Ordination of women

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There are a variety of positions on the ordination of women among different religions, sects and denominations within each religion.

Within Christianity, 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.

Christians generally do not use the term "ordination" to refer to the process of entering consecrated life, becoming a either a monk or a nun, although (like priests) monks or nuns must train at a seminary, be approved by the church hierarchy, dedicate her life's work to the church and adopt a role of spiritual authority. There is a tradition of nuns within Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and even among some Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists.

Within Buddhism, the legitimacy of ordaining women as bhikkhuni (nuns) has become a significant topic of discussion in recent years. It is widely accepted that Buddha created an order of bhikkuni, but the tradition has died out in some buddhist regions such as India and Sri Lanka, while remaining strong in East Asia, particularly Taiwan.

Orthodox Judaism does not permit women to become Rabbis, but female Rabbis have begun to appear in recent years among more liberal Jewish movements.



Roman Catholic Church

The ordination of women is much discussed in the Roman Catholic Church today, as vocations to the priesthood decline and with them access to the sacraments, most immediately the Eucharist. The official teaching of the Church is presented first, followed by the arguments for ordaining Catholic women and a few facts about the movement for change.

The Church teaching on the ordination of only men holds that maleness was integral to the personhood of both Jesus and the men he called as apostles. The Roman Catholic Church sees maleness and femaleness as two different ways of expressing common humanity. The common 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 (essential) difference between humanity expressed as male humanity and humanity expressed as female humanity. While 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:

The official 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).

While Pope Benedict XVI has not written on the subject since beginning his pontificate, he did so as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (see above) and joins his predecessor's opposition to the ordination of women. He is thus 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, "[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.

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." (Declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi, hancque sententiam ab omnibus Ecclesiae fidelibus esse definitive tenendam. The word facultatem is more accurately translated as power or ability.)

The document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was not issued under the extraordinary papal magisterium and hence is not considered infallible in itself. There is, however, a case for its contents to be infallible under the ordinary magisterium, as this doctrine has been held consistently by the Church.

Arguments for the ordination of women are manifold, but are based mainly on demanding equality. Some sacramental theologians have argued that ordaining men only creates two classes of baptism, contradicting Saint Paul's statement that all are equal in Christ. This argument doesn't accept the distinction between equal dignity and different services within the Church.

In 1976 the Pontifical Biblical Commission dismissed biblical arguments against the ordination of women, but its arguments were not accepted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued Inter Insigniores.

Some supporters of women's ordination have claimed that there have been ordained priests and bishops in antiquity, based on only scant evidence [1]. What can be verified is that the Church had deaconesses in the past; the word, like "deacon", comes from the Greek word diakonos (διακονος), meaning "one who serves". The First Council of Nicea stated in 315 that deaconesses did not receive the sacrament of ordination and were to be considered as part of the laity (Canon 19).

Setting aside these theological considerations, advocates of the ordination of women have pointed to vocations declining in Europe and North America and have made the utilitarian argument that women must be ordained in order to have enough priests to administer the Sacraments in those areas. Supporting this argument, they made public the story of a Czech woman Ludmila Javorova, who in the 1990s came forward to say that she and four or five other women had been ordained by Bishop Felix Maria Davídek in the 1970s, to serve as priests in the underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. Bishop Davidek had died in 1988, and Bishop Jan Blaha declared that such ordinations could not have been valid. Javorova ceased to practice as a priest. [2][3] [4]

The movement for the ordination of Catholic women includes clergy, religious, and laity, and extends throughout Europe, Asia, and North and South America. In October 2005, to coincide with a Vatican Synod on the Eucharist, a large group of Australian priests released a public call for the ordination of women and married men.

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox churches follow the same line of reasoning as the Roman Catholic Church with respect to ordination of priests and deacons. Some Orthodox Churches are prepared to accept the ordination of women as deacons. There is a strong monastic tradition of both men and women in the Orthodox churches, where monks and nuns lead identical spiritual lives.

Anglican Communion

Some provinces within the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), the Anglican Church of New Zealand, and the Anglican Church of Canada, ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops. Several other provinces (such as the Church of Ireland and the Scottish Episcopal Church) have removed canonical bars to women bishops—but have not yet consecrated any.

Other provinces ordain women as deacons and priests but not as bishops—this was the stance of the Church of England for many years and remains that of the Anglican Church of Australia. Some provinces ordain women to the diaconate only. Other provinces, including several African churches, ordain only men.

The first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion was Florence Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained on 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 first woman to head a diocese was Penny Jamieson of the diocese of Dunedin in the Anglican Church of New Zealand.

The Church of England authorised the ordination of woman priests in 1992 and began ordaining them in 1994. This was the premise of the television programme The Vicar of Dibley. On 11 July 2005 the General Synod of the Church of England, in York, voted to "set in train" the process of removing the legal obstacles preventing women from becoming bishops; debate on formal legislation was scheduled for February 2006 but the first ordinations were not expected for several years after that.

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.

Within provinces which permit the ordination of women, there are some dioceses, such as the Diocese of Sydney in Australia and Diocese of Quincy, Illinois in the USA, which do not.

Other communions

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 other communions' 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 promoted to the episcopacy.

Women were commisioned 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 main article: Ordination of women in the Church of Scotland.

Divided during the 1930s by this issue inherited from the churches it brought together, the United Church ordained its first woman minister, Lydia Gruchy, in 1936. [5]

The church bodies that formed the ELCA in 1988 began ordaining women in 1970 when the Lutheran Church in America ordained the Rev Elizabeth Platz. The ordination of women is now non-controversial within the ELCA. However, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, the next largest Lutheran body in the United States does not ordain women.


See also Role of women in Judaism

Jewish tradition and law does not presume that women have more or less of an aptitude or moral standing required of rabbis. However, it has been the longstanding practice that only men become rabbis. This practice continues to this day within the Orthodox community but has been revised within non-Orthodox organizations. Reform Judaism created its first woman rabbi in 1972, Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974, and Conservative Judaism in 1985, and women in these movements are now routinely granted semicha on an equal basis with men.

The issue of allowing women to become rabbis is not under active debate within the Orthodox community, though there is widespread agreement that women may often be consulted on matters of Jewish religious law. There are reports that a small number of Orthodox yeshivas have unofficially granted semicha to women, but the prevailing consensus among Orthodox leaders (as well as a small number of Conservative Jewish communities) is that it is not appropriate for women to become rabbis.

The idea that women could eventually be ordained as rabbis sparks widespread opposition among the Orthodox rabbinate. Norman Lamm, one of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, totally opposes giving semicha to women. "It shakes the boundaries of tradition, and I would never allow it." (Helmreich, 1997) Writing in an article in the Jewish Observer, Moshe Y'chiail Friedman states that Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from being given semicha and serving as rabbis. He holds that the trend towards this goal is driven by sociology, and not halakha.


From introduction to article Women as imams. See entire article, and Women in Islam, for more detail.

Although Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders, the imam serves as a spiritual leader and religious authority. There is a current controversy among Muslims on the circumstances in which women may act as imams — that is, lead a congregation in salat (prayer). Three of the four Sunni schools, as well as many Shia, agree that a woman may lead a congregation consisting of women alone in prayer, although the Maliki school does not allow this. According to all currently existing traditional schools of Islam, a woman cannot lead a mixed gender congregation in salat (prayer). Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih (optional Ramadan prayers) or for a congregation consisting only of close relatives. Certain medieval scholars — including Al-Tabari (838–932), Abu Thawr (764–854), Al-Muzani (791–878), and Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) — considered the practice permissible at least for optional (nafila) prayers; however, their views are not accepted by any major surviving group.

Some Muslims in recent years have reactivated the debate, arguing that the spirit of the Qur'an and the letter of a disputed hadith indicate that women should be able to lead mixed congregations as well as single-sex ones, and that the prohibition of this developed as a result of sexism in the medieval environment, not as a part of true Islam.


This ordination of women is currently and historically practised in some Buddhist regions and not in others.

The tradition of the ordained monastic community (sangha) began with Buddha, who established orders of Bhikkhu (monks) and later, after an initial reluctance, of Bhikkuni (nuns). The stories, sayings and deeds of some of the distinguished Bhikkhuni of early Buddhism are recorded in many places in the Pali Canon, most notably in the Therigatha. However, not only did the Buddha lay down more rules of discipline for the bhikkhuni (311 compared to the bhikkhu's 227), he also made it more difficult for them to be ordained.

The tradition flourished for centuries throughout South and East Asia, but appears to have died out in the Theravada traditions of India and Sri Lanka in the 11th century C.E. However, the Mahayana tradition, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, has retained the practice, where nuns are called 'Bhiksuni' (the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali 'Bhikkhuni'). Nuns are also found in Korea and Vietnam.

There have been some attempts in recent years to revive the tradition of women in the sangha within Therevada buddhism in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, with many women ordained in Sri Lanka since the late 1990s.


See also Buddhism in Thailand

In 1928, the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, responding to the attempted ordination of two women, issued an edict that monks must not ordain women. The two women were reportedly arrested and jailed briefly. In a more recent challenge to the Thai sangha's ban on women, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, previously a professor of Buddhist philosophy known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was controversially ordained as a nun in Sri Lanka in 2003. Despite some support from inside the religious heirarchy, the sangha remains fiercely opposed to the ordination of women.

See also

External links


Evangelical -- For

Evangelical -- Against

Presbyterian churches -- For

Presbyterian churches -- Against

Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic -- For

  • Womenpriests.org Website advocating the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic -- Against

  • Forward in Faith - Anglo-Catholic Anglicans in Opposition to Women in the Priesthood


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