Women in the church

The Rev. Beverly Shanley. Photo: Contributed
The Rev. Beverly Shanley. Photo: Contributed
Published November 1, 2011

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Today, nearly 37 per cent or 886 out of 2,396 active clergy in Canada are female. The Anglican Church of Canada has six female bishops. The Lutheran church ordained its first woman pastor on May 7, 1976, and today three of its six bishops are female. One of them, Susan Johnson, is the national bishop.

Bishop Sue Moxley of the Anglican diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island will preside over the eucharist at a celebration service on Nov. 30, St. Andrew’s Day. This is the same day that, in 1976, the Anglican Church of Canada ordained six women priests from four dioceses.

The service kicks off three days of special events in historic Lunenburg, N.S. The gathering will be a time of “celebration, reconnecting, sharing stories, renewing baptismal and ordination vows,” say organizers of Reflecting the Light of Christ. There will also be a number of workshops aimed at equipping delegates for future ministry.

To register for the event, go to http://tinyurl.com/3lcmghs
Celebration organizers have also set up a Facebook page http://tinyurl.com/3w7ta6x.

We may have come a long way but the journey is far from over

At a recent international gathering, Bishop Sue Moxley of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island was asked by a young African woman if she was indeed a bishop. “Well, I am,” replied Moxley, a bit taken aback.

“Then why do you not wear your purple shirt?” asked the woman. “I need you to wear it. I need to know it is possible.”

Moxley realized that even though the Anglican Church of Canada marks the 35th anniversary of women’s ordination to the priesthood on Nov. 30, the ordination of women is still a dream in many parts of the Anglican Communion. To date, 17 out of 38 provinces in the Anglican Communion consecrate women to the episcopate and seven out of 38 have yet to approve the ordination of women to any order of ministry.

In Canada, where women are generally accepted in parish ministry as clergy, regional deans, archdeacons, deans of cathedrals and bishops, “we almost take for granted that that’s the way it is and that’s the way it should be,” says Moxley, who was ordained in 1985, elected suffragan bishop in 2004 and then diocesan bishop in 2007.

The first six Canadian Anglican women were ordained into the priesthood in the dioceses of Niagara, Huron, Cariboo and New Westminster in 1976. Now, every diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada permits the ordination of women as priests, including the diocese of Fredericton, which was the last to open its doors to women, in 1991.

As of June 11, 2011, records show that 36.9 per cent (886 out of 2,396) active clergy in the Anglican Church of Canada are female. Women make up 17 per cent (250 out of 1,470) of retired clergy.

Although there are six female members in the House of Bishops, they represent only 15 per cent of the 41 active members, points out Moxley. “We’re seriously outnumbered,” she says, admitting that the journey is far from over. She points out that gains achieved by women have had a tendency to “slide back” if they’re not on the radar.

The bitter division that characterized the period prior to women’s ordination is now over, insists Bishop Moxley. However, the years preceding it may be important to remember. There were occasions when women were not welcome at theological school, and in some cases, were threatened with physical harm. Some Anglicans left the church; others held public protests at General Synod. They argued that women “by nature and theology” could not be priests.

Those in favour argued that theologically, there was no barrier to women becoming priests. Archbishop Ted Scott, who was primate of the Anglican Church of Canada at the time, said in a 1976 interview with the Canadian Churchman, “God made man and woman in his own image, and in that sense, is beyond human sexuality.”

Patricia Bays, author of Partners in the Dance: Stories of Canadian Women in Ministry [Anglican Book Centre, 1993], says she would “certainly like to see more parity” for women in senior leadership positions, including “metropolitan” (senior archbishop) and primate. “I think it’s coming, but it’s good to work towards a goal of equal representation of women and men,” says Bays, who studied theology at Trinity College in Toronto, but didn’t feel a calling to be ordained.

In 2001, at the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women, the church’s first two women bishops-Bishop Victoria Matthews (elected suffragan in the diocese of Toronto in 1993 and diocesan bishop of Edmonton in 1997) and Bishop Ann Tottenham (elected suffragan in the diocese of Toronto in 1997)-weighed in on the scarcity of women leaders in the church. Women entering the priesthood were “significantly older than men,” noted Matthews and most chose it as a second career. As a result, it has taken years for younger female priests to work their way up the church hierarchy. It took 18 years from the time of her ordination for Matthews, then 39, to become the church’s first woman bishop.

Women were more reluctant to seek higher positions, said Tottenham in an interview with the Anglican Journal in 2001. “It’s like, ‘I don’t need that kind of grief.’ ”

The lone female primate of the 38 worldwide is the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, previously bishop of Nevada. On June 18, 2006, she was elected 26th presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church and became primate and chief pastor to 2.4 million members in 16 countries and 110 dioceses.

Today, the number of female Canadian Anglicans enrolling in Master of Divinity programs has grown steadily. But many of them are still going through a mid-life career change. When the Rev. Jessica Worden-Bolling, 29, now associate priest in the parish of March, diocese of Ottawa, pursued her MDiv at Huron University College from 2004 to 2007, female students made up at least half of the class, but young women like herself were in the minority.

Still, Worden-Bolling says she is grateful to all those who made it possible for her to become a priest. “I am glad that I did not have to hold back my vocation but was able to pursue the calling that I felt God was inviting me to.”


The Anglican Church of Canada’s (ACC) House of Bishops and General Synod approve two resolutions authorizing the ordination of
female deacons.

General Synod gives initial approval to a resolution authorizing the ordination of women.

The House of Bishops recommends approval by General Synod of the legislation.

General Synod approves the resolution authorizing the ordination of women.

The ordination of six women takes place in four dioceses.

The ACC rescinds a “conscience clause” stating that no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should suffer a crisis of conscience as a result of women being ordained.

The first female bishop, Victoria Matthews, is elected suffragan bishop of the diocese of Toronto.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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