Monday, August 20, 2007


“A wider and deeper understanding of the feminine contribution
to our culture should lead to the construction of a global history…which
will deal with every aspect of reality” – Adriana Valerio[1]
Though there were contributions made by women throughout history, it was in the twentieth century that the leadership roles of the women became more conspicuous.
In this assignment I attempt to bring out the history of the leadership role played by women and the history of the issue of ordination of women in the Church. For the sake of clarity I have divided the paper into three parts. 1. An historical background on the leadership role of women 2. The historical developments in the Twentieth and the Twenty-first centuries and 3. A brief mention about the first ordained woman in India. I conclude the paper with a few questions and comments.
Historical background (Upto the 19th century):[2]
The issue of women leadership has to begin with the early Christianity from the New Testament. There are several instances where women participated in the Ministry of Jesus (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susana etc.,) and also in the early Church (Lydia, Priscilla, Tabitha, Tryphena, Tryphosa etc.)[3] The women deacons were part of the early Church and it is a probability that ‘widows’ were the first deacons to help. However in the fourth and the fifth centuries women deacons could do the same duties as the male deacons except for the Eucharist.[4] Apart from the deacons, the Abesses and nuns also exercised quasi-Episcopal prerogatives till the Council of Trent curbed the powers in the 16th century. The later middle ages show the women actively participating at all levels of society, thereby expressing their need for greater involvement and responsibility.
The17th and the 18th centuries saw the ascent of the women as preachers under the sectarian groups that were formed and later under the pietistic movement and the great awakening.[5] Especially during the Missionary movement, the wives of the Missionaries played an important role in the spread of the gospel and also in social activities like education and health care. Some prominent names are Dorothy Carey, Ann Hasseltine Judson. In the 19th century the General conference of the Brethren Church approved the ordination of women as Pastors and Missionaries and ordained Mary Sterling as their first Missionary. Other mainline Churches that had ordained women in the 1800s were the American Baptists, the United Church of the Christ, the Congregationalists and the Disciples of Christ.[6]
20th and the 21st centuries:
20th century was a period of both struggle as well as success, in the issue of women taking up the leadership in the Church and in Christianity. The Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland admitted women into the Ministry of the Church since 1918; the congregational Union of England and Wales, 1917; the Presbyterian Church of England, 1921 and the United Free Church of Scotland in 1929.[7]
The world council of Churches (WCC) played an important role in developing the leadership role of women. As early as1927, when the faith and order movement met for its first conference at Laussanne, a statement was drafted to introduce questions of Women's role on Ministry. This was taken up when the WCC was formed in 1948 and in the New Delhi session in 1961, the faith and order movement was again entrusted with the task of studying the issue. The 1971 Louvain meeting focused on ordination and the issue of the participation of men and women in the Church. The 1975 WCC session at Nairobi came up with the recommendations that, all the member Churches should encourage fuller participation of the women and recommend to the Churches that do not ordain the women and continue to dialogue on the issue. Apart from this several sub unit meetings were held between 1976 and 1978 regarding the same issue. In 1978, Bangalore session of Faith and Order commission, it was proposed to draft a document.[8] Although an Ecumenical decade of Churches in solidarity with the women (1988-98) was initiated in 1988, in the 1998 WCC assembly at Harare, the moderator, Aram I Catholicos of Cilicia, pointed out that women have not been completely accepted and integrated into the life of the churches.[9]
Until the 1986 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion was opposed to the ordination of women. The Church of England approved the ordination of women formally in 1993 and Archbishop George Carey ordained 22 women as priests. As of 2001, there were 600 women priest in the Church of England.[10]
In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Joan’s Alliance, which began in England in 1911 was the earliest Catholic group to raise the issue of Women’s ordination. In the Detroit meeting in 1975 and the Women’s Ordination conference (WOC) in 1976, the catholic women in large numbers began to deliberate on this. However in 1976, the Vatican responded by justifying the denial of the ordination of women with the maleness of Jesus. The WOC responded, by reframing the question from one primarily of gender to that of ecclesiology. In the early 1980s several movements were formed. Three conferences were conducted as a result – From generation to generation: Women-Church speaks (Chicago, 1983), Women Church: claiming our power (Cincinatti, 1987) and Women-Church: Weavers of change (Alburquerque,1993). In 1994, the arguments against the women ordination was reiterated by the Papal pronouncement Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. [11] However, Catholic feminists are giving shape and life to alternative catholic communities in which people live out their sacramental rights and their solidarity responsibilities.[12]
Orthodox Church: An international women’s gathering was organized at the monastery of Agapia in 1976, where about 30 women met together and drew proposals about the issue of women leadership in the Orthodox Churches. This stimulated a continuous study on the issue and the Sheffield international consultation in 1981, where a “letter to the Churches” was drafted and put forward to the WCC central committee, but was received rather coldly. In 1988 in Rhodes a consultation was held at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and took up the theme of “the place of women in the Orthodox Church and the question of Ordination of women”. However, though the consultation did not have a big breakthrough, there is a ray of hope for all Orthodox feminist theologians like, Dimitra Koukora and Kalliope Bourdara. Elisabeth Behr Sigel, an Orthodox theologian, points out that the desire for the unity of the Lord’s followers in obedience should encourage the Orthodox Churches and other traditional Churches to face the question of women’s ordination to a full Ministry in the Church.[13] The same wish was taken up in the Orthodox women’s meeting in Damascus (October 1996) and Istanbul (May 1997).
Rev. Elizabeth Paul:
Rev. Elizabeth Paul was a member of the Diocese of Madras and was born in 1927. She became a Sister of the Order of Women in the Church of South India and represented the order at various assemblies of DIAKONIA and in 1976 she became a vice president of DIAKONIA. She was also a Tutor at the Selly Oaks College in Birmingham from 1962 to 1964. She was ordained as a Deacon in the Diocese of Madras in 1976 as a Deacon, the first to be done so in the Indian Church. Because of a court case she could be ordained only in 1987 as a presbyter. She also taught in the UTC and was in charge of Vishranti Nilayam, before she passed away in February, 2000.[14]
There are several questions that arise from this paper. Do we have to lay so much emphasis on the leadership of women? What is the relevance of the leadership to the women in the villages and slums? Can a Professor of Theology and an executive Director of WCC make a difference for the commercial sex workers who are abused and harassed and the wives beaten up by their husbands?
At the same time, most of the feminist scholars agree that it is not a question of choice but rather, one of commitment.[15] While the leadership and ordination cannot give solutions and give answers, it has certainly brought to light the fears, doubts and mistakes that were taken for granted and swept under the carpet of traditions and culture. Finally, as Ioannis Petrou says, it is high time that the Church claims not only its God-given identity as koinonia, but also finds the way to allow that to which the Church bears witness to become a reality.[16]


Osuigwe, Nkem. Perspectives on women ordination (Owerri: Alphabet Nigeria, 2001)
Parvey, Constance (ed.). Ordination of women in Ecumenical perspective (Geneva: WCC, 1980)
Ralte, Lalrinawmi & Rajkumar, Evangeline Anderson (ed.). Feminist Hermeneutics (Delhi: IWIT/ISPCK, 2002)
Sigel, Elisabeth Behr & Ware, Kallistos. The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church (Geneva: WCC, 2000)

Crawford, Janet “Women and Ecclesiology” in the ecumenical review, vol. 53 No. 1 (Geneva: WCC, January 2001)
Petrou, Ioannis “The Question of women in Church Tradition” in Anglican Theological Review Summer 2002 Vol. 84 No.3(Evanston: ATR Inc, 2002)
Hunt, Mary E. “We women are Church: Roman Catholic women shaping Ministries and Theologies” in Concillium , (London: SCM Press, 1999/3)
Valerio, Adriana “Women in Church History” in Concillium, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1985)
Weyermann, Maja “The Typologies of Adam-Christ and Eve-Mary, and their relationship to one another” in Anglican Theological Review Summer 2002 Vol. 84 No.3(Evanston: ATR Inc, 2002)

[1] Adriana Valerio, “Women in Church History” in Concillium, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1985), 69
[2] As I do not hope to concentrate much in this topic, I have taken much of the material from a single source that I have acknowledged below.
[3] Since the role played by women has already been highlighted in different papers, I shall not elaborate on it.
[4] Nkem Osuigwe, Perspectives on women ordination, (Owerri: Alphabet Nigeria, 2001), 57f
[5] There was no change in the view of the subordination of the woman to man.
[6] Ibid., 63
[7] Ibid., 64
[8] Constance Parvey (ed.), Ordination of women in Ecumenical perspective,(Geneva: WCC, 1980), 22ff
[9] Janet Crawford, “Women and Ecclesiology” in the ecumenical review, vol. 53 No. 1 (Geneva: WCC, January 2001), 14
[10] ibid 67.
[11] Mary E. Hunt, “We women are Church: Roman Catholic women shaping Ministries and Theologies” in Concillium , (London: SCM Press, 1999/3), 105ff
[12] Ibid., 108
[13] Elisabeth Behr Sigel & Kallistos Ware, The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church (Geneva: WCC, 2000), 45
[14] Lalrinawmi Ralte & Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar (ed.), Feminist Hermeneutics, (Delhi: IWIT/ISPCK, 2002), 8f
[15] Maja Weyermann, “The Typologies of Adam-Christ and Eve-Mary, and their relationship to one another” in Anglican Theological Review Summer 2002 Vol. 84 No.3(Evanston: ATR Inc, 2002), 644, Aruna Gnanadason, “We will pour our Ointment on the feet of the Church” in Lalrinawmi Ralte & Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar (ed.), Op. cit., 78 etc
[16] Ioannis Petrou, “The Question of women in Church Tradition” in Anglican Theological Review Summer 2002 Vol. 84 No.3(Evanston: ATR Inc, 2002),660

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