The Partners in the Discussion from ‘Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective: Workbook for the Church’s Future edited by Constance F. Parvey. Faith and Order Paper 105 World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980

The Partners in the Discussion

from Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective:
Workbook for the Church’s Future

edited by Constance F. Parvey
Faith and Order Paper 105
World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980, pp. 7-19

Conference participants, 18 women and 12 men, (1) came from 14 countries and represented Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, Old Catholic and Roman Catholic churches. They met in plenary sessions in the stone-walled cellar of the chateau, gathered around long tables in the dining room, held planning and group meetings in a library of beautifully bound books and, during their free time, walked along the canal and through the lovely gardens. They explored a broad range of ecumenical questions raised by the ordination of women.

A. The process of finding the partners

The participants were as different as the various aspects of the topic. Some came from churches that now ordain women, churches which have already been through a process of theological study that has led them to this decision and are now tired of talking about the debate. Although they tried to understand why other churches do not ordain women, they did not question what they had come to believe is appropriate for their church. Others came from churches that are in the midst of the struggle, and still others from churches that feel the issue is being forced upon them from the outside. Those representing churches that do not ordain women were firm in their position, and those from churches that do were equally firm, stating that they could not consider union with churches which could not recognize the validity of their ministry, including their ordained women.

The following quotations from participants present vividly some of the different perspectives on the issue:

a) Church of England: “In England, we have had a tremendous struggle over the question of ordaining women. And though it’s been approved in principle, in the interests of unity the Church of England has decided not to ordain at this time.”

b) Orthodox: “I don’t believe there is a movement within the Orthodox Church in the United States to ordain women. However, because of the American scene, Orthodox women are asking why the Orthodox Church does not ordain women. These questions do not reflect a movement from within the church, but pressure from outside it.”

c) Protestant: “We hear a lot about how the churches which do not ordain women would have serious problems discussing recognition of ministries or union with churches that do ordain women. But I think it should be pointed out that those churches which do ordain women will have equally serious problems with churches that exclude women from ordained ministry. It is not just the Catholic and Orthodox churches that will decide whether or not to accept us, but as a reformed church we will also have to decide whether or not to accept them.”

d) Old Catholic: “There is one view of sacramental ministry which I think precludes women from being ordained. I have never heard it adequately countered by those in favour of women’s ordination. It is that if God is Creator and Redeemer, then the sign of sexual difference, so obvious and essential in the Creation, must also be evident again in the eucharist which is the symbol of the Redemption. We have a sign of the importance of sexual differences in the celebration of the eucharist if we assume that those receiving communion are regarded as God’s Church, the bride, and therefore as female. It then follows that the ministering priest who represents Christ, the bridegroom, must be male. How can we express a sign of the importance of this sexual difference in God the Redeemer if women are ordained in an equal manner as men?”

e) Orthodox: “There are fourteen denominations in my country and none of them is interested in these problems. Against the threat of atheism, why be occupied with such a problem?”

It was clear from the beginning of the consultation that the questions surrounding the ordination of women are painful for the churches when seen from the perspective of the ecumenical movement. The issue touches a nerve in the churches and in some it is highly charged. A number of churches fear internal division over this question; others fear setbacks in unity discussions.

B. Positions of the churches

Within the ecumenical movement no detailed surveys of official church positions on women’s ordination exist as yet, although a number of good summaries have been made. (2)

A WCC survey of 1975 showed that just over a third of the member churches ordain women. The majority of these churches are in the traditions of the Reformation — Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Churches, Baptists, and some evangelical and pentecostal groups. They are concentrated predominantly in the North Atlantic (western) cultures of East and West Europe and North America. Women can enter ordained ministries in some churches in Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, but opportunities for appropriate theological education and acceptance into the ordained ministry are less frequent. (3)

Since the early 1970s many sectors of the Anglican Communion have been actively debating this issue. Some Anglican churches have approved women’s ordination and are incorporating women into their ministry of priesthood. Some have approved women’s ordination in principle, but have not implemented the decision because of church legislation, local and ecumenical considerations, etc. Others have decided against ordaining women, and still others have not, as yet, discussed the issue. (4)

The Roman Catholic and Old Catholic churches do not ordain women to the priesthood. Official, authoritative statements are firm in maintaining this position. (5) However, in the United States and western Europe there are a growing number of voices in the Roman Catholic Church that are challenging this policy and calling for its open reconsideration.

Orthodox churches have consistently taken positions against the ordination of women. (6) Within the Orthodox family, the issue is largely unraised, with some exceptions in North America. The practice of male priesthood is unchallenged, but specialized roles for women in ministry are beginning to be explored, particularly the reactivation of the ancient order of the ordained diaconate for women. (7)

C. Reports from participants

The consultation began by trying to obtain an overall view of the discussion within the various churches. The question was asked: What is the situation regarding ordination of women in your ecclesial context? What follows is a summary of the widely varied responses — Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant.

A theme that can be heard throughout this exchange is that in the practical, organized life of the churches, there is a much richer participation of women than is acknowledged by the forms of ministry open to them. Much of the ministry of women at local levels, in instruction, service, worship and preaching is accomplished outside of established models, and new models are being formed as a result of pioneer experiences created by changing circumstances of mission and human need.

1. Roman Catholic

Four Roman Catholic participants were present — two from North America and two from Europe, a man and a woman from each area. In addition there was a consultation guest, a Roman Catholic sister from a nearby community. All of the Roman Catholic participants were lay people. None represented the official position of the Church, and the official participant who had been invited was unable to attend. All were recognized theologians in their various countries; however, their perspectives were not those of the magisterium. As one person said: “I speak from the liberal wing of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II.”

In the United States as well as in Europe, the context in which women’s ordination is raised emerges from the post Vatican II church. For the Roman Catholic Church in the United States this means that there is institutional unity, yet practical and theological diversity. “There is as much diversity in the Roman Catholic Church today”, said one participant, “as there is across the ecumenical spectrum, yet there is little dialogue within the Church between the conservative and radical wing. They function as parallel tracks that rarely meet.” This is a major factor affecting the question of ordination of women. As one participant put it: “Ninety percent of the publishing Roman Catholic theologians are in favour of ordination of women. They represent attitudes in Roman Catholic liberal thought, not attitudes of those in official positions.” In addition, many Roman Catholic women find themselves in a new situation today as more women are studying theology at Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic seminaries. A major sign of this new situation was the first conference on the ordination of women, held in Detroit in autumn 1975. The result of a joint effort by many Roman Catholic organizations, the conference was initiated by a Roman Catholic woman with a Master of Divinity degree. Over a thousand people came; others were turned away. A follow-up meeting took place in Baltimore in autumn 1979.

In Europe, the St Joan’s International Alliance, founded in England in 1911, continues its concern about equal justice for women in the Church. However, the first initiative towards the ordination of women followed on the impact of Vatican II. A Dutch theologian, Haye van der Meer, wrote a doctoral dissertation under Karl Rahner which became a primary resource on this issue. Gertrude Heinzelmann, a Swiss lay theologian, was the force behind an early movement, organizing and bringing this issue to the attention of the authorities in Rome already in the 1960s. “Since that time, there have been, on the local level, more and more ‘small steps’, especially in the universities where there are Roman Catholic faculties. However, even though some bishops are favourable to women’s ordination, the bishops are not ready to discuss the issue in public,” said one participant. This is the official situation, but on local levels, many Roman Catholics are already working “in an ordained way”, and there are moves towards an ordained diaconate for women parallel to that for men. Such an initiative was started already in 1970 by the Dutch Pastoral Council. It was passed on to Rome, but has never been acted upon.

Another influence for the Roman Catholic Church in Europe is the charismatic movement and, in some areas, the new experience of women in ministry within this movement. As one person said: “The Spirit gives rise to ministries that are given us and that ought to be recognized. In charismatic groups, for example, women preach, which they are not officially allowed to do.” This person also stated that “charisma is a gift listed by St Paul and it will in some years end up as a consecrated ministry”. In fact, in some charismatic circles already couples are being consecrated by the bishop to work as missionaries under the title “evangelists”. One such ceremony, including the laying on of hands, was described to the meeting.

2. Old Catholic

Present at the consultation was an official representative of the Old Catholic Church. This church does not ordain women. It is an issue “not yet solved”, said this participant, “an issue which, on the one hand, makes union talks difficult with those Anglican churches that do ordain and, on the other hand, affects dialogue about unity in sacraments and ministry with Roman Catholics and Orthodox that do not ordain women. Theologians in the Old Catholic Church are studying the issue.”

3. Anglican

The Anglican communion, which by the Bonn Agreement of 1931 is in full communion with the Old Catholic Church, was represented at the consultation by the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States. Among Anglicans also, the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood is an issue not yet fully solved. The official position of the Church of England is that they have no theological objections; however, the action to ordain women has not been agreed upon in the church. Although there is support, it is feared that the issue will cause division. According to one participant the House of Bishops seems to be primarily in favour of ordination of women and the House of Clergy primarily against it. It was acknowledged that the attitude and policies of the Church of England are not the same as those of other Anglican communions around the world, some of which already ordain women and whose representatives were present at this meeting.

Schism over the issue of women’s ordination was said to have been a major cause for concern in the Episcopal Church in the United States. It was reported that the extent of the schism had been greatly exaggerated, especially in the British press. One US participant stated that over 200 women have now been ordained in the Episcopal Church (USA), and that the overall result is favourable. Opposition to the new prayerbook is considered a far greater internal threat to unity than the ordination of women.

4. Orthodox

The Orthodox churches, western or oriental, do not ordain women: it does not seem to be a question that is even raised. Ecumenical relations and bilateral dialogues with other churches that do ordain women are causing some serious reflection on this issue. However, in terms of the leadership of women, need is being expressed within these churches to reflect anew theologically and practically on men/women relationships and their implications regarding equality of persons and the renewal of the Church.

The chief reasons that are given for not ordaining women are related to biblical interpretation and the weight of patristic traditions. Though deeply rooted in its historical, cultural and social contexts, there is a growing awareness within Orthodox traditions that Orthodox life and practice vary greatly, depending on the context (Europe-East and West, the Middle East, North America or Asia). Among the Orthodox present at the consultation was a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church in which, according to this participant, from the beginning the ministry of women has been undisputed. “Even before Pentecost, women participated in the life of the Church and in its service. The four daughters of Philip were prophets. There were also deaconesses and widows. The Church is continuous with this today. Women preach in Sunday schools. We have deaconesses who aid the priest in the baptism of women and in other duties.” He continued: “In the third and fourth centuries, some heretical groups dared to ordain women, and the Church condemned them. Perhaps the reason the issue is not raised today is that we live in an Arab society and in Islam women have fewer rights.”

In contrast, the Orthodox churches in the United States are exposed to the debate because much has been written about it in recent years, particularly by Roman Catholic and Anglican theologians, and much is reported in the press. Books are now beginning to appear expressing Orthodox points of view. Said one North American participant: “For us, the question is not so much one of ordination of women, but one of the underlying theological issues at stake such as anthropology, the nature of God as Trinity, the nature of Christ and the Incarnation, the priesthood itself and its functions.” This participant continued: “Among Orthodox women in the United States, there are extreme poles. Some women suffer from superstitions regarding their uncleanness as women, while others are able to teach classes in religion and even to preach.” In some Orthodox churches in the United States, women can be elected to local parish councils, but not to the general council (sober) of bishops, priests and lay representatives that meet biannually and set much of church policy and practice.

In the United States, the roles of women in the Church are expanding both in theological education and in lay education in the parishes. Along with other Orthodox churches in the Middle East and the Soviet Union, women also play an increasing role in liturgical choirs.

Another Orthodox participant pointed to the anthropological issues, reminding the consultation of attitudes about women that were held in the Church before the time of the separation of the churches: debates about whether a woman had a soul, or whether she could be a saint, a martyr, and so on. He said that the issues surrounding the ordination of women have to do with these ancient human typologies set side by side with modern social research and the women’s movements. He urged the Church to reflect on doctrinal issues, particular christology, from the perspective of today’s context.

Most of the Orthodox agreed that the renewal of the diaconate for women is the place to start. The rites for this office, in existence since the Second Council of Chalcedon, are still valid today. It was urged that the issue of women and ministry be seen within this larger framework of dogmatic history, conciliar precedence and present-day realities regarding the partnership of women and men in society and in the Church.

It was an Orthodox participant who kept two key points always before the attention of the meeting:

a) There have always been a number of ministries in the Church and not merely one ordained office.

b) It is part of the Tradition of the Church to have unity within diversity.

5. Protestant

Protestant churches from many parts of the world were represented by a wide spectrum. Some Protestants from the United States came from churches that have ordained women for over a hundred years, others from churches that began ordaining women in the 1950s. All the churches represented had had considerable experience with the role of ordained women in ministry. The theology of ministry in each of these churches seemed to stress more the variety of gifts and to see ministry primarily in terms of service and mission. With regard to theological education, all of them reported that many more women are studying theology: 30 to 40% of the theological students in denominational and interdenominational seminaries are women. Women pastors, however, still comprise a small percentage of the total number of clergy. Where women are fully called and ordained, they tend to serve as local parish pastors, pastors in urban teams and special rural ministry, directors of religious education, hospital chaplains, etc. In the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, two-thirds of the women pastors are married, and there are a growing number of clergy couples seeking positions as co-pastors.

In this same church, it was reported that the work of women ministers is being accepted by the people in the parish, but that women ministers had considerable difficulty in being accepted by their peers in ministry. This was also reported by other churches. There is more acceptance of married couples in ministry and, contrary to some other churches, certain prejudice was noted against single women as pastors, or a woman as the head of a parish. All churches mentioned that women ministers found it hard to adjust to the masculine shape of the ordained role and its male-oriented expectations. It is not a work that women walk into easily. Women keep stressing that they are still searching for styles of ministry that will give them full identity in expressing and using their talents and gifts.

In Canada, the United Church of Canada, which has been ordaining women since 1936, began by ordaining only single women. Twenty years later, when it agreed to ordain married women, it provoked considerable new debate. Now there is an effort to place couples and/or to enable married women to fulfil their ministry and not be separated from their husbands.

Many Protestant churches in Europe have a long experience with ordained women. In both the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, most evangelical churches ordain women. Among Lutherans in the FRG, the celibacy clause for women was removed only ten years ago. Since then, some churches have begun to give part-time ministries to women, and there is a new emphasis in some areas on “the ministry of parenthood”, making it possible for a husband and wife both to be involved and recognized in a shared ministry. In Austria, the celibacy clause for women pastors has recently been removed.

The situation in Switzerland is somewhat similar. It is still easier for a single woman to find placement than for a couple who are both trained pastors. Married partnership in ministry, with both sharing tasks equally, is a step not yet taken in most of the cantons of the Swiss Protestant Church Federation. One French pastor remarked: “What impressed me in my work was the readiness of lay people to accept the ministry of couples. We must look to women and men together as an important new style of ministry.”

The Church of Sweden, not represented at the consultation but sending a report, has been ordaining women since 1958. Recently it has undergone a widely publicized new debate against this 1958 decision. As a consequence of this internal opposition, a new set of rules for cooperation within the church has been prepared by a joint committee of representatives of different positions. These new rules have helped communication between the different groups in the church and have also established procedures for solving concrete problems. Of the almost three hundred women priests in the Church of Sweden, many serve as heads of local parishes as well as in new tasks of mission.

Participants from Third World churches agreed that the issue of ordination of women depends on the position of the “mother church”. If the European or American church — linked through missionary history — ordains women, then the church in the Third World is likely to do the same. Among the exceptions is the Batak Church in Indonesia where cultural factors work against women’s ordination, though the western partner churches ordain women. Some other churches in Indonesia do ordain women (about 70 were ordained as of 1979). The factors against it are primarily cultural, and relate to the Islamic context and the inheritance laws wherein family inheritance goes through the sons, giving them a special status in both family and society. The situation appears to be changing, as evidenced by the fact that some of these churches now open their pulpits to women as preachers.

In Nigeria, there is an indigenous form of church order not known in the West. Based on former tribal customs, some churches have both a “father of the church” and a “mother of the church”. Originally, this was a lay order, but now that person is ordained and it is usually a man who becomes both father and mother. However, said an African participant, this tradition could offer new possibilities for women as they receive theological training. In Africa, not many women are studying theology as yet. Most women with an interest in the subject go to the university and the departments of religion; they do not become ordained. If their interest in theology and religion develops, it is because they are attracted to it, but up to now they have not been encouraged by the churches to follow professional theological training. There are few women in the church-run seminaries, but this is beginning to change. It was also reported that there is some mythology about the leadership of women in the African independent churches. It is true that women can play a large role. They can own a church and can found a church, but they cannot preside at the Lord’s Supper. For this they need to be ordained and few of the independent African churches as yet ordain women (one exception mentioned was the Christian Stone Apostolic Church).

In Latin America, women are accepted into the ministry by those churches that ordain them (Methodist, Waldensian and Baptist) and many of them work in teams with a man, or in a group team with three or four persons. There is an increasing number of women theological students, but still very few ordained women. Within the ecumenical community there is acceptance of each other’s ministry on working levels. Some Protestant women pastors have even preached in Roman Catholic churches but, as yet, there is no ecumenical discussion on the subject.

In the Caribbean, several Protestant churches ordain women and two synods of the Anglican Church have agreed to do so. Most other churches are discussing it, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church. Ordained women are generally favourably received in the congregations, but there are still pockets of resistance. It was reported that women are more accepted as “local preachers” but they begin having trouble when they become “full ministers in charge of a congregation”. In addition, “more churches are moving towards the services of women, especially in mission work”. Among Roman Catholics, sisters assume more and more leadership. As one participant said: “They are vibrant. They do everything, but consecrate. The real mission outreach of the Roman Catholic Church in the Caribbean lies with the nuns.”

D. Identifying the partners

The ecumenical partners in this issue seem to gather in three categories:

a) those churches which are against the ordination of women and where the issue has not emerged, except in an ecumenical and/or societal context;

b) those churches which have been ordaining women for some time, and which are no longer interested in the question of whether or not women should be ordained, but are concerned about issues of placement, style of ministry, and renewal and unity of the Church; for them, the ordination of women is settled, established practice;

c) those churches whose views on the ordination of women are not yet settled, and where there are movements from within to change their policies.

This means that there is little dialogue at present between (a) those partners who say they will never ordain women, and (b) those who say that they will never not ordain women. Both base their positions on tradition and experience. Therefore, the dialogue focuses on the groups in the middle (c). Here, there is both internal dialogue within those churches that do not ordain women, but where the issue is being raised, and external dialogue between those churches and their sister churches who, on the one side, want them not to ordain women (a), and on the other, hope that they will ordain women (b).

The interaction among these partners shapes the present ecumenical discussion.

Ecclesiological issues and models of authority become more vivid as there is questioning and protest. Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational styles of institutional life are each distinct, yet over the decades of ecumenical experience changes have occurred and new patterns have emerged which give evidence of mutual influence, sharing and concerns of mission and unity (e.g. the Church of South India).


(1) Since the central thrust of the Community of Women and Men in the Church Study is to bring into ecumenical/theological dialogue the new contributions coming from women, a guideline of the study is to have more women than men participants at its meetings.

(2) An unpublished summary of a survey sponsored by the Sub-unit on Women in Church and Society, was prepared by Helen Spaulding in 1975, entitled “The Ordination of Women”. Of the 295 member churches of the WCC, 104 reported that they do ordain women, and 57 that they do not. The remainder did not report; of those, 17 more were “known or assumed” to ordain women. A similar survey of 1970, published in What Is Ordination Coming To? (WCC) showed that of the 215 WCC member churches at that time, 72 ordained women.

(3) See John E. Lynch, “The Ordination of Women: Protestant Experience in Ecumenical Perspective”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 12, spring 1975, pp. 173-197: a detailed summary of the WCC discussion on this issue prior to the Accra meeting of the Faith and Order Commission in 1974. In addition there are summaries regarding the status of this issue in various Protestant churches. See also 1979 National Council of Churches, USA, survey on Women in Ministry.

(4) See the full report prepared by Christian Howard for the General Synod of the Anglican Communion, GS. Misc. 88, Ordination of Women: a Supplement to the Consultative Document GS 104, August 1978, Church Information Office, London.

(5) In the United States, the Women’s Ordination Conference has held two national conferences on this subject. The proceedings of the first are published in Women and Catholic Priesthood: an Expanded Vision, Paulist Press, New York, 1976. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious has already voted in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood. For information on changes in attitude in favour of women priests, see Women Priests (Paulist Press, 1978), p. 3, showing increases in France and in the US since the Vatican “Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood”, 15 October 1976 (made public 27 January 1977). No similar large movement exists in Europe, but in Germany and England groups are beginning to emerge.

(6) One recent example is that noted under Fr Kallistos Ware, “The Ordination of Women: the Orthodox Position”, Report of the Special Meeting of the Anglican/Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission, Athens, 13-18 July 1978, § 3: statement by the Orthodox members of the Commission (unpublished report).

(7) See Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church, Agapia, Romania, September 1976, WCC, Geneva, 1977: presentations by Metropolitan Emilianos, Dr Evangelos Theodorou and Dr Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

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