By Molly Jane Layton 

The steeple of our white clapboard Congregational church rose high above the common in my hometown in rural Massachusetts. Church was the center of our lives; if the doors were open, my family was there. Then one year the church hosted a female seminarian, and suddenly, whenever she preached, we stayed home. Young and dutiful, I accepted without question my parents’ simple explanation that women should not preach to men.

It was the early 1990s, and my world was not much bigger than that small-town common. I had no idea that the Anglican Communion even existed, let alone that this question was being heavily debated in it. While the Episcopal Church in the United States had been ordaining women since 1976, the Church of England would not regularize it until 1994 and other provinces would wait even longer.

Roughly three decades later, I am finished with seminary, ordained to the diaconate, and awaiting ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church (thankfully with my parents’ full support and blessing). My own journey to embracing women’s ordination is not terribly dramatic; eventually I came to understand the Apostle Paul’s controversial remarks about women as restricted to a certain cultural context. In TEC itself, women’s ordination is so prevalent that the question seems almost passé.


However, I am deeply aware that I am going against the grain of nearly 2,000 years of Church tradition on this point. The reminders are subtle, but there. One day it’s the slightly panicked phone call from my parents because their weekly Bible study topic is women’s ordination. They’re afraid all the group’s questions will be directed at them since they’re the only ones who know a woman seeking ordination. Another day it’s the realization that, within a group of female clergy friends from seminary, all but one of us are either an assistant at a parish that has never had a female rector or the very first female priest at a parish. Add in the fact that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which together represent more than half of all Christians worldwide, do not sanction the ordination of women, and you realize just how small our influence on this point is. Despite the fact that it’s been nearly 50 years since the Philadelphia Eleven, we are still riding in the vanguard of women’s ordination.

This felt especially striking to me as I followed some of the current controversies at Lambeth this summer. I realized that, because women’s ordination is a fait accompli in TEC, I knew little to nothing about its history of reception in the Anglican Communion. So I started doing some digging. It was first brought up at Lambeth in 1920, where the “Bishop of Ely described it as ‘a revolution so complete and so perilous’ that it had no place in the Conference’s remotest vision.”[1] However, the bishops did pass several resolutions which took seriously the work which women were doing in the church. Despite limiting the ordained service of women to the order of deaconesses, they acknowledged that order as having “the stamp of apostolic approval.”[2] Deaconesses were able to prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation, assist at baptisms, counsel women, lead the daily office, and “instruct and exhort the congregation.”[3]

Ten years later, however, it was apparent that progress was anything but linear. At Lambeth in 1930, the bishops were still willing to recognize the order of deaconesses, but the resolution notably eliminated the phrase “the stamp of apostolic approval.”[4] On the other hand, the permission “to instruct and exhort” was changed to “instruct and preach, except in the service of Holy Communion.”[5] Apart from the exceptional ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi in 1944, this status quo persisted for decades, with no developments of note at either the 1948 or 1958 Lambeth Conferences.

Then, in 10 short years, much changed. The Lambeth Conference in 1968 did not make any decisions about the ordination of women, but requested that the matter be studied and that any province seek the advice of the newly formed Anglican Consultative Council before proceeding.[6] The Diocese of Hong Kong was the first to approach the ACC in 1971, and was advised to proceed with ordaining women, though some saw this as controversial, since the ACC was a new body, and insufficient time had been given to study the matter (despite the fact that “the matter” had been before Lambeth for 50 years at this point!).[7] By the time the next Lambeth Conference came around in 1978, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand had all joined Hong Kong in ordaining women.

Thus, Lambeth 1978 had an actively divided Communion on its hands. Its response in Resolution 21 acknowledges the tension of autonomy and interdependence in the Communion; provinces had the right to ordain women, but everyone needed to acknowledge that this debate “caused distress and pain to many on both sides.” No one was unaffected as individual provinces moved forward in prayer, conversation, and study, in the process of reception.

Mary Tanner, in an article written shortly after the Church of England joined the ranks of provinces ordaining women, describes reception in this way:

If a province proceeded to ordain or consecrate women to the presbyterate or episcopate, that development in the ordering of the universal ministry was to be understood as given up to the discernment of … all the provinces of the Anglican Communion and offered to the universal church for discernment. The matter could not be declared to be settled, beyond any shadow of doubt, until it was “received” by the whole church. We go on together, respecting one another’s deeply held convictions, respecting the integrity of one another in an open process of discernment.[8]

By this definition, over 100 years after the question was first put to the bishops at Lambeth, the reception of women’s ordination is still on-going, both in the provinces of the Anglican Communion and in the universal Church. We have not yet reached the point where this question is settled beyond a shadow of a doubt. Perhaps we have come close within the Anglican Communion itself, but the Church universal is very far from it. The part of me that is steeped in our progressive culture of fighting for rights and justice wants to be a little outraged at this. But the dutiful little girl who trusted her parents’ word so many years ago is also still a part of me, and I think there is something worth respecting in that basic childhood intuition. It is a good thing when we listen to the tradition handed down to us. It is a good thing when the Church carefully considers changes on major issues of polity, doctrine, and morality. The Church Fathers (and Mothers!) were imperfect, yes, but also led by the Spirit of God, just as we in the modern era are both imperfect and led by the Spirit of God. There is room for change and growth, and room for respecting both tradition and traditional interpretations of Scripture. God’s grace is big enough for all of us as we stumble through these significant and difficult questions.

So, I trust that my coming ordination will in no way be impaired by my gender. I also trust that God in his time will lead the rest of the Church to receive women’s ordination. And until that time comes, I hope that we can step by step “move towards a fuller catholicity and a deeper fellowship in the Holy Spirit.”[9]

[1] Timothy Willem Jones, Sexual Politics in the Church of England, 1857-1957 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 94, quoting from Lambeth Conference Papers, Lambath Palace Library, London (1920) 106: 221.

[2] Lambeth Conference 1920, Resolution 48.

[3] Lambeth Conference 1920, Resolution 52.

[4] Jones, Sexual Politics, 102; Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 67.

[5] Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 70, emphasis mine.

[6] Lambeth Conference 1968, Resolutions 35, 37.

[7] Mary Tanner, “The Conflict Over Women’s Ordination: A Credible Model for Ecumenical Decision Making?.”

[8] Tanner, “The Conflict,” 436.

[9] Lambeth Conference 1978, Resolution 21.

About The Author

The Rev. Molly Jane (“MJ”) Layton is the associate rector for congregational care and worship at the Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan.


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8 Responses

  1. Charlie Clauss

    The development of doctrine is an important idea, but one that needs a fair amount of nuance.

    We could make a long list of doctrines that seem to have under gone development (or that people have sought to have go under development). The discernment for each, when parsed carefully, shows that the process is not always done carefully.

    At the top of the list of factors that must be analyzed is the relationship between culture and faith. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot work for change using the agency of culture, but it must then be said that the Holy Spirit isn’t the only spiritual force working in culture!

    Slavery (and its associated ideas of ethnocentrism and racism) appears to be a good example of doctrine that was (and to some extent still is) enmeshed in culture, but that has “come out right.”

    But then in the light of Modernity, the doctrine of the Resurrection has come under fire with cultural influences seeking to transform it into mere metaphor. “‘Science’ has ‘proven’ the resurrection couldn’t (didn’t) happen.” This battle rages on (if you don’t believe this, do an adult forum in an average Episcopal church on “Science and the Resurrection”).

    I believe women’s ordination will be shown to be analogous to slavery – the church will one day throw off the fetters of historic patriarchy, as it has (mostly) done with ethnocentrism – and bring women “everywhere” into the fullness of ordained ministry.

    The problem remains how to discern which development is of the Holy Spirt and which is not.

    I said more on this here:

    and here:

    • Matthew Kemp

      I don’t think the slavery analogy entirely works. Christianity had already rejected slavery by the Middle Ages, at least in its official teaching. The acceptance of slavery in the modern era was more of a regression, justified by a philosophy of racial superiority that was essentially invented for that purpose. As you noted with other examples, progress is not always linear.

  2. Mary Barrett

    As a female and teenager in the Roman Catholic Church, I began wondering why women did not simply stop supporting a group that held them as second class citizens. Stop being part of the Altar Society, stop going to mass and stop baptizing their babies as Roman Catholics. I still think that, I think it had nothing to do with God changing things in his good time, it has everything to do with men holding on to power with God as their excuse. If women want change, leave a group that continues to hold on to its human-based power. Things would change then.

  3. Charles Read

    First, your gender has no effect on your ordination so be assured you have been and will be just as much ordained as anyone else!

    Two small but significant adjustments to the history you helpfully set out here: the Church of England first ordained women in 1987 when women could be deacons (priestly ordination came later as you note) and deaconesses were /are a lay order so women were not ordained as deaconesses – they were admitted to office I would imagine.

    In England (and Wales?), a significant move was to open the office of Lay Reader (i.e. trained and licenced lay minister) to women in 1968 (I think – it was late 1960s anyway) -this meant women were preaching and leading worship regularly in a very visible way. (Deaconesses were never numerous so their ministry was less visible).

    Then there is the whole issue of how the Church of England has done it. We have put in place safeguards (note the language) for those who cannot accept the ordination of women. Many of us feel this has hindered not helped as far as staying together across diversity is concerned.

    • Molly Jane Layton

      Charles, thanks so much for your comments. It’s helpful to hear a little more detail about the other side of the pond!

      The question of whether the order of deaconesses was lay or ordained is complicated. Lambeth 1920 in Resolution 50 established that deaconesses were “made” (their choice of words) by the episcopal laying on of hands. While the word ordained isn’t used, one could argue that it is implied by the laying on of hands. In 1948 when faced with the question of Florence Li Tim Oi, Lambeth passed Resolution 114, which states explicitly that the order of deaconesses was considered an ordained ministry.

      “The Conference reaffirms Resolution 67 of the Conference of 1930 that ‘the order of deaconess is for women the one and only order of the ministry which we can recommend our branch of the Catholic Church to recognise and use.’ It also approves the resolution adopted in 1939-1941 in both Houses of the Convocations of Canterbury and York ‘that the order of deaconesses is the one existing ordained ministry for women in the sense of being the only order of ministry in the Anglican Communion to which women are admitted by episcopal imposition of hands.'”


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