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Religious Tolerance logo

Female ordination in the

Episcopal Church, USA (ECUSA)

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bullet"I've often thought of my ministry as a wedge plowing a field that is hard, leaving behind something softer that's ready for new life." Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, the first female dean of an Anglican cathedral
bullet"Are we a culturally conditioned church, trying to keep up with the times and changing practices and teachings to conform with the times, or are we a part of the historic, biblical church of the ages?" Bishop Jack Iker, Diocese of Ft. Worth, TX 9

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Current Status of female ordination:

Thirty-eight individual, autonomous Anglican provinces have been organized in many different countries around the world. In 1998, the General Assembly of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican Church in Japan) voted to accept female priests. This meant that the majority of provinces now ordain women. Some provinces have consecrated women as bishops.

"The long struggle for women's ordination as priests in the American Episcopal Church began in the mid-1850s and lasted for almost 125 years. It ended in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 16, 1976, when the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to approve women's ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate." 1

When the denomination changed its canon laws to allow female ordination, the change was not made compulsory on all American bishops. As a result, a "woman might find herself regarded as a priest in some, but not all, of the dioceses of the church - or as a bishop in most, but not all, of the parishes in her own diocese." 2 As of late 1997, four dioceses still resisted: Eau Claire (WI), Fort Worth (TX), Quincy (IL), and San Joaquin (CA). 3 By 2004-AUG, Eau Claire diocese had accepted women as priests, apparently because its bishop, William Wantland retired. Only three of the 100 dioceses of the ECUSA in the U.S., still refuse to ordain women.

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History of female ordination in the ECUSA:

bullet1855: The Bishop of Maryland "sets apart" two deaconesses.
bullet1935: A commission of the Church of England found no reason for or against the ordination of women, but affirms that women would continue to be excluded "for the church today."
bullet1970: The General Convention voted on a measure to authorize female ordination. It was approved by the laity but narrowly defeated by clerical deputies.
bullet1973: The General Convention rejected female ordination for the second time.
bullet1973: Qualified women deacons were presented alongside men for ordination to the priesthood in New York. The bishop refused to ordain the women.
bullet1974-JUL-29: The "Philadelphia Eleven" were "irregularly" ordained as priests in Philadelphia, PA by two retired and one resigned bishop. "The event caused great consternation among the church hierarchy. On August 15, the House of Bishops, called to an emergency meeting, denounced the ordinations and declared them invalid. Charges were filed against the dissident bishops. Attempts were made to prevent the women from serving their priestly ministries." 1
bullet1974-OCT-27:  Revs. Allison Cheek, Carter Heyward, and Jeannette Piccard celebrated their first public Episcopal service at Riverside Church in New York, NY. 1
bullet1974-NOV: The Rev William Wendt invited Alison Cheek to celebrate at St Stephen's and the Incarnation in Washington, DC. He is later charged, tried and disciplined for violating canons.
bullet1974-DEC: Rev Peter Beebe invited Alison Cheek and Carter Heyward to celebrate at Christ Church, Oberlin, OH. He is charged and tried for violating canons.
bullet1976-JUL: After much heated debate, the 72nd General Convention in Philadelphia passed a resolution declaring that "no one shall be denied access" to ordination into the three orders of ministry: as deacons, priests or bishops, on the basis of their sex. A second resolution declared that no one could be barred from participating in the life and governance of the church, either because of their gender, or because of their theological beliefs concerning the ordination of women. They asked that non-conforming dioceses report in 1979 on their progress towards female ordination to the House of Bishops and Executive Council. They were asked to also report to the next General Convention in 2000. If they don't, they faced the possibility of a church trial. One of the four bishops, the Rt. Rev. Jack Iker of Fort Worth, said that he planned to undertake "active resistance to the directive...I cannot compromise my conscience because I have serious theological reservations." He decided to continue to refuse to ordain women, referring them to another diocese instead.
bullet1977: The priests who were irregularly ordained at Philadelphia and Washington were "regularized." One hundred women are ordained by year end.
bullet1978: The Lambeth Conference accepted female ordination as an option at the discretion of the local province.
bullet1988-SEP-24: The Rev. Barbara C. Harris was elected Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts. She was consecrated on 1990-FEB-11.
bullet1997: Only four dioceses still refused to ordain female priests: Eau Claire (WI), Fort Worth (TX), Quincy (IL), and San Joaquin (CA). 3
bullet2000-JUL: By the time of the 73rd General Convention, Eau Claire diocese had accepted women as priests, San Joaquin had made some progress in that direction, but Fort Worth and Quincy had not budged. The sense of the convention was that "the time had come." 24 years had passed since female ordination was permitted. Deputies from the three dioceses pleaded for "tolerance." Task force A045 was created by the Convention to "visit, interview, assess and assist" the three dioceses in their efforts. They were asked to make semi-annual reports. "A substitute motion by Bishop John Lipscomb of Southwest Florida, calling for a less adversarial approach under the direction of the presiding bishop, drew strong support across theological boundaries, including several women bishops. It was defeated narrowly, but later passed as a 'mind of the house resolution.' " 4

The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris of Boston, ordained as the first female Episcopal bishop in 1989, successfully called for defeat of an amendment that would have allowed the four dissenting bishops to continue denying ordination to women as long as they hold office. She said: "The message such an amendment would send to the women of this church and those who support the ordained ministry of women in this church is that once again this house is engaged in a delaying tactic...To engage in further delay says to the women of this church, 'We do not value your ministry, even though God has called you.' "

bullet2002-FEB: The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council heard a "mid-process report" from a task force which had been created to use "sensitivity and flexibility as it monitors progress toward full access of women to the ordination process, as required by the canons." They visited the three dioceses which still refused to ordain women:
bulletSan Joaquin, CA: The task force met with Bishop John David Schofield and a dozen other representatives from the diocese. Task force Co-chair Sarah Harte reported that some of the latter were concerned that the task force might "dig up information to be used to bring charges against the bishop." Many of the clergy support the bishop, even though they disagree with his position on female ordination. The task force learned that the bishop "has been supportive of women in the process of pursuing ordination and that there are several women currently in the process." He states that they will be ordained in the future; but if they were eligible for ordination today, it is not likely that he would do it. He stated that "he is not currently convinced that the work of the General Convention in revising the canons was, in fact, reflective of the will of the Holy Spirit. Therefore he is not convinced that women who go through ordination are truly ordained."
bulletFort Worth, TX: Harte reported on their meeting with Bishop Jack Iker and members of the diocese: "We were received by the bishop and graciously welcomed as brothers and sisters in Christ—but not as members of the A045 Task Force. Bishop Iker sees our work as intrusive and negatively reflecting on the life of the diocese. However, the bishop agreed to have a conversation with us in which the primary focus was for us to learn about the ministry of the diocese.... The bishop and other leadership described with passion some of the ministries in the diocese, including women's ministries, [which are regarded as a] supportive and essential role...The role of women in the church was described to us as analogous to the role of a woman in the family—supportive and nurturing...They feel the work of the task force is damaging the health of the diocese and causes a further disconnect between the members of the Diocese of Ft. Worth and members of other dioceses. They request the national church to give them 'space, freedom and respect'." Three women who are testing their vocations in Ft. Worth have been transferred to the Diocese of Dallas.
bulletQuincy, IL: Task force members met with Bishop Keith Ackerman and representatives from his diocese.  He has allowed three female priests to enter his diocese on three occasions to officiate at a wedding, baptism and funeral. There are two women deacons in the diocese, but there have been no female candidates for ordination since he became bishop. 5
bullet2002-Summer:The A045 Task force issued their final report. They "...found that the intrusion of an unwelcome and uninvited group made it impossible 'to assist'; we are a diverse church, committed to inclusivity, but some of our behavior sends to self-described traditionalists a message of unwelcome." They found that Bishop John-David Schofield Diocese of San Joaquin is concerned that women who go through ordination are actually "make-believe priests" whose administration of the sacraments would lead recipients to be "barred from grace."

The task force had sent questionnaires to each of the denomination's dioceses. They found that:
bulletApproximately one in four Episcopal clergy is a woman.
bulletIn 27 domestic dioceses, at least one in three is a woman; in 34 dioceses, fewer than one in five is female.
bulletOne diocese reports that 62.5% of their clergy are female.

The ECUSA Executive Council "...voted to present a resolution to General Convention asking for a 'national conversation' to assist the whole church to 'promote, explore, and develop ways to facilitate the ordination of women in every diocese and their full and equal deployment throughout the church,' with a eye towards a 'day of dialogue and reflection' at the 2006 General Convention." 6

bullet2003-MAR: At the House of Bishops' spring meeting at Kanuga, NC, the bishops discussed and received an 11 page report "The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective," written by the House of Bishops Theology Committee. The report dealt entirely with homosexual issues: whether to recommend that the denomination create rituals of blessings for same-sex unions and/or ordain sexually active gays and lesbians. The sexually-related topic that caused such chaos three decades earlier -- that of female ordination -- wasn't even mentioned. The bishops did not adopt the report. They simply offered "...it to the Church for study and reflection.7
bullet2003-JUL: The 2003 General Convention was held in Minneapolis, MN. The delegates were overwhelmingly distracted by the confirmation of Gene Robinson's election as bishop of New Hampshire. He is a gay male in a long-term, committed relationship. He is definitely not the first gay bishop -- only the first openly gay bishop. No action appears to have been taken on the topic of the three bishops which still refuse to ordain women.
bullet2004-AUG: The drive for full access to ordination by women within the Episcopal Church, USA is almost complete. Only three of the 100 domestic dioceses now refuse to ordain women. It appears that the denomination is simply ignoring the issue, expecting that the problem will dissipate as the three bishops retire.
bullet2006-JUN: The Right Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Bishop of the Diocese of Nevada, was elected the 26th Presiding Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church, USA on June 18. This places her at the highest level of power in the Anglican Communion: status as Primate of an Anglican province. Her election was confirmed by the House of Deputies, as required by church canons. She will serve a term of nine years that are almost guaranteed to be among the most tumultuous in the history of the denomination, rivaling the conflicts over human slavery, contraception, female ordination to the priesthood, and female consecration as bishop. 10 More details.

Although most provinces in the Anglican Communion do recognize female priests. Few allow female bishops. None before have ever elected a woman as Primate. 12

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  1. "Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church," Minnesota Historical Society, at: http://www.mnhs.org/
  2. Jan Nunley, "Women's ordination mandatory, but opponents' rights respected," Episcopal News Service, 1997-AUG-7. Availble at: http://www.wfn.org/
  3. Louie Crew, "Female Priests in the Episcopal Church," at: http://newark.rutgers.edu/
  4. James Solheim, "Episcopal General Convention finds new ways to deal with difficult issues," Episcopal News Service, 2000-JUL-19
  5. "Executive Council task force visits three dioceses that do not ordain women priests," Episcopal News Service, 2002-FEB-25, at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/
  6. Jan Nunley, "Task force on implementation of canon on women's ministry submits final report," Episcopal News Service, 2002-OCT-24, at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/
  7. Theology Committee, "The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective," at:  http://www.ecusa.anglican.org/
  8. David Virtue, "TEXAS: Three Bishops talk candidly about the Anglican Communion Network," VirtuosityOnline, 2004-JUN-27, at: http://www.virtuosityonline.org/
  9. "A Church's Choice," WCNY Online NewsHour, 2003-AUG-01, at: http://www.pbs.org/
  10. Episcopal News Service, 2006-JUN-18.
  11. "A Statement from the American Anglican Council on the Election of the Episcopal Church’s 26th Presiding Bishop," Press Release, American Anglican Council, 2006-JUN-18.
  12. "Archbishop of Canterbury - 'Prayers' for new Presiding Bishop," Anglican Communion News Service, 2006-JUN-19.

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See our news feed on women's issues. It shows 20 current news items, and is updated every 15 minutes.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-JUN-22
Author: Bruce A. Robinson

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