When the Church of England voted Monday to allow women to become ordained as bishops, it broke another “stained glass ceiling.”
A number of Protestant denominations, especially in the United States, have been ordaining women for more than a century, but Monday’s vote holds special significance, given the church's history and place in Christianity.
Indeed, the Church of England, the mostly-symbolic mother church for an 80-million-member global Anglican community that includes 2.1 million American Episcopalians, is one of the oldest and most conservative of Christian traditions to officially break in full from the long-held requirement of an all-male clergy.
“I don't think you can overstate the fact that the Church of England allowing women to take up the role of bishop is going to change the church,” said the Very Reverend June Osborne, dean of the Salisbury Cathedral in southern England, after the vote. “I think it's going to change our society as well because it's one more step in accepting that women are really and truly equal in spiritual authority, as well as in leadership in society.”
Like their liturgical cousins in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions – which together make up approximately 1.5 billion of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians – Anglicans generally adhere to Christian rites and rituals that go back at least 1,500 years, if not longer, scholars say. And each believe in the doctrine of “apostolic succession,” the historical claim that all ordinations to Christian ministry follow an unbroken ritual of laying on of hands, going back to the apostles.
For Catholics and Orthodox, the ordination of women remains strictly forbidden for this reason. Christ laid hands on his male apostles, who in turn laid hands on the next generation of ordained male clergy, and so on to the present day. The continuity of this tradition is seen as absolute, and the requirement of an all-male clerical hierarchy is considered a near-infallible teaching.
In the 20th century, however, several local Anglican bishops began to ordain women as priests, generating a furor. The Anglican diocese of Hong Kong and Macao conferred holy orders to a female in 1944 and 1971, and American Episcopal bishops ordained 11 women to the priesthood in 1974. In the Episcopal diocese of Massachusetts in 1989, Barbara Harris became the first ordained bishop in the history of the worldwide Anglican communion.
“I do think that the ordination of women in the Episcopal church really is the gift, I would say, that the Anglican church gives to Christians worldwide,” says Jennifer Hughes, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and an ordained Episcopal priest. “Especially since their tradition is anchored in the sacramental and eucharistic tradition.”
The Church of England, too, had begun to ordain women to the priesthood in 1992, and observers say the first bishop could be elected by the end of the year.
But it’s not simply about ordination, many church observers say, but also about what women bring to Christian liturgical ministry.
“[It’s] important to emphasize as new generations of women seek ordination ... that women's ordination rites can, and should, do more than authorize women to serve in a male-dominated profession,” says Jill Crainshaw, professor of worship and liturgical theology at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., in an e-mail. “Women clergy challenge faith communities to reconsider core values such as how they interpret scripture and how they live out ministry.”
Professor Hughes, who Ms. Harris welcomed into the Episcopal Church when she converted over a decade ago, says the same.
“Certainly my experience as a woman at the altar, with a sacramental ministry, celebrating the eucharist, has been not just a gift, but it’s an incredible experience,” she says.
Though ordained an Episcopalian, Hughes still considers herself a Roman Catholic, the faith she in which she was born and raised. “I was never a lapsed Catholic,” she says. “I’ve begun to think of myself, and to speak of myself as a Roman Catholic woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.”
“I think I’m rare in saying that, I’m unusual articulating that, but I feel given the politics, especially now, I think its really important to assert that, because that’s really the truth,” she says. “I feel strongly about women being equal at every level in the ‘church universal,’ and having access to every level of ministry.”
Monday’s vote by the Church of England, she says, is part of an inevitable and ongoing process in global Christianity.
“I think when you let women [become bishops], they come into step with themselves as vehicles of God’s power,” Hughes says. “And the roof kind of gets blown off of things. I think it’s enough power in some ways to blow right through that stained-glass ceiling, the kind of power that emerges from that experience of ministry.”