Feminism in the Anglican Communion
from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism – Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 129-149.
Allira Publications, 17 Cervantes Street, MacGregor, Queensland 4109, Australia.
Copyright: Mavis Rose 1996.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
The Church of England became a separate denomination when it broke away from Roman Catholicism in the sixteenth century. Its expansion into territories outside England paralleled British colonial and missionary endeavour. As the colonial branches of the Church of England multiplied, there evolved a new global dimension to the English church. The term “Anglican Communion” came into use in 1851 at the zenith of the British Empire, indicating an increasing pan-Anglican consciousness.
Following a controversy within South African Anglicanism in the nineteenth century, provincial heads in the Anglican Communion decided that they should meet together from time to time to formulate policies. The first Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops was held in 1867. According to Canon Roger Lloyd of Winchester Cathedral, writing in 1948 on the “Mission of the Church of England”, “the Lambeth Conference is perhaps the best illustration of the Anglican instinct for equality and abhorrence of the demagogy which so quickly destroys equality in the name of equality”. This remark was a delusion as far as Anglican churchwomen were concerned since in 1948 women’s “instinct for equality” was regarded as against Anglican tradition and the Lambeth Conference deprived Li Tim-oi, the first Anglican woman priest, of her priesthood. Exclusion from priesthood barred entry to the episcopacy, thus denying women direct participation in Lambeth Conferences.
There was no attempt to invest in the See of Canterbury any central authority resembling that of the Vatican. As Bishop McCall of Wangaratta explained at the 1968 Lambeth Conference, “our whole position as Anglicans has surely always been that we are members of the Christian Church in communion with the See of Canterbury – a historical accident” and that “in Australia we are quite aware that the Archbishop of Canterbury has no jurisdiction … but because he occupies the See that he does, he remains the focal point of the Anglican Communion”.
The inauguration of Lambeth Conferences coincided with the first wave feminist surge of Anglican women into pastoral and missionary outreach in the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly then, the ministry of women was an urgent matter for discussion in early Lambeth Conferences and has remained a recurring theme on their agendas. Although the interpretation and adoption of Lambeth resolutions have varied from province to province, it is worth studying the feminist initiatives within the Anglican Communion to discover how they have impinged on and influenced Australian Anglican women.
As noted in previous chapters, English Anglican feminists had a period of intense activism from the mid-nineteenth century up until the nineteen twenties, noticeably more so than their Australian sisters. Maude Royden, as observed earlier, in 1915 declared that “there was nothing in the priesthood any more than in church councils that would in the future justify the exclusion of women”. When the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1916 established a National Mission of Repentance and Hope on which Maude Royden served, she put forward a proposal, which the Mission Council endorsed unanimously, that the Council “urge upon the Bishops the importance of giving definite directions as to the best ways of using the services and receiving the message of women speakers, whether in Church or elsewhere”. The Bishops of London and Chelmsford allowed “Women Messengers” to speak at meetings of women and girls in church, but refused to allow them to speak from pulpit, lectern, or chancel steps. Even these minor concessions were seen as a threat to church order, Maude Royden being accused of engaging in “a conspiracy to capture the priesthood step by step”. As a result of unease among churchmen, permission for women to preach was withdrawn.
In June 1928 Maude Royden visited Australia. In an article in Brisbane’s The Church Chronicle, it was admitted that, by her oratory and writings, “she has influenced many, even in this far away country”. The article did not mention directly that she had been one of the first Anglican women to speak out publicly on the ordination of women to priesthood, describing her rather as “a faithful daughter of the Church” who “struggled steadily and with conviction for the open door to the Ministry as a vocation for women”, “a brilliant preacher” who had “filled many a Church long empty under ordinary ministrations”. In spite of her oratorial brilliance, there was no offer from Brisbane Diocese for her to enter its pulpits. Maude Royden’s main preaching venue was the Exhibition Hall , with an invitation for clergy to meet and hear her at the Y.M.C.A..
In comparison with the coolness of Maude Royden’s reception in Brisbane, which was attributed to “the Roman Catholic influence there”, the Australian response was otherwise regarded as “overwhelming”, like a “film star”. In Melbourne, crowds of people “showered flowers” upon her and in Adelaide she became the first woman ever to preach in Adelaide Cathedral. While Anglican churchmen were interested in her famed eloquence and ability to speak on a wide range of topics, the liberal attitudes in regard to women which she both epitomised and promoted were not implemented in Australian Anglicanism.
As already noted, it was against a background of energetic English Anglican feminist protest that the 1920 Lambeth Conference deliberated. In January 1918 , in line with its focus on gaining full equity for women, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage transformed itself into the League for the Church Militant in which Maude Royden played a leading role. The League for the Church Militant gave top priority to equality of opportunity for the sexes in the Anglican Church ministry, becoming one of the most radical feminist groups in Anglicanism. There was no hestitation in putting delicate subjects such as male attitudes to female sexuality before the bishops. Dr. Letitia Fairfield, an Anglican medical practitioner, prepared a paper for the 1920 Lambeth Conference which stated bluntly that the reason that women were excluded from the altar and pulpit was superstition about menstruation making women ritually unclean. She pressed for an acknowledgement from the bishops that “ceremonial uncleanliness is no Christian doctrine”.
The Lambeth Conference appointed a Committee to “Consider and Report upon the Position of Women in the Councils and Ministrations of the Church”, to which three Australian bishops were appointed – Archbishop Wright of Sydney, Bishop Cranswick of Gippsland and Bishop Druitt of Grafton. The Committee’s report, while pointing out that St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 wrote “Let the women keep silence in the assemblies”, drew attention to the local situation in Corinth where “the Greeks coined a word ‘to corinthianize’”, meaning thereby “to play the harlot”, coming to the conclusion that “St. Paul’s teaching was conditioned by the existing circumstances of the world around him”, intended to prevent any stigma of “whore” falling on outspoken Christian women.
In spite of its acknowledgement that St. Paul’s words were most probably influenced by the socio-cultural environment in which he was writing, the conclusion reached by the Committee was ambiguous, trying to reflect two viewpoints, one liberal and the other narrow and conservative :
Our firm conviction is that the precise form which St. Paul’s disciplinary directions took was relative to the time and to the place which he actually had in mind, but that these directions embody an abiding principle. To transfer with slavish literalness the Apostle’s injunctions to our own time and to all parts of our own world would be to renounce alike our inalienable responsibility of judgement and the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. On the other hand it is our duty to endeavour clearly to discern the abiding law which underlay St. Paul’s stringent temporary and local rules….Human nature, being what it is, the Christian Church …must exercise unsleeping vigilance that in its regulations for worship in the congregation there lurk no occasion for evil or even for suspicion of evil; no occasion for confusion or strife; nothing which falls below the purest and strictest ideal of peace and seemliness and order.
The passage indicated an attempt on the part of some of the bishops to reinforce a universal law of female subservience. Men could engage in bitter strife within and outside the church but women must not stir the waters. The phrases “human nature being what it is” and “suspicion of evil” again revealed how deep-seated was clergy association of female sexuality with unholiness. There was also the latent fear of female hegemony. As the Dean (later Bishop) of Durham, Hensley Henson, remarked: “You admit women to councils and what security is there that in due course those councils will not contain an overwhelming majority of women?”. Dean Henson’s fears mirrored those of Sydney’s church leaders.
Sexual “hang-ups” about women were also evident in the Committee Report on “The Church and Industrial Problems.” “Reasons for caution” in regard to women’s issues invariably related to women’s sexuality. The Industrial Problems Committee’s findings incorporated basic assumptions about the intrinsic seductiveness of woman’s nature and man’s inability to resist it, exacerbated by a post-war climate of liberality:
Women have the power of moving men. By effective speech on religious truths and experiences, strong emotions are called into play. On strong emotions possible perils wait. And, especially in a generation which seems sometimes even contemptuously and recklessly to brush aside what a very few years ago were regarded as wise and indeed necessary restraints, the Church must be above suspicion….Again, there is a deep wisdom in the words of the New Testament which say of a faithful Christian woman “she shall be saved through her child-bearing”.
Once again the Anglican bishops were stressing that motherhood was the Church’s preference for women and their only road to salvation. Unmarried feminists like Maude Royden created difficulties for churchmen, especially when they were powerfully eloquent. According to the Bishop of Exeter, “the religious instinct and the sexual instinct are too close to be allowed to come into close contact”. It was an acknowledgement that religion per se could be sexually exciting for churchmen so women must not be too religiously interactive with churchmen in case they aroused male “sexual instinct”.
Nevertheless, the Church of England had to address the reality of having in its workforce a significant supply of single women. There was acknowledgement at the 1920 Lambeth Conference that “the Church has failed to treat women workers with generosity or even with justice”, although they had carried out “some of the very best work of the Church…with singular patience and conscientiousness”. The Conference admitted that a new era for women had arrived which called for fresh approaches towards their position in Church and society, acknowledging that “the education of women has advanced in a way which would have seemed incredible to our fathers”:
Women sit in legislative and municipal assemblies; they speak at public meetings on all manner of questions, social, economic, political; and that with a grasp of their subject of which the women of a former generation would have been incapable.
This statement confirmed that churchmen were aware that higher education could make women less accepting of submission. It explained why churchmen used the pulpit to deter women from going on to higher education.
The Lambeth bishops were reluctant to open up senior lay offices to women, putting forward flimsy logic to back their case, such as: “We are conscious that there is a danger lest Churchmen should shirk their responsibilities and leave too heavy a share in the counsels of the Church to Churchwomen” . Nevertheless, reason prevailed and the final decision, contained in Resolution 46 of the Lambeth Conference, was, as previously noted, that “women should be admitted to those Councils of the Church to which laymen are admitted”.
As also observed, of the three Australian bishops on the “Position of Women in the Councils and Ministrations of the Church Committee”, only Bishop Cranswick of Gippsland made any attempt to raise the status of women in his diocese. The forces of cultural and sociological conditioning in Australia were too strong for Resolution 46 to make an impact.
In his Synod Address in 1925, Archbishop Sharp of Brisbane expressed concern at the shortage of candidates for ministry, which could entail lowering “the intellectual standard in the matter of the admission of men to Holy Orders”. Similarly, the Bishop of Bathurst a year later called for men to enter the ministry, declaring that “Australia needs such men supremely, for the biggest work for the nation is being done by those who are quickening moral life, educating conscience and presenting lofty ideals of life and conduct”. There was no acknowledgement of the heavy responsibility for moral education being carried by Australian Anglican churchwomen. Yet the Bishop of Bathurst admitted that the consequences of lowering standards to get men into ministry could be dire: “Weak and ill-equipped leaders inevitably result in a rapid declension in the religious community generally.”
Such was the shortage of clergy in the whole Anglican Communion, that, under a report on “The Ministry of the Church” at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, it was suggested that “men of matured age, of assured position and respected by their fellows, who are loyal churchmen and eager to help, but who should not be required to give up their present occupations, might be called by authority, and, if willing, be ordained to the priesthood”. The report emphasised that “such men would not supersede the ordinary clergy but would assist the clergyman in charge of a large parish or of a widely scattered area”.
In regard to “Deaconesses”, there were expressions of disappointment in the Report on the “Ministry of the Church” that more women were not attracted to the Order:
Our enquiries show us that the number of women asking for ordination as Deaconesses is comparatively small and that far more women of the stamp and qualifications envisaged find scope for their gifts in other ways”
In other words, the self-sacrificial zeal of Anglican middle-class women had cooled and become more critical. Well-educated churchwomen were, by 1930, less willing to accept a subordinate ministry, with minimum career satisfaction.
In regard to women in priesthood, the committee report was adamant that the Anglican Communion could not yield to feminist pressure groups, dismissed as “the movement, the permanence of which has not yet been proved by time, to secure for women both equality of opportunity and similarity of function with men in every department of life”. According to the report, “a majority of the sub-committee believes that there are theological principles which constitute an insuperable obstacle to the admission of women to the Priesthood, apart from all considerations of expediency”. The conclusion was that although “the times in which we live are new”, the sub-committee did not consider that “the new conditions demand a departure from the universal custom of the Catholic Church”. But the Bishops no doubt realised that total inflexibility could inflame the noticeably cooling embers of feminist revolt. They conceded that women “who have special gifts of spiritual or intellectual kinds” be given “special commissions, either permanent or temporary, to give addresses, to conduct retreats, or to give spiritual counsel” for they were convinced that “there is need for official authorisation for such prophetical and spiritual powers”.
It was in the sub-committee looking at “Marriage and Sex”, on which the Australian representatives were the Bishops of Grafton and St. Arnaud, that underlying qualms about women’s sexuality again surfaced, although the report opened misleadingly in a conciliatory tone:
It seems to us, a new day has dawned, in which sex and sex-matters are emerging from the mists of suspicion and even shame, in which for centuries they have been enveloped, into the clear atmosphere of candour, honesty and truth. The complete openness with which such subjects are discussed is on the whole to the good, for they have been taken away from the obscurity of half-secret conversation and brought out into the cold light of knowledge and experience.
The sub-committee admitted that a “veritable revolution” had taken place in regard to the position of women, that “in spite of our Lord’s attitudes and teaching it has taken a long time for men to emancipate themselves from the notion of women as chattels, particularly in the things of marriage and sex”. There was acknowledgement by the bishops that “in Western civilisations, not only is woman in numerous cases economically independent, but an ideal of comradeship between men and women is winning its way, in which the characteristic features of the male and the female are finding a more delicate blend and balance”.
As regards these trends spilling over into marriage, the sub-committee warned that they “cannot but have exaggerations, particularly in connection with the relationship”, no doubt a veiled reference to “male headship”. But, as in most discussions on women, there was ambiguity. The bishops admitted that this “lofty ideal of a true partnership between man and woman in all the concerns of life changed attitudes to sex” in that it “is not merely viewed from the animal standpoint, but is lifted to the level of the high spiritual interests of life”. “Sex life”, they maintained, “is a primary part of the soul-education by which we grow towards the fulfilment of God’s intention for all His children”.
Sexual relations must remain within marriage. The sub-committee, although conceding that contraception within marriage was allowable, condemned its use outside marriage, seeing this practice as “one of the greatest evils of our times”. This was particularly abhorrent in the case of a woman, “for with her such intercourse is the natural prelude or accompaniment to motherhood and home”. No mention was made that intercourse was also the prelude to fatherhood; the insinuation was that men could take a less disciplined approach to sexual relations.
Not unexpectedly, English Anglican feminists were dissatisfied with the reports on women emanating from the 1930 Lambeth Conference, especially the resolution that a Deaconess was not “identical in character and perhaps also in status with the Third Order of the Ministry”, with the tacit removal of the term “Holy” from the Order of Deaconesses. Another new women’s group emerged, the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women to the Historic Ministry of the Church, which, along with the Society for the Equal Ministry of Men and Women in the Church, was to spend the next forty years fighting the Anglican feminist cause in England. The latter, directly linked to Maude Royden, was to remain the more radical.
In response to pressures from these new groups and to some extent from the now more conservative Central Council for Women’s Church Work, the Convocations of Canterbury and York appointed a Commission in 1931 to “examine any theological and other relevant principles which have governed or ought to govern the Church in the development of the Ministry of Women”. The Report which emerged in 1935 was again ambivalent, stating that the Deaconess be regarded as “one of the clergy” but that “the Order is not equivalent to the men’s Diaconate”. Taken to its logical conclusion this meant that in Anglicanism the term “clergy” could refer to someone not in the three-fold order of ministry.
In the section on women in the priesthood, sexual inconsistencies again emerged, exemplified in the following statement:
We maintain that the ministration of women will tend to produce a lowering of the spiritual tone of Christian worship, such as is not produced by the ministrations of men before congregations largely or exclusively female. It is a tribute to the quality of Christian womanhood that it is possible to make this statement; but it would appear to be a simple matter of fact that in the thoughts and desires of that sex the natural is more easily made subordinate to the supernatural, the carnal to the spiritual, than is the case with men, and that the ministrations of a male priesthood do not normally arouse that side of female nature which should be quiescent during the times of the adoration of almighty God. We believe, on the other hand, that it would be impossible for the male members of the average Anglican congregation to be present at a service at which a woman ministered without becoming unduly conscious of her sex.
The essence of this episcopal “double-talk” was the acknowledgement that man’s control of his libido was so limited that a holier atmosphere prevailed in the congregation when males occupied the sanctuary. Men would be unable to fix their minds on worship if ministered to by a female priest, a statement which implied that men were actually the persons with “carnal flesh” problems. In essence, women must be denied access to priesthood because of the inability of men to keep a firm grip on their sex drive!
The outbreak of the Second World War resulted in the planned 1940 Lambeth Conference being postponed until 1948. Prior to the 1948 Lambeth Conference, the former Archbishop of Brisbane, J.W.C. Wand, then Bishop of London, brought out a collection of essays on the Anglican Communion. The differing developments of and attitudes towards women in provinces with similar backgrounds such as Canada, United States of America, New Zealand and Australia were revealed in this work.
In the case of both the Church of England in Canada and the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, it was observed that the main women’s organisations were the Women’s Auxiliary, which developed out of missionary societies. The Mothers’ Union existed in Canada on a small scale but had not taken root in the USA. A striking difference between Australian guilds and auxiliaries and the Women’s Auxiliaries of Canada and America was that the latter had their own independent central bodies which were responsible for training, equipping and supporting all women’s and girls’ work, both at home and abroad. Although women in 1947 were not generally elected to the Canadian General Synod or the General Convention in the USA, representatives of the Women’s Auxiliary had places allocated to them and they could vote on matters concerning their activities. The Women’s Auxiliaries handled monies raised by their members and it was up to the various churchmen to seek funds from them. This meant that North American Anglican churchwomen constituted a strong economic force, and as such they were treated with considerable respect.
While the essay on the Anglican church of New Zealand also contained a section on “Women’s Work”, where it was noted that Anglican women were “very active” in the National Council of Churches in New Zealand, Bishop De Witt Batty of Newcastle’s contribution on Australia had no special section on women, and there were only fleeting references to women, in the context of religious education, nursing, the Mothers’ Union and Girls’ Friendly Society.
Interestingly, the contribution from the Province of China made no mention of the most significant event, from a feminist point of view, which had taken place in the Anglican Communion between the 1930 and 1948 Lambeth Conferences. This was the ordination to priesthood of the Chinese deaconess, Li Tim-oi, in the Diocese of Hongkong and South China., an indication that the ordination was an embarrassment to the Province as a whole. This event had set a most important precedent by breaking the tradition of male priesthood in the Anglican Communion.
The ordination of Li Tim-oi took place in South China in 1944 at Xing Xing, a small town in Free China, the zone free of Japanese Occupation. When Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in 1941, it was impossible for priests to get to the neutral island of Macao where there was a congregation of refugee Anglicans. Li Tim-oi was a deaconess on the island and, because of the exceptional wartime situation, the assistant Chinese bishop, Mok, authorised her to perform all the functions of a priest.
On 4 June 1943, the Bishop of Hong Kong and South China, Ronald Hall, at that time safely in Kunming in Free China, wrote to Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, taking responsibility for the situation:
In order that a congregation of 150 folk may have the sacraments I have given her permission to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. If I could reach her physically I should ordain her priest rather than give her permission as that seems to me more contrary to the tradition and meaning of the ordained ministry than to ordain a woman. …I hope that at the next Lambeth Conference there will be a clear majority in favour of experiments in provinces where there is an acute shortage of priests …I’m not an advocate for the ordination of women. I am, however, determined that no prejudices should prevent the congregations committed to my care having the sacraments of the Church.
Bishop Hall sent a message to Li Tim-oi to try to meet him in Free China as he felt she should be ordained. For Li Tim-oi, this summons involved leaving the safety of Macao and travelling through Japanese-occupied territory. Li Tim-oi believed she should obey, yet aware that “if the Japanese had found me, I would have been killed”.
In January 1944, Li Tim-oi reached Bishop Hall at Xing Xing where he ordained her a priest. Two days later he again wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury informing him of his action, assuring him that his reason “was not the theoretical view of the equality of men and women but the needs of my people for the sacraments”.
Mail travelled slowly between China and England during wartime conditions. Unbeknown to Bishop Hall, the Archbishop of Canterbury had already written expressing his disapproval of Hall’s intention to ordain a deaconess, explaining that “if you ordain them to the priesthood, you may still be acting under the dictation of the emergency but you would be doing something of which the effects would be permanent and could not be terminated”. The Archbishop was acutely aware of the resistance to the concept of female priesthood in churches such as Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, which glorified male apostolic succession,
Archbishop of Canterbury Temple delayed his reply when Hall’s second letter arrived. He admitted that “if we could find any shadow of theological ground for the non-ordination of women I should be immensely comforted, but such arguments as I have heard on that line seem quite desperately futile”. He drafted a letter to Bishop Hall in which he stated that, while he understood his dilemma, “I cannot think that in any circumstances whatever an individual Bishop has the right to take such a step which is most certainly contrary to all the laws and precedents of the Church…and I therefore feel obliged to tell you that I do profoundly deplore the action that you took and have to regard it as ultra vires ”.
When the news reached England that a woman had been priested, a storm erupted in Anglican circles. The reaction against Bishop Hall was reflected in July 1944 in The Church Times:
The Bishop chose to go through a form of ordaining the deaconess as a priest…, he neither considered the wider implications of his action, nor consulted wiser heads than his own. He preferred to play a lone hand, not like a civilized leader who is himself subject to constitutional authority, but like a wild man of the woods…
In 1945 Li Tim-oi was informed by her Chinese bishops that the leaders of the Anglican Communion had declared that either Bishop Hall must resign or she must forfeit her priesthood. Li Tim-oi did not give up her priesthood but consented to reverting to the role of deaconess. A statement from Archbishop of Canterbury Fisher made clear that the Chinese House of Bishops regretted “the uncanonical action of the Bishop of Hong Kong in ordaining Deaconess Lei (sic) to the priesthood, and having understood that Deaconess Lei has already placed in his hands her resignation from her priestly ministry, this House requests the Bishop of Hong Kong to accept it”.
This cold statement concealed the anguish experienced by Li Tim-oi and Bishop Hall and the reluctance of the Diocese of Hong Kong and South China to bow to the See of Canterbury. A Sydney reader under the nom-de-plume “Fair Play” commented on Archbishop Fisher’s statement several weeks later in The Church Standard:
Would it be such a “deeply regrettable step” to allow this deaconess to retain the priestly office which she held during the stress of war-time conditions, as a peace-time permanency? In any case, surely ordination is not something from which a priest may resign….The Church, priding itself on its Catholicity, would raise a native of New Guinea to the priesthood, but, at the thought of a woman acting in the same capacity, its leaders cry out in holy horror! Surely there is no reason why the Church could not ordain suitable women, who have a calling to the Ministry, or have the ancient taboos of primitive religion and Judaism still too great an influence?
The Diocese of Hong Kong and South China pursued the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood, requesting the General Synod of the Church in China to consider the question: “Is it in accordance with Anglican tradition … to try out whether or not the ordination of woman in that province is or is not ‘of God’?” The Chinese General Synod referred the matter to the 1948 Lambeth Conference, suggesting that for an experimental period of twenty years a deaconess might be ordained to the priesthood.
The response from the Lambeth bishops was negative, declaring that such an experiment would be against Anglican tradition and order “and would gravely affect the internal and external relations of the Anglican Communion”. Under Resolution 114, the bishops re-affirmed Resolution 67 of the 1930 Conference that “the Order of Deaconesses is for women the one and only Order of the Ministry which we can recommend our branch of the Catholic Church to recognise and use”. In the Committee reports the importance of motherhood for women was reiterated, with warnings of the “harm that may be done to home life by the efforts to draw married women into outside spheres of work”.
During the next decade, there was a determined effort to stifle the concept of the ordination of women to priesthood. In 1956, Bishop Hall was approached by the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women to the Historic Ministry of the Church about the advisability of raising the issue of women’s ordination at the 1958 Lambeth Conference. He replied that he did not think that “Lambeth 1958 is the place to attack next”, that “the issue of the Priesthood of women must be fought out first within a National Church”. He criticised the Chinese General Synod for not taking a stronger stand originally, believing that their stance in 1948 should have been: “We propose to let the Rev. Florence Lee exercise her Ministry and will report again at the next Conference on the progress of the experiment. We ask you not to excommunicate us for taking this step.” Bishop Hall joined the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women to the Historic Ministry.
There was scarcely any discussion of women’s ministry at the 1958 Lambeth Conference, although there was a noticeable shift towards allowing greater lay participation in Anglican Communion decision making. At the national level, the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women had been pressing the Church of England’s Central Readers’ Board to allow women to be lay readers, that is liturgical assistants, in the light of the 1920 and 1935 decisions that women should be admitted to all lay offices open to men. The Board was evasive, stating that in its opinion there was no need for the assistance of women in this way. The Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury in 1956 rejected a resolution to allow women to conduct “Morning and Evening Prayer and to preach in case of need”.
English Anglican feminist groups mounted increased pressure during the following decade. Following consideration of a document on “Gender and Ministry”, in November 1962 the Church Assembly of the Church of England passed a resolution “that the Archbishops be asked to appoint a Committee to make a thorough examination of the various reasons for the withholding of the ordained and representative ministry from women”. The Committee’s conclusion was typically non-committal. It was “unable to express any opinion whether the Church as a whole wants or does not want women in priest’s orders”.
Pressure for greater lay participation in church affairs was again evident at the Anglican Congress held in Toronto in 1963. In reporting on the Congress, the Rev. Barry Greaves of Brisbane stated that the Congress message stressed “the fundamental importance of the laity as partners with the clergy in the whole work of the Church”, adding that “the laity were like the importunate widow, wearing away the clericalism and jargon that tended at times to separate the clergy off as an elite of the Church”. He admitted that “it was the presence of the lay delegates that kept the whole Congress in touch with their particular part of reality”. In regard to women, the Rev. Dr. Howard Johnson of New York also pressed for more involvement, declaring that it was “not enough for the ladies of the Church to polish the brass while the ship is sinking” and that “the Church is, after all, ninety-nine per cent laity – a fact which clerical arrogance is always forgetting”.
There was clearly English clerical resentment of the progressive, innovative mood of the Toronto Congress. Canon Waddams of Canterbury, while admitting that “the Church of England has not succeeded in throwing off its parental habit of dominating”, counter-attacked by declaring that “some of the other churches which have grown taller and richer than their parent, have not yet thrown off their adolescent inhibitions”. Clearly the American Anglicans were his target, for he continued: “The Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America is rightly conscious of its importance and status, but there is no need for it to be so unsure of itself that it has to conduct its affairs as if the other Anglican churches did not exist”.
In April 1965, the notedly liberal Bishop of California, J. A. Pike, announced his intention to ordain a deaconess to the three-fold order of mnistry at the diaconate level to put her status as a deacon beyond doubt. Further, he authorised a deaconess, in the absence of the vicar, to administer Holy Communion with elements previously consecrated by a priest. When the American House of Bishops rejected his action, Bishop Pike held a special service of recognition of the deaconess, who was vested, like a male deacon, in “alb, amice, girdle, clerical collar and rabat”. He proceeded to drape a red stole over her right shoulder, describing his recognition of her ministry “as a little step forward”.
In England, too, there was in some circles a progressive spirit. In 1966, the Rev. Eric James, Director of Parish and People, urged the feminists in the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women to the Historic Ministry of the Church “to enter fully into the debate on the future shape of the ministry of the Church”, pointing out that “the decline in the number of men for the ministry – forty per cent. in two years – is to my mind the writing on the wall” and that it was “ludicrous to talk about shortage of candidates for the ministry when we debar what could be half of our future ordained ministry from candidature by reason of their sex”. “Did Christ intend”, he queried, “a ministerial profession, some kind of priestly caste, and of one sex only?”
The Australian response, a letter from “Anti-” of Melbourne, to this news item was interesting in that it again revealed strong rejection of female leadership:
Before the “Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women to the Historic Ministry of the Church” go any further, I suggest they read Anthony Trollope’s “Barchester Towers” to see what a Lady Bishop is like. If they can stand the thought of it, it is more than can be said for most of us.
The pace in upgrading women’s status had quickened too much for women’s ministry to be played down at the 1968 Lambeth Conference. Archbishop of York, Donald Coggan, spoke out about the need to clarify the status of the deaconess and solve the question of the ordination of women. By Resolution 32, the Conference recommended that the diaconate be opened to women as well as men and “that those made deaconess … be declared to be within the diaconate”. Archbishop Loane of Sydney immediately protested, declaring that he was “strongly in favor of strengthening the deaconess order”, but was “not in favor of identifying it with the order of deacons”. Bishop Garnsey of Gippsland countermanded this statement by pointing out that “in my diocese they have been considered as being in Holy Orders”.
The Lambeth bishops then turned to the question of the ordination of women to priesthood. It was noted that “feelings ran high” on the subject. Five Resolutions (Nos. 34 to 38) were formulated. Resolutions 34 and 35 referred to the inconclusiveness of theological arguments for and against the ordination of women and the need for “every national and regional Church or province” to study the matter and report to the first meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, a type of Lambeth “Standing Committee” with clergy and lay representation, which had just been established by the Lambeth bishops.
Under Resolution 36, the Conference requested the Anglican Consultative Council to “initiate consultations with other Churches which have women in their ordained ministry and with those which have not” and “to distribute the information thus secured”. Resolution 37 recommended that “the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council” be sought before any women were ordained and Resolution 38 recommended that churches in the Anglican Communion be “encouraged to make canonical provision… for duly qualified women to share in the conduct of liturgical worship, to preach, to baptize, to read the epistle and gospel at the Holy Communion, and to help in the distribution of the elements”.
Again, in the general debate on “women and priesthood”, the chief spokesman against women’s ordination was Archbishop Loane of Sydney, stressing that “it is significant that there is no New Testament precedent for the ordination of women”, that “equality and subordination exist side by side” and that “as God has made men and God has made women, there is a function for each – and I believe in order”. Support for Archbishop Loane came from Bishop Shevill of North Queensland who stressed that “our Lord did choose twelve men” and that women’s ordination would “destroy the degree of unity already achieved with Old Catholics and interrupt the dialogue with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox”. Bishop Shevill later commented that he overheard an English Bishop at a post-women-in-priesthood-debate party exclaim: “Aboriginals all, that’s what those Australian bishops are!”.
The Australian General Synod of 1969 requested its newly-created Commission on Doctrine to examine the issue of women and priesthood. However, in spite of the Primate, Archbishop Strong’s call for a “new appraisal of the Diaconate” in his “Advent Pastoral Letter” of December 1968, the General Synod of 1969 refused to elevate the Order of Deaconesses to the same diaconate as that of the male deacons.
In February 1971, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) held its first meeting in Limuru, Kenya, each province sending a bishop, a priest, a layman and a woman observer. One of its tasks was to deliberate on a request for advice from Bishop Gilbert Baker of Hong Kong who explained that his diocesan synod, acting on the resolutions of Lambeth 1968, had approved in principle the ordination of women to the priesthood. The Diocese of Hong Kong now represented the main body of the Anglican Church in China since Mao Tse-Tung’s government had come to power in 1949. Clearly Hong Kong had not forgotten its cavalier treatment at the Lambeth Conference of 1948.
Irene Jeffreys of Australia was the first woman to speak on the subject, demanding a practical solution for the Diocese of Hong Kong. By a narrow majority, the ACC passed Resolution 28 which confirmed that “the question of the ordination of women was an urgent matter” and that if the Bishop of Hong Kong decided to ordain women to the priesthood, “his action will be acceptable to this Council”. Bishop Baker wasted no time. On 28 November l971 he ordained Jane Hwang and an English C.M.S. missionary, Joyce Bennett, to the priesthood. The ACC held its second meeting in Dublin in 1973. When discussing the ordination of women to priesthood, it was acknowledged that “there is no more pressing and perplexing problem of ministry”. It was evident that the ACC’s “green light” to Hong Kong had raised hackles in the Anglican Communion. This time there was a note of caution: “It is important to remind ourselves of the limitations of the Anglican Consultative Council in what it may and may not do”, “the Council is a Consultative body, it does not legislate”. Nevertheless, it was pointed out that since the ordination of the Rev. Jane Hwang and the Rev. Joyce Bennett, “no Church or Province had ceased to be in communion with the diocese of Hong Kong”.
Reports at the Dublin meeting indicated considerable movement had occurred in the Anglican Communion. Canada, the U.S.A. and New Zealand had accepted in principle that women could be ordained to priesthood. Australia reported that its Commission on Doctrine had been unanimous in seeing no theological objections to the ordination of women to the diaconate with a majority seeing no theological objection to the ordination of women to priesthood and the matter had now been referred to individual dioceses for study.
Following the 1973 ACC meeting in Dublin, the National Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. was expected to adopt canons to enable women to be ordained to the priesthood. When the Convention did not do so, rebellion erupted. With the support of four bishops (three of them retired), eleven women deacons were ordained to the priesthood on 29th July 1974 at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Among them was an Australian women, the Rev. Alison Cheek, originally from South Australia, at that time permanently resident in the United States of America but still legally an Australian citizen.
Alison Cheek recalled that “I always had this tendency of picking up books on theology and the Student Christian Movement in Adelaide was very influential in my life”. She graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1969 with a Master of Divinity. In November 1974, she became the first of the eleven women priests to celebrate the Eucharist in a church, the celebration taking place in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, Washington, D.C. She recalled her feelings:
By some grace of God, I wasn’t even nervous… It was a very powerful experience. I think I was so immersed in what I was doing, I was completely unselfconscious.
Because of her celebration of the Eucharist, Cheek found herself at the centre of Washington D.C.’s first Episcopal ecclesiastical trial since 1898. On trial was the rector of the church where she celebrated, Rev. William Wendt. Wendt was disciplined but not fined.
In June 1975, the Canadian Anglican General Synod approved the ordination of women to priesthood and in 1976 the General Convention of the American Episcopal Church did likewise. In December 1977 five women were ordained to the priesthood in New Zealand. The ACC, meeting for the third time in 1976 in Trinidad, declared firmly that, in regard to the ordination of women, it was important “that the Church face squarely what is happening within Anglicanism…. and to work from that reality”, the reality being that there was “an increasing acceptance of the principle that women may be ordained to the priesthood”.
In England, the hopes raised by Resolution 206 of the 1978 Lambeth Conference which declared the bishops’ “acceptance of those member Churches which now ordain women” were dashed when, on 8 November 1978, the Church of England Synod voted against removing legal barriers to the ordination of women to the priesthood. There was clearly a hardening of opinion among clergy, expressed in terms of endangering relations with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Churches and also of causing a split within the Church of England itself. Feelings ran high among the English Anglican feminists when the Synod motion was lost. Deaconess Dr. Una Kroll, the leader of a small, newly formed radical feminist group called Christian Parity, shouted from the visitors’ gallery: “We asked you for bread and you gave us a stone”.102 As a result of the Church of England Synod’s rejection, the three feminist groups working for the entry of women to priesthood decided to amalgamate, forming the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW), inaugurated in July 1979. Its leader was the well-known writer, journalist and B.B.C. producer, Monica Furlong, its Vice-Moderators Christian Howard and Jo Garcia, while its Secretary was Margaret Webster, wife of the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.103 MOW was in 1983 to have its counterpart in Australia.
Clergy in England sympathetic to the feminists also formed a pressure group, Priests for Women’s Ordination. No corresponding group formed in Australia, despite the number of priests sympathetic to the issue.
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