There is not unanimous agreement about women’s ordination in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Godly and thoughtful Christians hold opposing convictions about Holy Orders and who is called to ordained ministry. You often see the results of this debate at the Provincial level—a national expression of the Church may or may not ordain women, in accordance with their conviction. But for the Anglican Church in North America this disagreement is internal to the Province, varying from diocese to diocese and bishop to bishop.
This makes the ACNA a complicated place to be ordained, especially as a woman. However, I also believe that this diversity of conviction and practice is a strength of our denomination.
Unity in Diversity
Since the inception of the ACNA, the College of Bishops has embraced a “dual integrities” approach to the ordination of women.
- Some bishops ordain women as priests and commission them as church planters.
- Some bishops only ordain women as deacons.
- Some bishops do not ordain women but will license a woman to serve in a particular church that requests it.
- Some bishops do not receive women in Holy Orders at all.
The specifics of which ACNA dioceses do/don’t ordain women can be found here.
“Q. What is the ACNA’s position on women’s ordination?
“A. At the inception of the Anglican Church in North America, the lead Bishops unanimously agreed to work together for the good of the Kingdom. As part of this consensus, it was understood that there were differing understandings regarding the ordination of women to Holy Orders, but there existed a mutual love and respect for one another and a desire to move forward for the good of the Church. This commitment was deeply embedded in the Constitution and Canons overwhelmingly adopted by the Inaugural Assembly (2009).
“In respect of the two integrities concerning Holy Orders, three matters were specifically agreed in Constitution and Canons:
- The Province shall make no canon abridging the authority of any member dioceses, clusters or networks (whether regional or affinity-based) and those dioceses banded together as jurisdictions with respect to its practice regarding the ordination of women to the diaconate or presbyterate (Constitution, Article VIII)
- Except as hereinafter provided, the norms for ordination shall be determined by the Bishops having jurisdiction. (Title III Canon 1.4)
- To be a suitable candidate for the episcopate (bishops), a person must: Be a male Presbyter at least 35 years old. (Title III Canon 8.3.7)”
In other words, our bishops have agreed to disagree, honoring a diversity of convictions about ministry and mission. This is a model of Christian charity for all of us, a unity that does not demand unanimous agreement on every issue.
When my husband and I were first exploring the Anglican tradition, this unity in diversity attracted us. We were weary of the perpetual divisions characterized by theological hairsplitting and defensiveness. It seemed that, in an effort to defend doctrinal purity, many Protestant churches kept getting smaller and smaller by separating from those who disagreed with them on this or that issue.
Anglicanism, on the other hand, describes a willingness to hold together a lot of diversity within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Some Anglicans around the world are extremely charismatic; others more evangelical; others more sacramental. Some are very Reformed in their theology, others more Arminian. This felt like a breath of fresh air to us, and an opportunity to acknowledge that the Church—the global, historic body of Christ—is actually quite large and diverse. The Church includes people who disagree with me, and I am grateful to share Table fellowship with them.
Unity does not have to mean absolute unanimity on secondary issues and practices. I realize that some would consider women’s ordination a primary issue. But since the bishops in the ACNA have agreed to allow differences of opinion on this issue within the Province, it remains a secondary issue in practice.
This is not to say that “anything goes”
As canon theologian Esau McCaulley noted, there are certainly boundaries around what constitutes “tolerable” disagreement in the Church. This is precisely why the historic ecumenical creeds came into being, and this is why our bishops gather to have difficult conversations about questions of orthodoxy today. Therefore we can follow their example by practicing gracious respect for conscience within those parameters.
Bearing with one another in love
The dual integrities model gives us an opportunity to practice this graciousness. It provides the opportunity to “walk…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” as the apostle Paul encourages us to do (Eph. 4:1–3).
I recently saw this happen at a diocesan gathering where members of a task-force who represented a variety of perspectives on women’s ordination presented together on ways all of our churches can encourage and strengthen the ministry of women in their midst. In addition to a unified presentation, they shared stories of how they had personally grown in respect for each other and become true friends through the process, despite their differences of opinion. As I heard them speak, I felt grateful to be part of a church that creates space for this kind of connection to happen.
This practice of “bearing with one another” is not only good for the Church. It is also good for the world. We live in a society that is characterized by polarization and ultimatums. “If you don’t agree with me,” we are told, “you can’t have fellowship with me.” Often this goes much further: “If you don’t agree with me, you don’t deserve to exist.” In light of this, Christians who can live peaceably together—even with significant disagreements—can be a powerful apologetic to the broader culture.
Laying down our lives
I don’t mean to imply that this is easy to do. With significant disagreement often comes significant pain. I know women who experience real discouragement and frustration, ranging from challenges finding a job (or even a discernment committee) to the inability to exercise their ordained ministry in their diocese. I also know men and women who feel uncomfortable bringing their children to Communion when a woman is celebrating the Eucharist.
And of course, the disagreement does not cleanly fall along gendered lines, or even diocesan or parish lines. The dual integrity approach is not exactly comfortable for anyone. However, my own faith has been strengthened as I’ve witnessed people on both sides steward these challenges with humility and grace.
And for those of us in Holy Orders, this personal discomfort can connect us even more deeply to the meaning of our vows. We promise to “share in the humility and service of our Lord Jesus Christ” who “humbled himself, becoming obedient even to death on a Cross.”
During their ordination service, ordinands traditionally lie prostrate—in the shape of a Cross—before the Bishop. This gesture has layers of meaning and is sometimes exchanged for kneeling (which—full disclosure—I had to do as I was ordained while eight months pregnant!). But the significance is the same: those in Holy Orders make vows of servanthood and self-sacrifice. And in the ACNA, we all get to practice humility and self-sacrifice when it comes to our disagreements over women’s ordination.
Would it be easier if we all agreed? Absolutely. Is agreement a worthy goal to work toward? Sure. But until then—if that day ever comes—there is also great value in learning to live together with differences. Some of my dearest friends are people who love Jesus, preach the gospel, and disagree with my ordination. They have made me a better Christian; and, I hope, a more thoughtful, sensitive priest. Our togetherness is complex, but it is a gift nonetheless.