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Ordination of women

In Eastern Orthodoxy, mainline & liberal
Protestant denominations, & other religions

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Eastern Orthodox churches:

There are individual, national, Christian Orthodox churches within many of the countries of eastern Europe. During the 11th century, the Catholic Church in the 11th century formally split into two groups: the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Chruches. Eacg churche believes that they represent the original Christian church, and that they other church broke away from them.

Orthodox churches do not allow women to enter the priesthood or to be ordained as a deaconess. The late Dr. Alexander Schmemann, once Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestweed, N.Y., commented in a letter that:

"...the Orthodox Church has never faced this question, it is for us totally extrinsic, a casus irrealis for which we find no basis, no terms of reference in our Tradition, in the very experience of the Church, and for the discussion of which we are therefore simply not prepared...the ordination of women to priesthood is tantamount for us to a radical and irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of the whole Scripture, and, needless to say, the end of all 'dialogues'." Later in his letter he explained: "This priesthood is Christ's, not ours...And if the bearer, the icon and the fulfiller of that unique priesthood, is man and not woman, it is because Christ is man and not woman." 1

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An article in a mid-1998 issue of The Greek American contained a transcript of a call-in radio program; it included a query by a listener to Archbishop Spyridon about women's ordination. He replied: "...the Orthodox Church does not know of anything of an institution of priestess. But it does know about the institution of deaconesses." He mentioned that such a post existed until the 11th or 12th century and that there are currently active discussions of  "revitalizing that in institution today."

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Some in the World Council of Churches (WCC) consider that the ordination of women in Orthodox churches is not a closed matter.

During 1998, at their 8th assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, women's ordination and the use of inclusive language surfaced as key issues. Most of the member denominations of the WCC are Protestant churches; most of them ordain women as ministers and priests.

"Vsevolod Chaplin, an official of the Russian Orthodox Church described the ordination of women and inclusive language as 'blasphemy.' "

Dr. Raisner, commenting on Chaplin's statement, noted that two respected Orthodox theologians, Bishop Kallistos Ware and Elisabeth Behr-Siegel, had concluded "there are no essential or ecclesiological reasons preventing the ordination of women in the Orthodox tradition."

Dr. Janice Love, of the United Methodist Church (USA) and a 23 year veteran of the WCC's outgoing central committee, described Chaplin's speech as "one of the saddest I have ever heard." 2,3

Liberal and mainline Protestant groups:

Most liberal and mainline Christian denominations (e.g. Congregationalists, some Lutherans, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Canada, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, etc.) ordain women and give them access to other positions of power.

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The Presbyterian Church, USA adopted a Brief Statement of Faith that affirms:

"Women and men are called to all of the ministries of the church. This is part of our confessional understanding of such scriptural words as Jesus‚€™ declaration that 'whosoever would be a leader must be a servant,' and Paul‚€™s words that 'In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female.' 
We affirm the Good News of Christ‚€™s Gospel contained in the Old and New Testaments, authoritative and ever judging of human cultures, and hence liberating of all peoples from cultures of submission and gender inequality.
We value biblical scholarship that has shown how the early Church‚€™s appeal to women, slaves, and other dispossessed groups came through the welcome they received in a restrictive social context.
In our own context, partly shaped by the democratic traditions of Reformed Christianity, we recognize the importance of public statements such as this one in making clear the presence of Protestant Christian traditions that honor women‚€™s gifts of leadership and service.
We are aware of efforts to broaden the ecumenical linkages of our church and other members of the National and World Councils of Churches, but do not believe in a false deference to the views of denominations that do not share authority equally, in word, sacrament, administration, or witness. 4

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A study by the Hartford Seminary, 5 commented upon by the Boston Globe, 6 has examined the Christian denominations which do ordain women. The study shows that the number of clergywomen in 15 large Protestant denominations has skyrocketed over the past two decades. For example, between 1977 and 1997, female clergy:

  • in the American Baptist Church has increased from 157 to 712;
  • in the Episcopal Churches in the USA has increased from 94 to 1,394;
  • in the United Methodist Church has gone from 319 to 3,003.

The study found that clergywomen are paid 9% less on average when compared to men working in similar jobs within the same denomination and the same sized church. Few women serve as senior pastors. Female clergy more often serve as assistant or associate pastors; this will probably change with time as women gain more seniority on the job.

President of Hartford Seminary, Brown Zikmund, commented:

''Women are finding that even though a lot of doors are open there is still a lot of difficulty. There is still a lot of resistance and uneasiness. And it may not always be malice, as much as a lack of experience and uneasiness by some members of the laity. Some people are still not used to seeing a woman in the pulpit.''

The executive summary of the report states, in part:

"The study argues that churches need to give greater attention to the need for systemic change. If denominational leaders are actively hostile, or insensitive to finding the right ministry settings for women, women get discouraged. When this happens, it is not because women are failures - rather, it is because the system is failing women...The experience and sense of calling among clergy women in the 1990s shows that clergywomen are not merely survivors, nor are they breaking down old barriers simply to get into a vocation shaped and still dominated by male perspectives. Rather, clergywomen are reinventing ministry for the future. Clergywomen are expanding the very essence of Christian ministry and guiding the whole church to rethink and renew its leadership and membership."

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However, women remain in a minority in those denominations that permit them to be ordained. According to Time magazine, the liberal Unitarian Universalist Association, has the highest percentage of female clergy -- over 50%. (The UUA is regarded by many as a non-Protestant, non-Christian denomination.)

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Other Religions

  • Liberal Jewish groups have admit women to the rabbinate  for years; Reform Judaism since 1972; and Conservative Judaism since 1983. 7
  • The theology of most Neopagan groups has always emphasized the equality of the genders; a few give their priestesses greater authority than priests.
  • Native American traditional religions have recognized both male and female healers and leaders.
  • Women have been accepted as ministers within the Unitarian Universalist Association since 1871. Celia Burleigh, was one of the very first regularly ordained female ministers in any American denomination.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
  1. Rt. Rev. Alexander Schmemann, "Concerning Women's Ordination - a letter to an episcopal friend," available at:
  2. "Raiser raises possibility of women's ordination in Orthodox churches," Ecumenical News International, 1998-DEC-8
  3. "Raiser raises possibility of women's ordination in Orthodox churches," Ecumenical News International, 1998-DEC-9
  4. "Commissioners' Resolution 00-25," Presbyterian Church (USA), 2000, at:
  5. B.B. Zikmund, A.T. Lummis, P.M.Y. Chang, ''Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,'' Hartford Seminary, Hartford CT (scheduled to be published in 1998-MAY)
  6. Diego Ribadeneira, "The Spiritual Live, Still facing resistance, women ministers expand
    clergy's role
    ," Boston Globe, Boston MA, 1998-FEB-07, Page B02.
  7. Barry H. D. Block, "A Reform Rabbi Observes Changes in Conservative Judaism," 2007-JAN-05, at:

See our news feed on women's issues.
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Copyright © 1998 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-SEP-24
Author: Bruce A. Robinson

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