Support for Women Priests Is Gathering Steam in the Anglican Communion

Episcopal News Service. December 3, 1992 [92241]

In the wake of recent decisions by Anglicans in England, Australia and Southern Africa to ordain women, more than half of provinces in the Anglican Communion have approved the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Despite the important gains on the part of women in the Anglican Communion during the past couple of decades, a close scrutiny of statistics reveals a picture of incremental progress rather than a swift revolution. Even in Anglican provinces in which women may be ordained to the priesthood, there are pockets of resistance -- sometimes entire dioceses -- that oppose the development.

Nevertheless, support for the ordination of women to the priesthood appears to be slowly gathering steam throughout the Anglican Communion. Many observers believe that the decision by the Church of England may significantly nudge other provinces throughout the world.

The Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church officially approved the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1976. In the years since the decision, women have made steady -- albeit slow -- progress in joining the church's clergy roster. Statistics compiled from annual parochial reports and the Church Deployment Office indicate that women comprise approximately 12 percent of clergy (including priests and deacons) in the Episcopal Church. However, women comprise only about six percent of rectors in the church.

Despite the progress throughout much of the church, there is still not unanimous support for women priests within every diocese, and some dioceses still do not recognize women priests at all.

Eight out of the 99 domestic jurisdictions (including the 98 dioceses and the Navajoland Area Mission) have not ordained women to the priesthood. Four of those eight dioceses (Eau Claire, Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin) will ordain women to the diaconate but not to the priesthood, and one of the eight, Fond du Lac, will not ordain women to the diaconate or the priesthood.

Three dioceses in the Episcopal Church (Georgia, Springfield and Albany) have not yet ordained women to the priesthood, but are willing to do so: they either have women in the ordination process or will license women priests from other dioceses. The Diocese of Georgia, for example, has four women in the ordination process.

The Diocese of Springfield reports that no women are currently in the process, although one woman has expressed interest. Bishop Peter Beckwith has said that "ordained ministry will no longer be gender-specific in this diocese."

The Diocese of Albany currently does not accept women into the ordination process. However, the bishop has licensed three women priests to serve in the diocese.

Two of the Anglican Communion's three women bishops have been consecrated in Episcopal Church dioceses. Suffragan Bishop Barbara Harris in the Diocese of Massachusetts was consecrated on February 11, 1989, and Suffragan Bishop Jane Dixon in the Diocese of Washington (DC) was consecrated on November 19, 1992. Bishop Penelope Jamieson of the Diocese of Dunedin in the Church of the Province of New Zealand is the only diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion.

Seminaries indicate bright future for women

Yet, despite the comparatively small number of women serving as rectors throughout the Episcopal Church, current seminary enrollment suggests a particularly bright future for supporters of women in the ministry.

According to the Board for Theological Education, nearly half (311 of 683) of the students currently enrolled in master of divinity programs in the 11 Episcopal seminaries are women. However, that figure does not distinguish between women seeking the priesthood and women seeking to serve as permanent deacons. Nor does the figure include the number of Episcopal women who are enrolled in seminaries not affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

Worldwide picture shows increasing support

According to statistics provided by the office of the Anglican Consultative Council in London, 15 of the 30 provinces of the Anglican Communion have approved legislation recognizing the ordination of women as priests.

Provinces that have ordained women as priests include Canada, Uganda, Ireland, New Zealand, the United States, Australia, Kenya, the Philippines, West Africa, Southern Africa, Burundi and Brazil.

Three provinces have approved legislation allowing women to be ordained priests but haven't yet ordained any women to the priesthood, including Rwanda, the Sudan and England.

In addition, the Diocese of Hong Kong/Macao has ordained women as deacons and priests without authorization from the Province of East Asia.

The provinces of Japan, Scotland, Wales and the West Indies are considering legislation to allow women priests within the next two or three years.

However, much like the situation in the Episcopal Church, individual dioceses within several provinces have said that they will not recognize women priests despite canonical legislation. In Australia, the bishop of Sydney -- the church's largest diocese -- has said that he will not ordain women priests, nor allow them to serve in his diocese.

The Church of England is still trying to assess the implications of its recent vote to ordain women to the priesthood. Prior to the vote, nearly 1,000 priests and several bishops threatened to leave the church if the measure passed. The legislation will allow individual bishops to refuse ordaining women and critics of the measure said that it institutionalized schism in the church by setting up "no go" areas for women priests. Although some traditionalists have advocated joining the Roman Catholic Church, several bishops are hopeful that the church can adopt a plan for alternative episcopal oversight and hold the church together.