Ordination of women

From Academic Kids

Within Christianity, a variety of different responses are, and have historically been, taken over the issue of the ordination of women.

In the first place, the various denominations have different understandings of the nature of ordination - and thus see different issues as being significant in the debate. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and others are discussing the nature of priesthood, while other denominations reject the notion of a specifically ordained priesthood altogether.

Further, although all Christians look to the Bible for guidance, denominations take differing views of the importance of the historical traditions of the Church in such matters.


Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church sees maleness and femaleness as being two different ways of expressing common humanity. The commonly heard phrase "gender roles" implies that the phenomenon of the sexes is a mere surface phenomenon, an accident. However, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is an ontological (deep) difference between humanity expressed as male humanity and humanity expressed as female humanity. Whilst many functions are interchangeable between men and women, some are not, because maleness and femaleness are not interchangeable.

Relevant Church documents on the subject include:

  • "Declaration Inter Insigniores on the question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood." Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, October 15, 1976.
  • Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Ordination to the Priesthood)." Pope John Paul II, May 22, 1994.
  • "Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignnitatem (On the Dignity of Women)." Pope John Paul II, August 15, 1988.
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic view is that the priest is not only a prayer-leader. Prayer-leaders may be women (a woman can and often does lead at a public recitation of the Rosary, for example).

Pope Benedict XVI, while he has not written formally on the subject, joins his predecessor's opposition to the ordination of women and is extremely unlikely to reopen the subject during his Papacy.

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 a dozen 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 "She (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."

However, the Roman Catholic Church states that 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. 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.

As to why Jesus himself chose only men for the priestly ministry, the Church does not know. 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."

John Paul II concluded his Apostolic Letter by saying: "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."

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox churches follow the same line of reasoning as the Roman Catholic Church with respect to ordination of priests. Some Orthodox Churches are prepared to accept the ordination of women as Deacons.

Anglican Communion

Some provinces within the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) and the Anglican Church of Canada, ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops. Other provinces, such as the Church of England, ordain women as deacons and priests but not as bishops. Other provinces, such as many of the churches in Africa, ordain only men.

The first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion was Florence Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained 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. These ordinations were ruled "irregular" because they had been done without the authorisation of ECUSA's General Convention. Two years later, General Convention authorised 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 1989.

The Church of England authorised the ordination of woman priests in 1992. This was the premise of the TV series The Vicar of Dibley.

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.

Other Protestant denominations

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, ministers etc) 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 centres 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 11.13-35, 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 Protestant practices

In 1956, the Methodist Church in America (today The United Methodist Church) granted full clergy rights to women. Since that time, women have been ordained full elders (pastors) in the denomination, and several have been consecrated to the episcopacy.

Woman were ordained 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 Eliot in 2004.

See also

External links


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