Thoughts on the Ordination of Women on the Occasion of the Church of England opening the Episcopal Office to them

Recently the Church of England, the mother church of the world wide Anglican Communion, became the latest province to open ordination/consecration to the Episcopate to women.1 This decision was not without deliberation, and it will not be without some consequence from and for those opposed to the ordination of women.

I personally believe that this is something to celebrate, though not without recognition that it is one among a number of issues–theological, cultural, and institutional–that will ensure continued separation and divergence among the various segments of the Body of Christ.

That said, this occasion is one that should inspire us to look at the history of the process that has led twenty-nine provinces of the Communion to ordain women to the presbyterate, many of which have now opened the office of Bishop to women as well.2

This issue is also important as the issue of women’s ordination will be one of the primary focal points of the next Anglican-Orthodox dialogue. During the last round of dialogues, which resulted in the agreed statement Church of the Triune God (a wonderful document, especially as it concerns ecclesiology and the office of Bishop), Orthodox members of the dialogue evidently agreed that the ordination of women was theoretically possible, but indicated they had reservations because of tradition–particularly over the question of whether the condemnation of Montanism appropriately included a condemnation of women’s ordination.

With all this in mind, we should consider the driving forces behind the ordination of women in the Anglican Communion. In talking with opponents of women’s ordination about this–specifically thinking of those within the Episcopal Church–the issues that, more than any others, seem to turn them against the idea is that 1) the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church was initially framed as a rights issue and was political in nature and 2) that it serves as a step down a slippery slope that leads to the acceptance of homosexuality as compatible with Christian morality.

Leaving aside the lengthy discussion of Christian sexual mores for the moment, I will just say that I’ve often pointed out that there are a number of denominations that have ordained women that have not subsequently drifted down a more liberal path. One might consider churches such as the Free Methodists, Cumberland Presbyterians, Assemblies of God (among other Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations that ordain women–and there are several that once did, but no longer do), Church of the Foursquare Gospel etc… The point is, of course, that one may have legitimate reasons for opposing the ordination of women, but considering it within the limited frame work of what is considered liberal or conservative at this moment in the United States–or even in a particular region of the United States–can only be seen as parochial and limited. Instead, it is far more helpful to look at the traditions that have ordained women, why they did so, and when.

The point of looking at the various denominations that were the first to ordain women, is to highlight the fact that the bulk of them were what we would call frontier churches. These were the bodies that grew on the fringes and were involved in dramatic missionary growth. Why is this important? Because we need to recognize that the actual origins of the ordination of women in the Anglican Communion were likewise in the mission field.

I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Lamin Sanneh entitled Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Studies in World Christianity). In it he has a fantastic section on Christianity in China, a portion of which bears on the discussion of women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion. I am going to quote this section at length:

The Role of Women in the Church: New Wind of Change

Meanwhile, the Anglican Church was involved in a project of genuine indigenization quite independent of political events, though it coincided with them. Showing frontier Christianity at one of its critical and creative turning points, the project assumed the form of an initiative for a fundamental reform of the clerical office. Accordingly, a movement was launched, unprecedented in the Anglican Communion, to advance the cause of women’s ordination. It came to a head with the ordination of the first women, Florence Lei [Li Tim Oi], in 1944, which sparked a revolt in the Church of England. It was the kind of smoking gun the standard bearers of the West needed to confirm their worst fears about the hazards of an unsupervised, immature post-Western Christianity. In spite of pleas from China and at home, Rev. Lei was pressured to repudiate her ordination and to resign. She did so [NB: she resigned her license to officiate, but never renounced her orders], she said, for the sake of the greater good of the church. Her supporters, on the other hand, had every reason to wonder if that cause was not already hers.


The resolution tabled at Lambeth was submitted by the Diocesan Synod of Kong Yuet and circulated by it to all the other Diocesan Synods. The document urged the ordination of women on the grounds “that God is using China’s age-long respect for women, and her traditional confidence in women’s gifts for administration and counsel, to open a new chapter in the history of the Church.” The Memorandum noted that the request of the church in China for the ordination of women had local reasons and support but that “the principles and considerations involved are of importance for the whole Anglican Communion.” The implicit challenge of the Memorandum was for the West to accept the consequences that Christianity was a world religion. “A conservative adherence to traditions which are not of the essence of the Gospel may be proclaimed as loyalty to the Faith and yet, in reality, involve a misunderstanding and a denial of its essential meaning,” which in this regard meant extending full equality to women Only then could the church we recognized as true to the gospel.


There was a paramount, unavoidable, and compelling moral obligation for the church to repudiate what was patently unjust and to take the action that alone could restore it to the place God appointed for it. The “Memorial” concluded: “If men and women were considered first and foremost in respect of their COMMON REDEEMED HUMANITY; that is, the things they have, as Christians, in common and not in difference, if they were considered, in short, as human beings, not as sexes, they could come forward freely, and fall naturally into their place in one common diaconate, one common priesthood, even as they do already in one common laity. There is no other way. ‘All are one in Christ Jesus’ means what it says” (p.9). For all their prophetic passion and compelling logic, the Memorandum and the “Memorial” failed to sway the 1948 Lambeth Conference.

Yet those eloquent views show a remarkable ripening of the thought emerging between progressive voices in the West and the church leaders on the missionary frontier, and may be a helpful correction to the standard depiction of post-Western Christianity as a reactionary phenomenon.3

The texts mentioned above, both the Memorandum of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Huiand the Memorial of the working group to the 1948 Lambeth Conference can be found here on Project Canterbury. They make for very interesting reading, especially in light of these events regarding the ordination of women in 2012.

  1. The Church of England first approved the ordination of women in 1992 and ordained their first female priests in 1994 []
  2. Currently six provinces of the Anglican Communion do not ordain women (Central Africa, Melanesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, Tanzania), three provinces ordain women as deacons only (Southern Cone, Congo, Pakistan), ten provinces ordain women as deacons and priests, but not as bishops (Burundi, Indian Ocean, Jerusalem and the Middle East, Kenya, Korea, Rwanda, South India, Wales, West Indies, West Africa) and seventeen have approved–at least in theory–the ordination of women as Bishops as well (Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia; Australia; Canada; United States, Bangladesh, Brazil, Central America, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, North India, Philippines, Scotland, Southern Africa, Sudan, Uganda) []
  3. Disciples of All Nations, p 260-262 []
  • FrJody

    I thought that Adam Waltenbaugh ,Thom Chittom ,and Anna Howard would be interested.  Feel free to share with others who might be interested in this history as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.guyer Benjamin Guyer

    Thanks for this, Fr. Jody. I’ve never been wholly taken by the argument that women’s ordination led inevitably to other forms of left-wing politics, although for many on the left (as on the right) the two are indeed inseparable.

    As for Florence Li, two things cross my mind. First, I wonder if it is worth arguing that although she was the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion, because she was not western part of what Anglicans – both left and right – need to do is to disentangle as (much as possible) women’s ordination from cultural questions that currently occupy the west. In other words, women’s ordination needs to be argued for (or against) with reference only to more universal questions. The left-wing language of rights and equality imports (and perhaps even intentionally masks) a thoroughgoing belief in western universalism. So too the right-wing language of inevitable decline makes sense only within the context of one side of the western culture wars. Can the story of Florence Li serve as an Anglican ressourcement for a theology of women’s ministry that is not captive to western culture, whether in its right-wing or left-wing form?

    The second which crosses my mind is wholly unrelated to this. I wonder, what was the “ecclesiastical memory” of Florence Li in the late 1960s and 1970s, when arguments about women’s ordination were heating up? Did anyone appeal to her at the time, or was her ordination something that people paid attention to only after the fact? From this point of view, before 1976 (at least in the US), Florence Li was an ecclesiastical fluke that no one really cared about – but after the first women were ordained (against canon law), Florence Li became a trailblazing trendsetter and the first woman to be ordained. In other words, she was basically reinvented in the light of a new ecclesiastical and political situation. I’m just thinking out loud here. In looking at Amazon.com, I’m dismayed by the lack of substantive academic work on the history of women’s ordination. I suppose that we are still too in the thick of it to be able to have the greater (if imperfect) clarity of historical distance.