tradition, and scriptural texts. In recent years, responding to questions about the matter, the Church has issued a number of documents repeating the same position. In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the question closed in his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stating: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

In 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification, explaining that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, though "itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.... This doctrine belongs to the deposit of the faith of the Church. It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the Church did not arise with the publication of the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." Instead, it was "founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium," and for these reasons it "requires definitive assent."

The Church teaching on the restriction of its ordination to men that masculinity was integral to the personhood of both Jesus and the men he called as apostles. The Roman Catholic Church sees maleness and femaleness as two different ways of expressing common humanity. Contrary to the common phrase " gender roles," which implies that the phenomenon of the sexes is a mere surface phenomenon, an accident, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is an ontological ( essential) difference between humanity expressed as male humanity and humanity expressed as female humanity. While many functions are interchangeable between men and women, some are not, because maleness and femaleness are not interchangeable. Just as water is necessary for a valid baptism, and wheaten bread and grape wine are necessary for a valid Eucharist (not because of their superiority over other materials, but because they are what Jesus used or authorized), only men can be validly ordained, regardless of any issues of equality.

Pope John Paul II, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, explained the Roman Catholic understanding that the priesthood is a special role specially set out by Jesus when he chose twelve men out of his group of male and female followers. John Paul notes that Jesus chose the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13–14; Jn 6:70) after a night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12) and that the Apostles themselves were careful in the choice of their successors. The priesthood is "specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7–8; 28:16–20; Mk 3:13–16; 16:14–15)."

Pope Paul VI, quoted by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, wrote, "[The Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church."

Concerning the "constant practice of the Church," in antiquity the Church Fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all wrote that the ordination of women was impossible. The Synod of Laodicea prohibited ordaining women to the Presbyterate.

Deaconesses and Female Deacons

The ordination of females to the diaconate is a matter of some controversy among Roman Catholic historians and theologians. At issue are two distinct but interrelated questions: whether some deaconesses in the early Church received true sacramental ordination, or whether all were merely so called for functional or honorific purposes; and, whether the prohibition against ordaining women to the diaconate is also a matter of unchangeable divine law, or potentially changeable ecclesiastical law. If some deaconesses did receive true sacramental ordination, then the current prohibition would be ecclesiastical rather than divine law. If not, then it could be either ecclesiastical or divine.

It can be verified that the term deaconesses was employed in antiquity; the word, like "deacon," comes from the Greek word diakonos (διάκονος), meaning "one who serves." Deaconesses mainly assisted the priest in receiving women into the Church for baptism by full immersion (which is still practiced by the Eastern Catholic Churches and by some parishes in the Western or Latin rite as well), and did not perform any of the duties associated with male deacons. In this sense "deaconess" implied a title of honour and respect. Whether or not "deaconess" in some instances implied sacramental ordination is disputed.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1977 that the historical nature of deaconesses was "a question that must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas." The position that deaconesses received true sacramental ordination (in certain times and places) is given by Roger Gryson, and the position that deaconesses never received true sacramental ordination is given by Aimé Georges Martimort. Both Gryson and Martimort argued from the same historical evidence, which is mixed. For example, the ecumenical First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) stated that deaconesses: "do not receive any imposition of hands, so that they are in all respects to be numbered among the laity." However, 126 years later, the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) decreed: "A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination." Martimort argues that the "laying on of hands" in the latter case referred only to a special blessing. Against this, "Gryson argues that the use of the verb cheirotonein and of the substantive cheirothesia clearly indicate that deaconesses were ordained by the laying on of hands."

Until rather recently, the theologians and canonists who addressed the question almost unanimously considered the exclusion of women from ordination, including to the diaconate, as having a divine origin and therefore remaining absolute. Only in recent decades have any theologians or canonists entertained the theory that the prohibition of women from the ordained diaconate was a matter of merely ecclesiastical, rather than divine law. This renewed theological assessment was spurred on by the Second Vatican Council's revival of the permanent diaconate, which lifted the question from a purely theoretical matter to one with immensely practical consequences. Based on the theory that some deaconesses received the sacrament of Holy Orders, and based on the fact that some writers in the Middle Ages exhibited a certain hesitancy concerning the ordination of women stemming from knowledge that there had been deaconesses in antiquity, there have been modern-day proposals to ordain female permanent deacons, who would perform the same functions as male deacons.

Ordination and Equality

The Roman Catholic Church states that the hierarchical structure that includes the ordained ministerial priesthood is ordered to benefit the holiness of the entire body of the faithful, and not to ensure the salvation of the ordained minister. There is no additional benefit in terms of automatic holiness that comes about through ordination. Ordination is not required for salvation, nor does it effect salvation in the one ordained. In other words, a priest can go to Hell just as easily as a layperson. Likewise, sainthood is equally open to men and women, lay or ordained. For example, the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated as the Queen of all Saints. Furthermore, there are female Doctors of the Church.

Pope John Paul II wrote, in Mulieris Dignitatem: "In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time."

In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul wrote: "the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe."

The Roman Catholic Church does not regard the priest as the only possible prayer leader, and prayer may be led by a woman. For example, outside the context of a Mass and in the absence of a priest or deacon, laypersons (both men and women) "are to be entrusted with the care of these [Sunday] celebrations." This includes leading the prayers, ministry of the word, and the giving of holy communion (previously consecrated by a priest). Also during these assemblies, in the absence of an ordained minister, a layperson may request God's blessing on the congregation, provided that the layperson does not use words proper to a priest or deacon, and omits rites that are too readily associated with the Mass.

Women are also able to live the Consecrated Life as a nun or abbess, and throughout the history of the Church it has not been uncommon for an abbess to head a dual monastery, i.e., a community of men and women.

Positions dissenting against the official view

Arguments for the Catholic ordination of women are manifold. One argument is based on equality. Some sacramental theologians have argued that ordaining men but not women creates two classes of baptism, contradicting Saint Paul's statement that all are equal in Christ. This argument does not give credence to the distinction between equal dignity and different services within the Church.

Another argument is based on the theological position that there is a fundamental unity between the different levels (deacon, priest, and bishop) of the sacrament of Holy Orders, as taught by the Second Vatican Council. So, if history shows that the deaconesses known to have existed in the Early Church had actually received the sacrament of ordination, then because of the fundamental unity of Holy Orders, women can also be ordained as priests and bishops. (This same argument is sometimes used in reverse, against the historical possibility that deaconesses received sacramental ordination.)

Whatever argument is used in favour of the priestly ordination of women, there is the problem of reconciling this position with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Based on the clarifications from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the official point of view is that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, without itself being ex cathedra, authoritatively and bindingly teaches that: (1) the Church cannot ordain women as priests due to divine law; and that (2) this doctrine has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. The dissenting view is that, according to section 25 of the Second Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the "ordinary and universal magisterium" is exercised by "the Pope in union with the bishops". In other words, it is an instance of the Pope 'publicising' what he and the other bishops, as the ordinary and universal magisterium' have already consistently taught through the ages.

Since the encyclical Humani Generis, it is well known that the Roman Pontiff can, by his own authority, settle a theological question via a fallible papal teaching that is nonetheless sufficiently authoritative to end all debate on the matter, at least under Church law. This is clearly what has occurred with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in regard to point (1). (Although, in fact, the position taken by Pius XII in Humani Generis was overturned by Vatican II.) Thus, theological debate on whether women can be ordained as priests is no longer seen as permitted for Catholics, and the arguments in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood in this section are termed a "dissenting position." However, several noted dogmatic theologians have questioned how this same debate-ending authority can apply to point (2), which is a matter not of faith or morals, but a factual matter relative to teachings promulgated by all the bishops of the Catholic Church over her two thousand year history. These dogmatic theologians find it especially problematic that, concerning this point, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis gives no indication of what historical facts are sufficient to ensure infallibility by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, nor any indication of how those historical facts were verified. Because of these issues it is argued that, if it were indeed possible for the Church to ordain women to the priesthood, this would not contradict the Church's dogma regarding infallible teachings.

Some supporters of women's ordination have claimed that there have been ordained priests and bishops in antiquity. The official Church position on this is that "a few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers who considered it as unacceptable in the Church." In response to that position, some supporters of women's ordination take the position that those sects weren't heretical, but, rather, orthodox.

Some arguable evidence that not all ordinations in the Catholic tradition have been those of males exists. For example, the Pope Gelasius I apparently condemned the practice of women officiating at altars; inscriptions near Tropea in Calabria refer to "presbytera," which could be interpreted as a woman priest or as a wife of a male priest . Furthermore, a sarcophagus from Dalmatia is inscribed with the date 425 and records that a grave in the Salona burial-ground was bought from presbytera Flavia Vitalia: selling burial plots was at one time a duty of presbyters . There have been some 15 records so far found of women being ordained in antiquity by Christians; while the Vatican insists those are ordinations by heretical groups, the Women's Ordination Conference contends that those were orthodox Christian groups. There is also the church of Santa Praxedis, where Theodora Episcopa — Bishop Theodora, with the word for "bishop" in feminine form — appears in an image with two female saints and Mary. That church's pastor alleges that the church was built in honour of Pope Pascal I's mother by her son, who graced her with the title "Episcopa" due to her being the mother of a Pope. However, Theodora wears a coif in the image, suggesting that she is an unmarried woman.

Setting aside these theological considerations, advocates for the ordination of women have pointed to vocations declining in Europe and North America and have made the utilitarian argument that women must be ordained in order to have enough priests to administer the Sacraments in those areas. Supporting this argument, they made public the story of a Czech woman Ludmila Javorová, who in the 1990s came forward to say that she and four or five other women had been ordained by the late Bishop Felix Maria Davídek in the 1970s, to serve as priests in the underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. Javorová ceased to practice as a priest.

There is at least one organization that calls itself "Roman Catholic" that ordains women at the present time, Roman Catholic Womenpriests [9]even though several independent Catholic jurisidctions have been ordaining women in the United States since approximately the late 1990s. There are several others calling for the Roman Catholic Church to ordain women, such as Circles , Brothers and Sisters in Christ , Catholic Women's Ordination , and Corpus , along with others. While there have been excommunications connected to Roman Catholic Womenpriests, that has not deterred that organization from continuing to ordain women. Official Roman Catholic Church sources claim that the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization has freely decided to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the RC Womenpriests organization sources say they still associate with the Roman Catholic Church and are working to change it.

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox churches follows a similar line of reasoning as the Roman Catholic Church with respect to ordination of priests.

Regarding deaconesses, Professor Evangelos Theodorou argued that female deacons were actually ordained in antiquity . Bishop Kallistos Ware wrote:

The order of deaconesses seems definitely to have been considered an "ordained" ministry during early centuries in at any rate the Christian East. ... Some Orthodox writers regard deaconesses as having been a "lay" ministry. There are strong reasons for rejecting this view. In the Byzantine rite the liturgical office for the laying-on of hands for the deaconess is exactly parallel to that for the deacon; and so on the principle lex orandi, lex credendi — the Church's worshipping practice is a sure indication of its faith — it follows that the deaconesses receives, as does the deacon, a genuine sacramental ordination: not just a χειροθεσια but a χειροτονια.

On October 8, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece voted for a restricted restoration of the female diaconate.

There is a strong monastic tradition, pursued by both men and women in the Orthodox churches, where monks and nuns lead identical spiritual lives. Unlike Roman Catholic religious life, which has myriad traditions, both contemplative and active (see Benedictine monks, Franciscan friars, Jesuits), that of Eastern Orthodoxy has remained exclusively ascetic and monastic.

Anglican Communion

The Anglican hierarchy disagrees with the Roman Catholic hierarchy on whether women can be ordained as priests. The majority of Anglican provinces ordain women as both deacons and priests; however, only a few provinces have consecrated women as bishops (although the number of provinces where women bishops are canonically possible is much greater). U.S. Episcopal churches ordain women as both priests and bishops. The breakdown within the Anglican communion (and United Churches in full communion) as of February 2004 can be seen in the following table:

Bishops (consecrated) Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia; Canada; United States
Bishops (none yet consecrated) Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Central America, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, North India, Philippines, Scotland, Southern Africa, Sudan
Priests Burundi, England, Hong Kong, Kenya, Korea, Rwanda, South India, Uganda, Wales, West Indies, Church of the Province of West Africa,
Deacons Indian Ocean, Southern Cone, Congo, Pakistan
No ordination of women Central Africa, Jerusalem and the Middle East, Melanesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, Tanzania

Some provinces within the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), the Anglican Church of New Zealand, and the Anglican Church of Canada, ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops. Several other provinces (such as the Church of Ireland, and the Scottish Episcopal Church) have removed canonical bars to women bishops — but have not yet consecrated any.

Other provinces ordain women as deacons and priests but not as bishops — this has been the stance of the Church of England for some years. This also remains the position of the Anglican Church of Australia, though the Church's Appellate Tribunal ruled on 28 September 2007 that there is nothing in the Church’s Constitution that would prevent the consecration of a woman priest as a diocesan bishop in a diocese which by ordinance has adopted the Law of the Church of England Clarification Canon 1992, which paved the way for the ordination of women as priests. Some provinces ordain women to the diaconate only. Other provinces, including several African churches, ordain only men.

The first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion was Florence Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained on 25 January 1944 by the bishop of Hong Kong. It was thirty years before the practice became widespread.

In 1974, eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by three retired ECUSA bishops. Four more women were ordained in 1975 in Washington D.C. These ordinations were ruled "irregular" because they had been done without the authorization of ECUSA's General Convention. Two years later, General Convention authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. The first woman bishop in the Communion was Barbara Clementine Harris, who was ordained bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in February 1989. Penelope Jamieson of the Anglican Church in New Zealand was ordained Bishop of Dunedin a few months later as the first female diocesan bishop. The first female primate (or senior bishop of a national church) is Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA at its 2006 General Convention, and began her nine year term as Presiding Bishop and Primate on November 1, 2006. By late 2007 the Episcopal church had elected 14 women to serve as bishops.

The Church of England authorized the ordination of woman priests in 1992 and began ordaining them in 1994. This was the premise of the television programme The Vicar of Dibley. The nearly simultaneous publication by the Vatican of the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which argued that truth was immutable however unpalatable, was a coincidence which was not lost on many traditionalist Anglicans, who converted to Catholicism. These converts included women, such as Ann Widdecombe MP. On 11 July 2005 the General Synod of the Church of England, in York, voted to "set in train" the process of removing the legal obstacles preventing women from becoming bishops; debate on formal legislation was scheduled for February 2006 the process is currently underway but is not progressing swiftly due to problems in providing appropriate mechanisms for the protection of those who cannot accept this development — it is unlikely that there will be women-bishops in the Church of England for several years.

Ordination of women has been a controversial issue throughout the Communion. The Continuing Anglican Movement was started in 1977 after women began to be ordained in ECUSA. However, by 2007, twenty-three of the thirty eight provinces of the Anglican Communion ordained women as priests, and eleven of those had removed all bars to women serving as bishops.

Within provinces which permit the ordination of women, there are some dioceses which do not, or which ordain women only to the diaconate (such as the Diocese of Sydney in the Anglican Church of Australia, and the dioceses of Quincy, Illinois, the diocese of San Joaquin in California, and Fort Worth, Texas, in the USA). The Church of England has instituted " flying bishops" to cater to parishes who do not wish to be under the supervision of bishops who have participated in the ordination of women.

Protestant churches

A key theological doctrine for most Protestants is the priesthood of all believers. The notion of a priesthood reserved to a select few is seen as an Old Testament concept, inappropriate for Christians. Prayer belongs equally to all believing women and men.

However, most (although not all) Protestant denominations still ordain church leaders, who have the task of equipping all believers in their Christian service (Ephesians 4:11–13). These leaders (variously styled elders, pastors or ministers) are seen to have a distinct role in teaching, pastoral leadership and the administration of sacraments. Traditionally these roles were male preserves, but over the last century, an increasing number of denominations have begun ordaining women.

The debate over women's eligibility for such offices normally centers around interpretation of certain Biblical passages relating to teaching and leadership roles. This is because Protestant churches usually view the Bible as the primary authority in church debates, even over established traditions (the doctrine of sola scriptura). Thus the Church is free to change her stance, if the change is deemed in accordance with the Bible. The main passages in this debate include Galatians 3.28, 1st Corinthians 11.2–16, 14.34–35 and 1st Timothy 2.11–14. Increasingly, supporters of women in ministry also make appeals to evidence from the New Testament that is taken to suggest that women did exercise ministries in the apostolic Church (e.g., Acts 21:9,18:18; Romans 16:3–4,16:1–2, Romans 16:7; 1st Corinthians 16:19, and Philippians 4:2–3).

Examples of specific churches' ordination practices

  • The Baptist Churches' in Germany and Switzerland (Bund Evangelisch-Freikirchlicher Gemeinden, Bund Schweizer Baptistengemeinden) ordain women.
  • The Southern Baptist Convention does not support the ordination of women; however, some churches that are members of the SBC have ordained women.
  • Baptist groups in the United States that do ordain women include American Baptist Churches USA, North American Baptist Conference, Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and Progressive National Baptist Convention.
  • The Christian Community. Women have been ordained since its inception in 1922 in Switzerland, and can also hold leadership positions.
  • Christian Connection Church. An early relative of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, this body ordained women as early as 1810. Among them were Nancy Gove Cram, who worked as a missionary with the Oneida Indians by 1812, and Abigail Roberts (a lay preacher and missionary), who helped establish many churches in New Jersey. Others included Ann Rexford, Sarah Hedges and Sally Thompson.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although Mormon women are not directly given the Priesthood, they indirectly play a role in their husbands' priesthood, and there are recorded acts of women doing priesthood ordiances in the absence of men in LDS Church history. Men must be married in order to serve as a bishop, and their wives play a crucial role in their calling. Women can hold any position in the church that does not require the priesthood.
  • The Church of Scotland
  • Women were commissioned as deacons from 1935, and allowed to preach from 1949.
  • In 1963 Mary Levison petitioned the General Assembly for ordination.
  • Woman elders were introduced in 1966 and women ministers in 1968.
  • The first female Moderator of the General Assembly was Dr Alison Elliot in 2004.
  • The Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In 1888 Louisa Woosley was licensed to preach. She was ordained in 1889. She wrote Shall Woman Preach.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The church bodies that formed the ELCA in 1988 began ordaining women in 1970 when the Lutheran Church in America ordained the Rev Elizabeth Platz. The ordination of women is now non-controversial within the ELCA.
  • The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), which is the second largest Lutheran body in the United States, does not ordain women.
  • The Lutheran Evangelical Protestant Church (GCEPC) has ordained women since its inception in the year 2000. Ordination of women is not a controversial issue in the LEPC/GCEPC. Women are ordained/consecrated at all levels including deacon,priest, and bishop in the LEPC/GCEPC.
  • The Independent Old Catholic Church of America (IOCCA), ordains women.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia reversed its earlier (1975) decision to ordain women as pastors. Since 1993, under the leadership of Archbishop Janis Vanags, it no longer does so.
  • The Lutheran, United and Reformed Churches in Germany ( EKD) ordain women and have women as bishops.
  • The Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany does not ordain women.
  • The Lutheran state Churches in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland ordain women and these Lutheran churches in Europe have women as bishops already. However, while the Church of Sweden was the first Lutheran church to ordain female pastors in 1958, there is still considerable debate in this church as to the legitimacy of the ordination of women into the pastoral office. In fact, in 2003 the Missionsprovinsen (Mission Province) was formed within the Church of Sweden to support those who oppose the ordination of women and other developments seen as theologically problematic.
  • The Moravian Church
  • Many Old Catholic Churches within the Utrecht Union in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Netherlands ordain women, but two churches have left the union because they do not do so. Other Old Catholic Churches do not ordain women, but accept this in other Old Catholic Churches of the Union. These are not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church which does not ordain women (see above).
  • The Pentecostal church in Germany allows ordination of women.
  • The Presbyterian Church (USA). In 1893, Edith Livingston Peake was appointed Presbyterian Evangelist by First United Presbyterian of San Francisco. Between 1907 and 1920 five more women became ministers. The Presbyterian Church (USA) began ordaining women as elders in 1930, and as ministers of Word and sacrament in 1956. By 2001, the numbers of men and women holding office were almost equal.
  • The Presbyterian Church in America does not ordain women. In 1997, the PCA even broke its fraternal relationship with The Christian Reformed Church over this issue.
  • The Orthodox Presbyterian Churches do not ordain women.
  • The Reformed Churches in Switzerland and in the Netherlands ordain women.
  • The Salvation Army ordains women.
  • The Charismatic Church of God ordains women as Missionaries, Evangelists, and Pastors.
  • The United Church of Canada. Divided during the 1930s by this issue inherited from the churches it brought together, the United Church ordained its first woman minister, Lydia Gruchy, in 1936.
  • The United Church of Christ. Antoinette Brown was ordained as a minister by a Congregationalist Church in 1853, though this was not recognized by her denomination. She later became a Unitarian. Women's ordination is now non-controversial in the United Church of Christ.
  • The United Methodist Church does ordain women. In 1880, Anna Howard Shaw was ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church; Ella Niswonger was ordained in 1889 by the United Brethren Church. Both denominations later merged into the United Methodist Church. In 1956, the Methodist Church in America granted ordination and full clergy rights to women. Since that time, women have been ordained full elders (pastors) in the denomination, and 21 have been elevated to the episcopacy. The first woman elected and consecrated Bishop within the United Methodist Church (and, indeed, the first woman elected bishop of any mainline Christian church) was Marjorie Matthews in 1980. Leontine T. Kelly, in 1984, was the first African-American woman elevated to the episcopacy in any mainline denomination. In Germany Rosemarie Wenner is since 2005 leading bishop in the United Methodist Church.
  • The United Reformed Church in Great Britain ordains women.
  • The Unitarian Universalist Association. The Unitarian Universalist Association has a long history of welcoming women to the ministry, reaching back to 1963 and its predecessor, the Universalist Church. In 1999, it became the first major religion in the US with women outnumbering men in the clergy.
  • The Universalist Church. Olympia Brown became the first woman to be ordained as a minister in 1863, as an ordained Universalist minister.
  • The Seventh-day Adventist Church officially does not ordain women. Recent votes at the worldwide General Conference Sessions turned down a proposal to allow ordination of women. There was a strong polarization between nations, with Western countries generally voting in support and other countries generally voting against. A further proposal to allow local choice was also turned down. In practice, there are numerous women working as ministers and in leadership positions. The most influential co-founder of the church, Ellen G. White, was a woman.

Women as bishops

Some Protestant and Anglican churches have allowed women to become bishops:

  • 1980: United Methodist Church
  • 1989: Anglican Church of New Zealand
  • 1989: Episcopal Church in the U.S.
  • 1992: Maria Jepsen Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany
  • 1996: Lutheran Church in Sweden
  • 1997: Anglican Church of Canada
  • 1998: Moravian Church in America
  • 1998: Presbyterian Church in Guatemala
  • 1999: Czechoslovak Hussite Church
  • 2000: African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • 2003: Nancy K. Drew The Lutheran Evangelical Protestant Church (GCEPC)USA
  • Unknown: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark
  • Unknown: Protestant Churches in German Lutheran, Reformed and United churches (EKD)
  • Unknown: Protestant Church of the Netherlands
  • Unknown:Lutheran State Church in Norway
  • Unknown:Lutheran State Church in Denmark


Jewish tradition and law does not presume that women have more or less of an aptitude or moral standing required of rabbis. However, it has been the longstanding practice that only men become rabbis. This practice continues to this day within the Orthodox and Hasidic communities but has been revised within non-Orthodox organizations. Reform Judaism created its first woman rabbi in 1972, Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974, and Conservative Judaism in 1985, and women in these movements are now routinely granted semicha on an equal basis with men.

The issue of allowing women to become rabbis is not under active debate within the Orthodox community, though there is widespread agreement that women may often be consulted on matters of Jewish religious law. There are reports that a small number of Orthodox yeshivas have unofficially granted semicha to women, but the prevailing consensus among Orthodox leaders (as well as a small number of Conservative Jewish communities) is that it is not appropriate for women to become rabbis.

The idea that women could eventually be ordained as rabbis sparks widespread opposition among the Orthodox rabbinate. Norman Lamm, one of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, totally opposes giving semicha to women. "It shakes the boundaries of tradition, and I would never allow it." (Helmreich, 1997) Writing in an article in the Jewish Observer, Moshe Y'chiail Friedman states that Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from being given semicha and serving as rabbis. He holds that the trend towards this goal is driven by sociology, and not halakha.

Some beginning dates for ordination of women

A partial list with the approximate dates of either the approval of female ordination in principle or the ordination of their first women clergy by Christian and Jewish faith groups appears below:

  • Early 1800s: A fundamental belief of the [Society of Friends-] (Quakers) has always been the existence of an element of God's spirit in every human soul. Thus all persons are considered to have inherent and equal worth, independent of their gender. This led naturally to an opposition to sexism, and an acceptance of female ministers. In 1660, Margaret Fell (1614–1702) published a famous pamphlet to justify equal roles for men and women in the denomination. It was titled: "Women's Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ's Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father (John 20:17). In the U.S., in contrast with almost every other organized religion, the Society of Friends (Quakers) has allowed women to serve as ministers since the early 1800s.
  • 1853: Antoinette Brown was ordained by the Congregationalist Church. However, her ordination was not recognized by the denomination. She quit the church and later became a Unitarian. The Congregationalists later merged with others to create the United Church of Christ.
  • 1861: Mary A. Will was the first woman ordained in the Wesleyan Methodist Connection by the Illinois Conference. The Wesleyan Methodist Connection eventually became The Wesleyan Church.
  • 1863: Olympia Brown was ordained by the Universalist denomination in 1863, in spite of a last-moment case of cold feet by her seminary which feared adverse publicity. After a decade and a half of service as a full-time minister, she became a part-time minister in order to devote more time to the fight for women's rights and universal suffrage. In 1961, the Universalists and Unitarians joined to form the [Unitarian Universalist Association-] (UUA). The UUA became the first large denomination to have a majority of female ministers. In 1999, female ministers outnumbered their male counterpart 431 to 422.
  • 1865: Salvation Army is founded and has always ordained both men and women. However, there were initially rules that prohibited a woman from marrying a man who had a lower rank.
  • 1880: Anna Howard Shaw was the first woman ordained in the Methodist Protestant Church, which later merged with other denominations to form the United Methodist Church.
  • 1888: Fidelia Gillette may have been the first ordained woman in Canada. She served the Universalist congregation in Bloomfield, Ontario, during 1888 and 1889. She was presumably ordained in 1888 or earlier.
  • 1889: The Nolin Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church ordained Louisa Woosley.
  • 1889: Ella Niswonger was the first woman ordained in the United Brethren church, which later merged with other denominations to form the United Methodist Church.
  • 1892: Anna Hanscombe is believed to be the first woman ordained by the parent bodies which formed the Church of the Nazarene in 1919.
  • 1909: The Church of God (Cleveland TN) began ordaining women in 1909.
  • 1911: Ann Allebach was the first Mennonite woman to be ordained. This occurred at the First Mennonite Church of Philadelphia.
  • 1914: Assemblies of God was founded and ordained its first woman clergy
  • 1917: The Congregationalist Church (England and Wales) ordained their first woman. Its successor is the United Reformed Church. They now consider it sufficient grounds for refusing ministry training if a potential candidate is not in favour of the ordination of women.
  • 1920's: Some Baptist denominations.
  • 1920's: United Reformed Church in the UK
  • 1922: The Jewish Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis stated that "Woman cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination."
  • 1922: The Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren granted women the right to be licensed into the ministry, but not to be ordained with the same status as men.
  • 1930: A predecessor church of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ordained its first female as an elder
  • 1935: Regina Jonas was ordained privately by a German rabbi.
  • 1936: United Church of Canada.
  • 1942 or 1943?: Anglican communion, Hong Kong. Florence Li Tim Oi was ordained on an emergency basis.
  • 1947: Czechoslovak Hussite Church
  • 1948: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark
  • 1949: Old Catholic Church (in the U.S.)
  • 1956: A predecessor church of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ordained its first woman minister.
  • 1956: Maud K. Jensen was the first woman to receive full clergy rights and conference membership in the Methodist Church.
  • 1958: Women ministers in the Church of the Brethren were given full ordination with the same status as men.
  • 1960: Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sweden
  • 1967: Presbyterian Church in Canada
  • 1971: Anglican communion, Hong Kong. Joyce Bennett and Jane Hwang were the first regularly ordained priests.
  • 1972: Reform Judaism
  • 1972: Swedenborgian Church
  • 1972: Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a theological seminary. She was ordained in the Reform tradition.
  • 1970's: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • 1974: Methodist Church in the UK
  • 1974: Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first woman rabbi to be ordained within the Jewish Reconstructionist movement.
  • 1976: Episcopal Church (11 women were ordained in Philadelphia before church laws were changed to permit ordination)
  • 1976: Anglican Church in Canada ordained six female priests.
  • 1976: The Rev. Pamela McGee was the first female ordained to the Lutheran ministry in Canada.
  • 1977: Anglican Church of New Zealand ordained five female priests.
  • 1979: The Reformed Church in America. Women had been admitted to the offices of deacon and elder in 1972.
  • 1983: An Anglican woman was ordained in Kenya
  • 1983: Three Anglican women were ordained in Uganda.
  • 1984: The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints authorized the ordination of women. This is the second largest Mormon denomination; it is now called The Community of Christ.
  • 1985: According to the New York Times for 1985-FEB-14: "After years of debate, the worldwide governing body of Conservative Judaism has decided to admit women as rabbis. The group, the Rabbinical Assembly, plans to announce its decision at a news the Jewish Theological Seminary..." Amy Eilberg became the first female rabbi.
  • 1985: The first women deacons were ordained by the Scottish Episcopal Church.
  • 1988: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland
  • 1988: Episcopal Church chooses Barbara Harris as first female bishop.
  • 1990: Anglican women are ordained in Ireland.
  • 1992: Church of England
  • 1992: Anglican Church of South Africa
  • 1994: The first women priests were ordained by the Scottish Episcopal Church.
  • 1995: Seventh-day Adventists. Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, MD ordained three women in violation of the denomination's rules.
  • 1995: The Christian Reformed Church voted to allow women ministers, elders, and evangelists. In 1998-NOV, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) suspended the CRC's membership because of this decision.
  • 1998: General Assembly of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican Church in Japan)
  • 1998: Guatemalan Presbyterian Synod
  • 1998: Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands
  • 1998: Some Orthodox Jewish congregations started to employ female "congregational interns." Although these 'interns' do not lead worship services, they perform some tasks usually reserved for rabbis, such as preaching, teaching, and consulting on Jewish legal matters.
  • 1999: Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (ordination as either clergy or elders)
  • 2000: The Baptist Union of Scotland voted to allow their churches to either allow or prohibit the ordination of women.
  • 2000: The Mombasa diocese of the Anglican Church of Kenya.
  • 2000: The Church of Pakistan ordained its first women deacons. It is a united church which dates back to the 1970 local merger of Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestants.
  • 2005 The Lutheran Evangelical Protestant Church,(LEPC)(GCEPC) in the USA elects Nancy Kinard Drew first female Presiding Bishop.
  • 2006: The Episcopal Church elects Katharine Jefferts Schori first woman Presiding Bishop, or Primate.


From introduction to article Women as imams. See entire article, and Women in Islam, for more detail.

Although Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders, the imam serves as a spiritual leader and religious authority. There is a current controversy among Muslims on the circumstances in which women may act as imams — that is, lead a congregation in salat (prayer). Three of the four Sunni schools, as well as many Shia, agree that a woman may lead a congregation consisting of women alone in prayer, although the Maliki school does not allow this. According to all currently existing traditional schools of Islam, a woman cannot lead a mixed gender congregation in salat (prayer). Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih (optional Ramadan prayers) or for a congregation consisting only of close relatives. Certain medieval scholars — including Al-Tabari (838–932), Abu Thawr (764–854), Al-Muzani (791–878), and Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) — considered the practice permissible at least for optional ( nafila) prayers; however, their views are not accepted by any major surviving group.

Some Muslims in recent years have reactivated the debate, arguing that the spirit of the Qur'an and the letter of a disputed hadith indicate that women should be able to lead mixed congregations as well as single-sex ones, and that the prohibition of this developed as a result of sexism in the medieval environment, not as a part of true Islam.


The ordination of women is currently and historically practiced in some Buddhist regions, such East Asia and Taiwan, and not in others, such as India and Sri Lanka.

The tradition of the ordained monastic community ( sangha) began with Buddha, who established orders of Bhikkhu (monks) and later, after an initial reluctance, of Bhikkuni (nuns). The stories, sayings and deeds of some of the distinguished Bhikkhuni of early Buddhism are recorded in many places in the Pali Canon, most notably in the Therigatha. However, not only did the Buddha lay down more rules of discipline for the bhikkhuni (311 compared to the bhikkhu's 227), he also made it more difficult for them to be ordained.

The tradition flourished for centuries throughout South and East Asia, but appears to have died out in the Theravada traditions of India and Sri Lanka in the 11th century C.E. However, the Mahayana tradition, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, has retained the practice, where nuns are called 'Bhikṣuṇī' (the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali 'Bhikkhuni'). Nuns are also found in Korea and Vietnam.

There have been some attempts in recent years to revive the tradition of women in the sangha within Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, with many women ordained in Sri Lanka since the late 1990s. The International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages, taking place in Germany, on July 18–20, 2007, is a turning point in reviving the Bhikkhuni lineage.


In 1928, the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, responding to the attempted ordination of two women, issued an edict that monks must not ordain women. The two women were reportedly arrested and jailed briefly. In a more recent challenge to the Thai sangha's ban on women, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, previously a professor of Buddhist philosophy known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was controversially ordained as a nun in Sri Lanka in 2003. Despite some support inside the religious hierarchy, the sangha remains fiercely opposed to the ordination of women.

Tibetan Tradition

The 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha, with the support of H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama, is expected to reinstate the Gelongma (skt. Bikshuni, tib. Gelongma) lineage, having been lost, in India and Tibet, for centuries. It is currently only possible for women to take Rabjungma ('entering') and Getshülma ('novice') ordinations in Tibetan tradition. Gelongma ordination requires the presence of ten fully ordained people keeping the exact same vows (men's and women's vows differ slightly). Because 10 Gelongmas are required in order to ordain a new Gelongma, the effort to reinstate the Gelongma tradition has taken a long time.

It is permissible for a Tibetan nun to receive Bikshuni ordination from another living tradition, e.g., in Vietnam. Based on this, Western nuns ordained in Tibetan tradition, like Venerable Thubten Chodron, took full ordination in another tradition, in order to revive 'Gelongma' ordination. The same socio-cultural reasons that make it difficult for women to be nuns will still present challenges to the first Tibetan Gelongmas.


Tenrikyo was founded by a woman.


While the priesthood was traditionally male in Shinto, ordination of women as Shinto priests has arisen after the abolition of State Shinto in the aftermath of WWII.

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