Christianity has always been strongly patriarchal; for millennia women were blocked from top positions in almost every aspect of the church. And while progress has been made over the past 100 years in the Protestant sections of the faith, a giant step forward occurred last month in London when the Church of England (the mother church for the Anglican Communion, best known in the US as the Episcopalian Church) officially voted to allow women to serve as bishops. It was particularly dramatic because, just two years earlier, a similar vote had failed.
With a membership currently estimated at around 80 million worldwide, the Anglican Communion is the third largest segment of Christianity in the world, right after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (both of which embrace a strict traditionalist stance and refuse women the right to full ministry or ordination). This makes the Anglican Church the largest single group of Christians to officially welcome women into the upper hierarchy of their church.
While it was a long time coming at an official level, because of the degree of autonomy given churches in the Anglican Communion, some of the far-flung members have ordained female priests (officially allowed in 1994) and even bishops for decades. The first female bishop in the Anglican Communion was in that rebel American colony of Massachusetts. Barbara Harris was ordained as a supporting bishop in 1989, a move that caused outrage among conservative Anglicans. But since then over a dozen women have been elected Anglican bishops here in the US. In 2006 we were also the first province of the Anglican Communion to elect a woman, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, to the role of Primate, a position that’s equivalent to an archbishop in Catholicism.
And we’re not alone; there have been several other “rogue” Anglican bishops. Two years ago, Swaziland ordained its first female Anglican bishop (the Right Reverend Ellinah Wamukoya). Her appointment was seen as a significant move for women’s rights in a country often accused of embodying a strict patriarchal philosophy.
In truth, for several generations Christianity’s position on woman in the church has been seen as both a religious matter and a wider statement on the rights of women in society. With this vote we finally have genuine movement toward equality in a significant sector of Christianity. Jolly good show, Church of England! Reclaim that balance!
Seek Balance: What do you think women can bring to religious ministry that differs from what men bring?
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