A Milestone Year for Women in the Church

by the Rev. Canon Valerie Ambrose

In my visits with parishes and vestries around our diocese I often hear the question, “Why does the church move so slowly?”  That certainly was a question posed by supporters of women’s ordination to the priesthood for 87 years after the first women were approved to be ordained deaconesses and for more than four decades after the first woman was ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion.

Why does the church move so slowly?

This year marks the 75thanniversary of the ordination of Florence Tim-Oi in Hong Kong by The Rt. Rev. R. O. Hall.  However, she delayed serving as a priest in order to protect her bishop from censure while waiting for the Anglican Communion to acknowledge her ordination.  Considered a counter-revolutionary by the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China, Tim-Oi was forced to undergo political re-education and to work on a farm and later in a factory until 1974.  She eventually was allowed to exercise her priestly ministry in the nationalized Chinese church.  After visiting family in Canada in 1981 she moved there and was licensed in the dioceses of Montreal and Toronto, where she served until her death in 1992.

Two other women, Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett, were ordained to the priesthood in Hong Kong in 1971 by Bishop Gilbert Baker. Those ordinations fueled the debate in our country over whether women could be ordained as priests here as well. In the preceding year our General Convention had eliminated the deaconess canon and voted to ordain women as deacons equally as men.  At that same convention, where women could serve as deputies for the first time, lay deputies voted to approve the ordination of women to the priesthood, but the clerical order defeated that resolution.  Again at the 1973 General Convention the vote to approve the ordination of women to the priesthood failed to pass.

Following that convention 11 women deacons were “irregularly” ordained to the priesthood in Philadelphia in 1974.  Another 4 women were ordained priests in 1975 in Washington, D.C.   At the 1976 General Convention growing support for women’s ordination led to both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies finally approving women to be ordained to the priesthood and episcopate.  A short 13 years later in 1989, The Rev. Barbara C. Harris was consecrated the first female bishop of our Church, and in 2006 The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori was the first woman to be elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, thereby making her the first female Primate of the Anglican Communion.

To some the Church moves far too slowly.  To some the Church moves far too quickly.

To some the Church moves far too slowly.  To some the Church moves far too quickly.  But most would agree that the structure and polity of our Church allows for ample study, debate and prayerful discernment as we strive to heed the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Since the first ordination of a woman to the priesthood 75 years ago, tremendous equality for women in the Church has been achieved and appreciated in many corners of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  May the gifts of all God’s sons and daughters continue to be affirmed and celebrated.  And may everyone’s talents and faith also be understood to be imbued by God for the carrying out the mission of the Church–to restore all people to unity with one another and God.