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Lambeth and Women’s Ordination

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.

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