Vote for Ordination

The debate over allowing women to take Holy Orders began in 1855, with the establishment of deaconesses in the Episcopal Church. Between 1855 and 1970, nearly 500 women were set apart as deaconesses, charged to minister to “the sick, the afflicted and the poor,” but excluded from performing the priestly liturgical acts. Deaconesses were also denied another clerical privilege, enrollment in the Church Pension Fund, on the specious grounds that they were not clergy. In 1970, the same year that the House of Deputies admitted female deputies, the Deaconess Canon was abolished and all deaconesses were automatically made full deacons.

Though the ordination of women came to the ballot in the General Conventions of 1970 and 1973, the measure was defeated both times. At the General Convention in Minneapolis in 1976, following the irregular ordination of the “Philadelphia Eleven” in July of 1974, the validity of women in Holy Orders was again introduced, this time as a canonical amendment barring discrimination on the grounds of gender – meaning that if it passed, women could be ordained beginning in 1977.

The resolution to change the canon passed the House of Bishops on Sept. 15th, 1976, and on Sept. 16th, a tightly-packed and anxious crowd awaited the tally of the House of Deputies’ vote by orders. The vote passed both the clerical and lay orders, and the first woman was regularly ordained a priest on January 1, 1977.

Eleven women kneel at the altar of the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, during their ordination to the priesthood on July 29, 1974.