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Workbook for the Church's Future 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

Workbook for the Church’s Future

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. 60-64

An issue as important and potentially divisive as the ordination of women requires commitment to a process. With the recognition that member churches of the World Council of Churches are at different stages in the discussion of this issue, the following agen-da of questions is designed to facilitate the process towards mutual understanding within the ecumenical context. The questions are offered for enabling conversation on various levels — in-, ternational, national and local — and for use within a confes-sional family.

To further the task of seeking common understanding on the issue of women’s ordination, churches are encouraged to use all theological resources available to them. A bibliography, containing the research and writing on this issue for the last two decades, is enclosed to aid churches and interested scholars in this endeavour. An overview of the bibliography indicates that writings in the 1960s centred around discussions in various churches of the Reformation in North America and Europe, while writings in the 1970s evidence a shift in focus to the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions and to discussions between Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians.

Because mutual understanding can be gained only from com-mitted cooperation in exploring this question within the context of the many and multilevel initiatives and commitments to Christian unity, this workbook is recommended for use in and among the churches. The ordering of the questions, questions about the im-agery of God, wholeness in ministry, and practical ecumenical concerns, parallels the ordering of the issues raised in the con-sultation working groups. A new context might suggest different ordering.

Question 1: Balancing the theological past: male and female images.

What, if any, are the implications of the recovery of male/female imagery for God on understandings of the per-sonhood of women and men? Could the recovery of this imagery have any effect on structures and relationships within the Church and its ministry?

Question 2: Towards wholeness in the practice of ministry: reviewing the order of the diaconate.

A. Historically, the diaconate was a “fluid” office, a result of the need of the churches for a wider ministry. In the course of its practice, the office of the deacon became more stable and limited. Some churches are now experiencing a similar need for a wider ministry. What can we learn about the potential for diaconal service from its original, fluid form in the early Church?

B. Working towards wholeness in practice requires a clarification of terms.

1. What are the past uses and function of the term “diaconate” in:

a) Scripture?

b) the apostolic age?

c) the Church fathers?

d) the Reformation churches?

2. What are the uses and functions of the term today:

a) in the new churches (e.g. the African Independent churches, the charismatic renewal movements)?

b) in the churches which already have a diaconal order?

c) in the churches which do not have such an order? Are the functions of a diaconate carried out in other ways and if so, by whom?

3. What are the definition and function in your church of the deaconess and deacon?

C. How can the diaconate or other pastoral forms open to the ministry of women help towards the renewal of the Church which is necessary?

D. The diaconate of women is part of the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Consequently, can the Orthodox Church reinstate this diaconate based on its earlier tradition?

E. The question has been raised: “Is there room today in one confession for the ministries of a diaconate (male and female, non-ordained), an order of ordained deaconesses, and an ordained clergy to exist and work side by side?

Question 3: Towards wholeness in the practice of ministry: ordination.

A. How important in your church is the distinction between cheirotonia (ordination) and cheirothesia (blessing)?

Consider the importance of this distinction for the early Church, and explore its significance for today.

B. What is the Church’s general understanding and practice of ordination?

Question 4: Ordination of women: policies of the churches.

A. What statements, if any, has your church made regarding the ordination of women, including its rationale?

B. What ongoing processes are at work in the life of your church regarding the issue and/or practice of the ordination of women? At what levels? Is there any active recruitment of women?

C. Where there is opposition within a church on this issue, how does the Church, communion, or federation of churches maintain unity? In the same confessional family is it possible in theory or in practice for parts of the Church to ordain women while others do not? How is dissent handled on a policy level, e.g. the use of the “conscience clause”, etc. (Among the churches that have such a clause are the Church of Sweden and the Anglican Church of Canada.) How does this clause affect Church unity?

Question 5: Tradition: does it change and how?

A. How do changing policies of the Church relate to unbroken tradition?

B. How do the tradition, practice and spiritual/historical experience of your church affect discussions on the ordination of women?

C. Does what a church believes about the Virgin Mary have implications for the ordination of women?

D. From what basis does your church take the authority to change regarding the ministries of women and, in particular, the ordination of women?

Question 6: Practical ecumenical concerns.

A. On local levels:

1. How do churches that do and do not ordain women work ecumenically in local situations?

2. Does the fact that women preside at the sacraments in some churches affect ecumenical relations? If so, how and at what levels? If not, why not?

3. How do evangelical movements view the role of women in the life of the Church? The charismatic movements? How does this affect ecumenical cooperation?

B. Experience of the churches with women in ministry:

1. What can be learned from those churches that have a long established tradition of ordaining women, e.g. the Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, both of which have ordained women for almost a century?

2. What can be learned from the experience of ordained women thus far?

3. Where women and men work together in ministry and learn from each other, what new insights are contributed to the experience and understanding of ministry?

4. What can be learned from the various traditional models of women in ministry, such as consecrated deaconesses, sisters, lay women teachers, and lay women’s associations and movements?

5. What can be learned from new models of ministry emerging, such as team ministries, partnership, and specialized ministries, collegial models of ministry, etc.?

6. How can these new insights be brought into an ecumenical context? How do they relate to the common concerns of the churches for renewal?

C. Present questions about mutual recognition of ministries.

1. How is it possible for your church to achieve and give concrete recognition or acceptance to the ministry of another church? Is it possible on some levels and not on others?

2. What new ecumenical issues are raised when the question of ordination of women emerges between churches? What criteria of importance and weight do these issues have for the ongoing process of mutual recognition of ministries?

3. Is the status of this issue, essential or accidental, in terms of further steps towards Christian unity?

D. Strategies for present and future work.

1. Between churches that do and churches that do not ordain women, how can creative reflection and sharing be encouraged?

2. How can this issue help further understanding and acceptance of ministry within ecumenical life?


At the time of going to press, three important events have occurred. The Church of England, in a surprise decision at its 1980 General Synod, agreed to open formal talks with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches regarding the question of ordination of women. In the United States, the United Methodist Church ordained its first woman bishop, and in Africa, the Anglican Church of Kenya ordained the first black African woman priest. As evidenced by each of these actions, the issue of episcopacy is coming into sharper focus.

When all the theological issues have been set forth, it is cultural and ecclesial questions that are at the heart of ecumenical debate about the ordination of women. In the ecclesial category two long-standing issues in the search for Christian unity are prominent. Both of these issues centre on the question of authority, what makes it valid and how it works. The first issue is concerned with what relative weights should be assigned to Scripture and Tradition, while the second seeks to achieve a balance between episcopal and synodal forms of church order.

Church and ministry have always been intertwined and so ecumenical discussion about the ordination of women and men must include issues of both authority and wholeness. While the Church must have supervision inside its ministry, outside it must live in solidarity with those who are most in need. As mentioned earlier, debate on the ordination of women should not be yet another stumbling block to unity. In the struggle against division and injustice at all levels and in all forms in Church and society, this debate can be an occasion to analyse and clarify existing models of faith and witness and an opportunity, in common purpose, to evolve new ones.

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