Ordination of Women

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Ordination of Women

Ordination is the process by which persons are invested with the function or office of minister, priest, or rabbi. It varies according to religion but is the way each tradition designates those who will function on behalf of the community in its rituals and public life.

The long history of patriarchal sexism led to the discriminatory custom in most traditions of allowing only men to be considered for ordination. As U.S. society became increasingly aware of gender discrimination and as women entered many other professions, pressure mounted in the mid-twentieth century in virtually all religious groups to change their policies. Struggles that led to these changes have given a new, increasingly female face to the U.S. religious scene.

A pioneer in this effort was Jarena Lee in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Although she was never ordained, her request for a preaching license in 1809, while denied, opened the question for public discussion. In 1894 Julia A. Foote was ordained deacon in the AME Zion Church in Poughkeepsie, New York; this was the first black denomination to so designate a woman.

The first white Christian woman to be ordained was Antoinette L. Brown, in 1853 by a Congregationalist church. Universalists ordained Olympia Brown and Augusta Chapin in 1863, and Unitarians followed with Celia Burleigh and Mary Graves in 1871. By the end of the nineteenth century the Northern Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and other Christian churches all ordained women. The various Methodist groups compromised on the question in 1939, gave full status to women in "traveling ministry" in 1956, and finally granted women full ecclesial standing in 1968 in the consolidated United Methodist Church. Holiness and Pentecostal churches ordained many women ministers, especially circuit riders.

Major steps forward for so-called mainline denominations came in the 1960s, when social forces, including the civil rights, women's, and antiwar movements, prompted large-scale cultural rethinking. Religious groups that once had seen themselves as exceptions to the rule found that egalitarian expectations were upon them. In 1964 Southern Baptists ordained Addie Davis. In that same year, the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (South), followed the Presbyterian Church (North), which had ordained women in 1955. By 1970 both the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America had ordained their first women priests.

A dramatic development took place on July 29, 1974, when eleven women were ordained by three bishops in the Episcopal Church. This act of ecclesial disobedience was significant because it meant that women had broken through the "stained-glass ceiling" in a denomination that, like Roman Catholicism, had claimed that women's priesthood was theologically impossible and symbolically wrong. Other Protestant churches had coped with the social and psychological barriers to women's full acceptance, but this time it was the theological barrier that had been overcome. The ordination of the eleven was considered "irregular" but valid. After several years of debate the Episcopal Church agreed to the ordination of women in 1976, and the ordinations of those first priests were "regularized" on January 1, 1977.

The episcopacy was next, with the ordination of Methodist minister Marjorie Matthews as the first mainline Protestant bishop in 1980. Barbara C. Harris was ordained the first Anglican bishop in the world in 1989, when she became suffragan (assistant) bishop of the Episcopal Church, a scant dozen years after the first women in that denomination were ordained in the United States. (Chinese Anglican deacon Li Tim-Oi was ordained a priest in Hong Kong in 1944.)

Among Jewish women, the ordination question was equally problematic. Women were prohibited from becoming rabbis for similarly sexist reasons, most of which fell away over time. Women entered seminaries and engaged in pastoral practice while minds changed. In all traditions feminist scholarship countered oppressive arguments and made theological sense.

The first woman rabbi ordained in the United States was Sally Priesand, by the Reform movement in 1972. The Reconstructionist movement ordained Sandy Eisenberg (Sasso) in 1974, and the Conservative movement ordained Amy Eilberg in 1985. Orthodox Jews still do not ordain women. A growing number of women are now serving in a wide variety of ministries in Jewish communities.

The Roman Catholic movement for women's ordination took hold in the United States in the 1970s, sparked by the Episcopalian women's success. The first meeting of the Women's Ordination Conference was held in Detroit in 1975. But the Vatican's 1976 Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood left little doubt about the vehemence of the opposition. Church officials argued that the priesthood is not a right that can be given, but something that participates in "the economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church." The Vatican claimed the teaching unchangeable and the question closed.

Thousands of U.S. Catholic women engage in ministry, including, in some settings, sacramental ministry. In a 1994 papal pronouncement, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the argument was reiterated; this was followed in 1995 by a Responsum clarifying that the teaching against women priests, while not infallible, requires religious obedience. Despite these statements, it is widely assumed that the ordination of Catholic women will happen in the new century. The severe shortage of male celibate priests, the plethora of women ready and willing to be ordained, and the example of so many other religious groups make it likely.

Ordination of lesbian women is part of the larger struggle for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in their respective religions. This remains contentious in many circles, despite the fact that many homosexual persons are already ordained, albeit often hiding their sexuality.

Ordination is not necessary for women to function religiously. For example, the awarding of diplomas to women cantors, a role previously filled only by men, is revolutionary. The presence of hundreds of Catholic women in previously all-male seminaries is new. Some argue that ordination only co-opts women into the very structures that have previously oppressed them. The ordination of women, and the resistance to it, have proved to be important barometers both of how religious traditions treat their women and of how they interact with social forces beyond their gates.

See alsoCivil Rights Movement; Clergy; Feminist Theology; Gender Roles; Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement

Ministry; Ordination; Priesthood; Rabbinate; Seminaries.


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Chaves, Mark. Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict inReligious Organizations. 1997.

Nadell, Pamela S. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889 –1985. 1998.

Townes, Emilie M. "Black Women." In In Our OwnVoices: Four Centuries of American Women's ReligiousWriting, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller. 1995.

Wessinger, Catherine, ed. Religious Institutions andWomen's Leadership: New Roles Inside the Mainstream. 1996.

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Mary E. Hunt