In historical Christianity, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism and Anglicanism, ordination - distinguished from religious or consecrated life - is the means by which a person is included in one of the priestly orders: bishop, priest, or deacon.
In many Protestant denominations ordination is understood more generally as the acceptance of a person for pastoral work. Since the mid-nineteenth century, these denominations have allowed for female office-bearers and preachers. Today, about half of all American Protestant denominations ordain women and about 30% of all seminary students (and in some seminaries over half) are female.
Orthodox Judaism does not permit women to become rabbis (instead, the women in leadership positions are often rebbetzin, wives of a rabbi), but female rabbis have begun to appear in recent decades among more liberal Jewish movements, especially the Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform, and Humanistic denominations.
Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders. The imam serves as a spiritual leader and religious authority. Most strands of Islam permit women to lead female-only congregations in prayer (one of the competences of an imam), but restrict their roles in mixed-sex congregations. There is a recent movement to extend women's roles in spiritual leadership.
Within Buddhism, the legitimacy of ordaining women as bhikkhuni (nuns) has become a significant topic of discussion in some areas in recent years. It is widely accepted that the Buddha created an order of bhikkhuni, but the tradition of ordaining women has died out in some Buddhist traditions, such as Theravada Buddhism, while remaining strong in others, such as Chinese Buddhism.
The tradition of the ordained monastic community (sangha) began with Buddha, who established an order of Bhikkhus (monks). According to the scriptures, later, after an initial reluctance, he also established an order of Bhikkhunis (nuns). However, according to the scriptural account, not only did the Buddha lay down more rules of discipline for the bhikkhuni (311 compared to the bhikkhu's 227 in the Theravada version), he also made it more difficult for them to be ordained, and made them subordinate to monks. The historicity of this account has been questioned,, sometimes to the extent of regarding nuns as a later invention. The stories, sayings and deeds of some of the distinguished Bhikkhunis of early Buddhism are recorded in many places in the Pali Canon, most notably in the Therigatha.
The tradition flourished for centuries throughout South and East Asia, but appears to have died out in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka in the 11th century C.E. It survived in Burma to about the 13th century, but died out there too. It was never introduced to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia or Tibet. However, the Mahayana tradition, in China, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong, has retained the practice, where nuns are called 'Bhikṣuṇī' (the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali 'Bhikkhuni').
The International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages took place in Germany, on July 18–20, 2007.
There have been some attempts in recent years to revive the tradition of women in the sangha within Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, with many women ordained in Sri Lanka since 1996. Some of these were carried out with the assistance of nuns from the East Asian tradition; others were carried out by Theravada monks alone.Since 2005, many have been ordained by the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam nikaya in Sri Lanka.
In 1928, the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, responding to the attempted ordination of two women, issued an edict that monks must not ordain women. The two women were reportedly arrested and jailed briefly. In a more recent challenge to the Thai sangha's ban on women, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, previously a professor of Buddhist philosophy known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was controversially ordained as a nun in Sri Lanka in 2003. Despite some support inside the religious hierarchy, the sangha remains fiercely opposed to the ordination of women.
The governing council of Burmese Buddhism has ruled that there can be no valid ordination of women in modern times, though some Burmese monks disagree.
The Dalai Lama has authorized followers of the Tibetan tradition to be ordained as nuns in traditions that have such ordination.
The official position of the Roman Catholic Church, as expressed in the current canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that: "Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination. Insofar as priestly and episcopal ordination are concerned, the Church teaches that this requirement is a matter of divine law, and thus doctrinal. The requirement that only males can receive ordination to the permanent diaconate has not been promulgated as doctrinal by the Church's magisterium, though it is clearly at least a requirement according to canon law. In asserting this position, the Church cites her own doctrinal tradition, and scriptural texts. In 1976, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith discussed the issue of the ordination of women and issued a Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood which concluded that for various reasons, the Church "... does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination". The most important reasons stated were first, the Church's determination to remain faithful to its constant tradition, second, its fidelity to Christ's will, and third, the idea of male representation due to the "sacramental nature" of the priesthood. The Biblical Commission, an advisory commission that was asked to study the exclusion of women from the ministerial priesthood from a biblical perspective, had three opposing findings. They were, "that the New Testament does not settle in a clear way... whether women can be ordained as priests, [that] scriptural grounds alone are not enough to exclude the possibility of ordaining women, [and that] Christ's plan would not be transgressed by permitting the ordination of women.In recent years, responding to questions about the matter, the Church has issued a number of documents repeating the same position. In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the question closed in his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stating: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
In 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification, explaining that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, though "itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.... This doctrine belongs to the deposit of the faith of the Church. It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the Church did not arise with the publication of the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis". Instead, it was "founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium," and for these reasons it "requires definitive assent.
The Church teaching on the restriction of its ordination to men that masculinity was integral to the personhood of both Jesus and the men he called as apostles. The Roman Catholic Church sees maleness and femaleness as two different ways of expressing common humanity. Contrary to the common phrase "gender roles," which implies that the phenomenon of the sexes is a mere surface phenomenon, an accident, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is an ontological (essential) difference between humanity expressed as male humanity and humanity expressed as female humanity. While many functions are interchangeable between men and women, some are not, because maleness and femaleness are not interchangeable. Just as water is necessary for a valid baptism, and wheaten bread and grape wine are necessary for a valid Eucharist (not because of their superiority over other materials, but because they are what Jesus used or authorized), only men can be validly ordained, regardless of any issues of equality.
Pope John Paul II, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, explained the Roman Catholic understanding that the priesthood is a special role specially set out by Jesus when he chose twelve men out of his group of male and female followers. John Paul notes that Jesus chose the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13–14; Jn 6:70) after a night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12) and that the Apostles themselves were careful in the choice of their successors. The priesthood is "specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7–8; 28:16–20; Mk 3:13–16; 16:14–15)."
Pope Paul VI, quoted by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, wrote, "[The Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church."
Concerning the "constant practice of the Church," in antiquity the Church Fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all wrote that the ordination of women was impossible. The Synod of Laodicea prohibited ordaining women to the Presbyterate.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued and published on May 29, 2008, in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, a decree signed by Cardinal William Levada, on the existing ban on women priests by asserting that women priests and the bishops who ordain them would be excommunicated "latae sententiae".
The ordination of females to the diaconate is a matter of some controversy among Roman Catholic historians and theologians. At issue are two distinct but interrelated questions: whether some deaconesses in the early Church received true sacramental ordination, or whether all were merely so called for functional or honorific purposes; and, whether the prohibition against ordaining women to the diaconate is also a matter of unchangeable divine law, or potentially changeable ecclesiastical law. If some deaconesses did receive true sacramental ordination, then the current prohibition would be ecclesiastical rather than divine law. If not, then it could be either ecclesiastical or divine.
It can be verified that the term deaconesses was employed in antiquity; the word, like "deacon", comes from the Greek word diakonos (διάκονος), meaning "one who serves". Deaconesses still existed at least as late as the seventeenth century. Deaconesses mainly assisted the priest in receiving women into the Church for baptism by full immersion (which is still practiced by the Eastern Catholic Churches and by some parishes in the Western or Latin rite as well), and did not perform any of the duties associated with male deacons. In this sense "deaconess" implied a title of honour and respect. Whether or not "deaconess" in some instances implied sacramental ordination is disputed.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1977 that the historical nature of deaconesses was "a question that must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas. The position that deaconesses received true sacramental ordination (in certain times and places) is given by Roger Gryson, and the position that deaconesses never received true sacramental ordination is given by Aimé Georges Martimort. Both Gryson and Martimort argued from the same historical evidence, which is mixed. For example, the ecumenical First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) stated that deaconesses: "do not receive any imposition of hands, so that they are in all respects to be numbered among the laity. However, 126 years later, the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) decreed: "A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. Martimort argues that the "laying on of hands" in the latter case referred only to a special blessing. Against this, "Gryson argues that the use of the verb cheirotonein and of the substantive cheirothesia clearly indicate that deaconesses were ordained by the laying on of hands.
Until rather recently, the theologians and canonists who addressed the question almost unanimously considered the exclusion of women from ordination, including to the diaconate, as having a divine origin and therefore remaining absolute. Only in recent decades have any theologians or canonists entertained the theory that the prohibition of women from the ordained diaconate was a matter of merely ecclesiastical, rather than divine law. This renewed theological assessment was spurred on by the Second Vatican Council's revival of the permanent diaconate, which lifted the question from a purely theoretical matter to one with immensely practical consequences. Based on the theory that some deaconesses received the sacrament of Holy Orders, and based on the fact that some writers in the Middle Ages exhibited a certain hesitancy concerning the ordination of women stemming from knowledge that there had been deaconesses in antiquity, there have been modern-day proposals to ordain female permanent deacons, who would perform the same functions as male deacons.
The Roman Catholic Church states that the hierarchical structure that includes the ordained ministerial priesthood is ordered to benefit the holiness of the entire body of the faithful, and not to ensure the salvation of the ordained minister. There is no additional benefit in terms of automatic holiness that comes about through ordination. Ordination is not required for salvation, nor does it effect salvation in the one ordained. In other words, a priest can go to Hell just as easily as a layperson. Likewise, sainthood is equally open to men and women, lay or ordained. For example, the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated as the Queen of all Saints. Furthermore, there are female Doctors of the Church.
Pope John Paul II wrote, in Mulieris Dignitatem: "In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time."
In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul wrote: "the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe."
The Roman Catholic Church does not regard the priest as the only possible prayer leader, and prayer may be led by a woman. For example, outside the context of a Mass and in the absence of a priest or deacon, laypersons (both men and women) "are to be entrusted with the care of these [Sunday] celebrations." This includes leading the prayers, ministry of the word, and the giving of holy communion (previously consecrated by a priest). Also during these assemblies, in the absence of an ordained minister, a layperson may request God's blessing on the congregation, provided that the layperson does not use words proper to a priest or deacon, and omits rites that are too readily associated with the Mass.
Women are also able to live the Consecrated Life as a nun or abbess, and throughout the history of the Church it has not been uncommon for an abbess to head a dual monastery, i.e., a community of men and women. Women today exercise many roles in the church that they were previously not able to participate in. They can run catechetical programs in parishes, do spiritual direction, serve as readers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and teach theology. Also, in 1994, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship decided that women could assist at Mass as altar servers. Still many people see the Church's position on the ordination of women as a sign that women are not equal to men in the Catholic church.
The arguments for the Catholic ordination of women, include the one based on equality. Some sacramental theologians have argued that ordaining men but not women creates two classes of baptism, contradicting Saint Paul's statement that all are equal in Christ. This argument does not give credence to the distinction between equal dignity and different services within the Church.
Another argument is based on the theological position that there is a fundamental unity between the different levels (deacon, priest, and bishop) of the sacrament of Holy Orders, as taught by the Second Vatican Council. So, if history shows that the deaconesses known to have existed in the Early Church had actually received the sacrament of ordination, then because of the fundamental unity of Holy Orders, women can also be ordained as priests and bishops. (This same argument is sometimes used in reverse, against the historical possibility that deaconesses received sacramental ordination.)
Whatever argument is used in favor of the priestly ordination of women, there is the problem of reconciling this position with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (or ignoring it, if the arguer so wishes). Based on the statements from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the official point of view is that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, without itself being ex cathedra, authoritatively and bindingly teaches that: (1) the Church cannot ordain women as priests due to divine law; and that (2) this doctrine has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. A dissenting view is that, according to section 25 of the Second Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the "ordinary and universal magisterium" is exercised by "the Pope in union with the bishops". In other words, according to the Congregation, it is an instance of the Pope 'publicising' what he and the other bishops, as the ordinary and universal magisterium' have already consistently taught through the ages.
Since the encyclical Humani Generis, it is well known that the Roman Pontiff can, by his own authority, settle a theological question via a fallible papal teaching that is nonetheless sufficiently authoritative to end all debate on the matter, at least under Church law. This is clearly what has occurred with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in regard to point (1). (Although, in fact, the position taken by Pius XII in Humani Generis was overturned by Vatican II.) Thus, theological debate on whether women can be ordained as priests is no longer seen by the Church as permitted for Catholics, and the arguments in favor of ordaining women to the priesthood in this section are termed a "dissenting position." However, several noted dogmatic theologians have questioned how this same alleged debate-ending authority can apply to point (2), which is a matter not of faith or morals, but a factual matter relative to teachings promulgated by all the bishops of the Catholic Church over her two thousand year history. These dogmatic theologians find it especially problematic that, concerning this point, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis gives no indication of what historical facts are sufficient to ensure infallibility by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, nor any indication of how those historical facts were verified. Because of these issues it is argued that, if it is indeed possible for the Church to ordain women to the priesthood, this would not contradict the Church's dogma regarding infallible teachings.
Some supporters of women's ordination have asserted that there have been ordained female priests and bishops in antiquity. The official Church position on this is that, although "a few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers who considered it as unacceptable in the Church. In response to that position, some supporters of women's ordination take the position that those sects weren't heretical, but, rather, orthodox.
Some arguable evidence that not all ordinations in the Catholic tradition have been those of males exists. For example, the Pope Gelasius I apparently condemned the practice of women officiating at altars; inscriptions near Tropea in Calabria refer to "presbytera," which could be interpreted as a woman priest or as a wife of a male priest. Furthermore, a sarcophagus from Dalmatia is inscribed with the date 425 and records that a grave in the Salona burial-ground was bought from presbytera Flavia Vitalia: selling burial plots was at one time a duty of presbyters. There have been some 15 records so far found of women being ordained in antiquity by Christians; while the Vatican insists those are ordinations by heretical groups, the Women's Ordination Conference contends that those were orthodox Christian groups.
There is also the church of Santa Praxedis, where Theodora Episcopa—Bishop Theodora, with the word for "bishop" in feminine form—appears in an image with two female saints and Mary. That church's pastor alleges that the church was built in honor of Pope Pascal I's mother by her son, who graced her with the title "Episcopa" due to her being the mother of a Pope. However, Theodora wears a coif in the image, suggesting that she is an unmarried woman.
Setting aside these theological considerations, advocates for the ordination of women have pointed to vocations declining in Europe and North America and have made the utilitarian argument that women must be ordained in order to have enough priests to administer the Sacraments in those areas. Supporting this argument, they made public the story of a Czech woman Ludmila Javorová, who, in the 1990s, said that she and four or five other women had been ordained by the late Bishop Felix Maria Davídek in the 1970s, as priests in the underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. Javorová ceased to practice as a priest at some point.
There is at least one organization that calls itself "Roman Catholic" that ordains women at the present time, Roman Catholic Womenpriests; and, several independent Catholic jurisidictions have been ordaining women in the United States since approximately the late 1990s. None of these are recognised as Catholic by the Catholic Church. There are several others calling for the Roman Catholic Church itself to ordain women, such as Circles, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Catholic Women's Ordination, and Corpus, along with others.
The Eastern Orthodox churches follows a similar line of reasoning as the Roman Catholic Church with respect to ordination of priests.
Regarding deaconesses, Professor Evangelos Theodorou argued that female deacons were actually ordained in antiquity. Bishop Kallistos Ware wrote:
The order of deaconesses seems definitely to have been considered an "ordained" ministry during early centuries in at any rate the Christian East. ... Some Orthodox writers regard deaconesses as having been a "lay" ministry. There are strong reasons for rejecting this view. In the Byzantine rite the liturgical office for the laying-on of hands for the deaconess is exactly parallel to that for the deacon; and so on the principle lex orandi, lex credendi—the Church's worshipping practice is a sure indication of its faith—it follows that the deaconesses receives, as does the deacon, a genuine sacramental ordination: not just a χειροθεσια but a χειροτονια.
There is a strong monastic tradition, pursued by both men and women in the Orthodox churches, where monks and nuns lead identical spiritual lives. Unlike Roman Catholic religious life, which has myriad traditions, both contemplative and active (see Benedictine monks, Franciscan friars, Jesuits), that of Eastern Orthodoxy has remained exclusively ascetic and monastic.
The majority of Anglican provinces ordain women as both deacons and priests. Only a few provinces, however, have consecrated women as bishops (although the number of provinces where women bishops are canonically possible is much greater). The Episcopal Church in the United States ordains women as both priests and bishops. The situation regarding women's ordination in the Anglican Communion (and churches in full communion) as of April 2008 can be seen in the following table:
|Bishops (consecrated)||Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia; Australia; Canada; United States, Cuba|
|Bishops (none yet consecrated)||Bangladesh, Brazil, Central America, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, North India, Philippines, Scotland, Southern Africa, Sudan|
|Priests||England, Burundi, Hong Kong, Indian Ocean, Kenya, Korea, Rwanda, South India, Uganda, Wales, West Indies, West Africa|
|Deacons||Southern Cone, Congo, Pakistan|
|No ordination of women||Central Africa, Jerusalem and the Middle East, Melanesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, Tanzania|
Some provinces within the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (TEC), the Anglican Church of New Zealand, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church of Cuba, and, from May 2008, the Anglican Church of Australia, ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops.
Some Anglican provinces ordain women as deacons and priests but not as bishops. A number of other Anglican provinces, as noted in the table above, have removed canonical bars to women bishops but have not yet consecrated any.
The ordination of women has been a controversial issue throughout the Anglican Communion. However, by 2008, twenty-eight of the thirty eight provinces of the Anglican Communion ordain women as priests and seventeen have removed all bars to women serving as bishops.
Within provinces which permit the ordination of women, there are some individual dioceses which do not, or which ordain women only to the diaconate (such as the Diocese of Sydney in the Anglican Church of Australia, and the dioceses of Quincy, San Joaquin and Fort Worth in the United States).
The first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion was Florence Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained on 25 January 1944 by the Bishop of Hong Kong. It was thirty years before the practice became more widespread, beginning controversially in 1974, when eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by three retired Episcopal Church bishops. Four more women were ordained in 1975 in Washington D.C. These ordinations were ruled "irregular" because they had been done without the authorization of ECUSA's General Convention. Two years later, General Convention authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. The Church of England authorized the ordination of woman priests in 1992 and began ordaining them in 1994. This was the premise of the television programme The Vicar of Dibley. The nearly simultaneous publication by the Vatican of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which argued that truth was immutable, however unpalatable, was a coincidence which was not lost on many traditionalist Anglicans who became Roman Catholics. These included women, such as Ann Widdecombe MP.
The first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion was Barbara Clementine Harris, who was ordained bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in February 1989. Later in the same year, Penelope Jamieson of the Anglican Church in New Zealand became the first female diocesan bishop when she was elected Bishop of Dunedin. The first female primate (or senior bishop of a national church) is Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA) at its 2006 General Convention, and began her nine year term as presiding bishop and primate on 3 November 2006. By April 2008 the Episcopal Church had elected 15 women as bishops.
Most Anglican provinces have taken steps to provide pastoral care and support for those who cannot in conscience accept the ministry of women as bishops. The Church of England, for example, has instituted "flying bishops" to cater to parishes who do not wish to be under the supervision of bishops who have participated in the ordination of women.
There have been a number of breakaway groups established by conservative Anglicans who see the ordination of women as representative of a trend away from traditional or orthodox doctrine. The Continuing Anglican Movement was started in 1977 after women began to be ordained in the USA.
On 11 July 2005 the General Synod of the Church of England, in York, voted to "set in train" the process of removing the legal obstacles preventing women from becoming bishops. Debate on the legislation was scheduled for February 2006. The process is currently underway but is not progressing quickly due to problems in providing appropriate mechanisms for the protection of those who cannot accept this development. On 7 July 2008 the General Synod held a more than seven hour debate on the subject, and narrowly voted for a national statutory code of practice to make provision for opponents, to be considered by the Synod in February 2009 - other provisions for opponents (such as separate structures or overseeing bishops) were backed by more than opposed them but failed to win the majority required across each of the three houses (bishops, clergy and laity).
On 2 April 2008, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales considered, but did not pass, a bill to enable women to be ordained as bishops. Though the bill was passed by the House of Laity (52 to 19) and the House of Bishops (unanimously), it failed by three votes (27 to 18) to secure the required minimum two-thirds majority in the House of Clerics. The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd Barry Morgan, expects the issue to be debated again in 2011.
The Anglican Church of Australia, though its appellate tribunal, ruled on 28 September 2007 that there is nothing in the church’s constitution that would prevent the consecration of a woman priest as a diocesan bishop in a diocese which by ordinance has adopted the law of the Church of England Clarification Canon 1992, which paved the way for the ordination of women as priests. Following the agreement at the April 2008 Bishops' Conference of the "Women in the Episcopate" protocol for the provision of pastoral care to those who cannot in conscience accept the ministry of a woman bishop, the first nominations of women as bishops was widely anticipated, and on 11 April 2008 the Archbishop of Perth, the Most Revd Roger Herft, announced the nomination of the Venerable Kay Goldsworthy, Archdeacon of Perth and Registrar, as a bishop in the Diocese of Perth. She was the first woman ordained as an Anglican bishop in Australia: her episcopal ordination was held on 22 May, the Feast of Corpus Christi (Thanksgiving for the Holy Communion) in St George's Cathedral, Perth. Then, on 24 April 2008, the Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Revd Philip Frier, announced the nomination of the Revd Canon Barbara Darling, Vicar of St James' Dandenong, as an assistant bishop. Her episcopal ordination was held on 31 May 2008, the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth, in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.
A key theological doctrine for most Protestants is the priesthood of all believers. The notion of a priesthood reserved to a select few is seen as an Old Testament concept, inappropriate for Christians. Prayer belongs equally to all believing women and men.
However, most (although not all) Protestant denominations still ordain church leaders who have the task of equipping all believers in their Christian service (). These leaders (variously styled elders, pastors or ministers) are seen to have a distinct role in teaching, pastoral leadership and the administration of sacraments. Traditionally these roles were male preserves, but over the last century, an increasing number of denominations have begun ordaining women.
The debate over women's eligibility for such offices normally centers around interpretation of certain Biblical passages relating to teaching and leadership roles. This is because Protestant churches usually view the Bible as the primary authority in church debates, even over established traditions (the doctrine of sola scriptura). Thus the Church is free to change her stance, if the change is deemed in accordance with the Bible. The main passages in this debate include Galatians 3.28, 1st Corinthians 11.2–16, 14.34–35 and 1st Timothy 2.11–14. Increasingly, supporters of women in ministry also make appeals to evidence from the New Testament that is taken to suggest that women did exercise ministries in the apostolic Church (e.g., Acts 21:9,18:18; Romans 16:3–4,16:1–2, Romans 16:7; 1st Corinthians 16:19, and Philippians 4:2–3).
Some Protestant and Anglican churches have allowed women to become bishops:
Although Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders, the imam serves as a spiritual leader and religious authority. There is a current controversy among Muslims on the circumstances in which women may act as imams—that is, lead a congregation in salat (prayer). Three of the four Sunni schools, as well as many Shia, agree that a woman may lead a congregation consisting of women alone in prayer, although the Maliki school does not allow this. According to all currently existing traditional schools of Islam, a woman cannot lead a mixed gender congregation in salat (prayer). Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih (optional Ramadan prayers) or for a congregation consisting only of close relatives. Certain medieval scholars—including Al-Tabari (838–932), Abu Thawr (764–854), Al-Muzani (791–878), and Ibn Arabi (1165–1240)—considered the practice permissible at least for optional (nafila) prayers; however, their views are not accepted by any major surviving group.
Some Muslims in recent years have reactivated the debate, arguing that the spirit of the Qur'an and the letter of a disputed hadith indicate that women should be able to lead mixed congregations as well as single-sex ones, and that the prohibition of this developed as a result of sexism in the medieval environment, not as a part of true Islam.
Jewish tradition and law does not presume that women have more or less of an aptitude or moral standing required of rabbis. However, it had been the longstanding practice that only men become rabbis. This practice continues to this day within the Orthodox and Hasidic communities but has been revised within non-Orthodox organizations. Reform Judaism created its first woman rabbi in 1972, Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974, and Conservative Judaism in 1985, and women in these movements are routinely granted semicha on an equal basis with men.
The issue of allowing women to become rabbis is not under active debate within the Orthodox community, though there is widespread agreement that women may often be consulted on matters of Jewish religious law. There are reports that a small number of Orthodox yeshivas have unofficially granted semicha to women, but the prevailing consensus among Orthodox leaders (as well as a small number of Conservative Jewish communities) is that it is not appropriate for women to become rabbis.
The idea that women could eventually be ordained as rabbis sparks widespread opposition among the Orthodox rabbinate. Norman Lamm, one of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, totally opposes giving semicha to women. "It shakes the boundaries of tradition, and I would never allow it." (Helmreich, 1997) Writing in an article in the Jewish Observer, Moshe Y'chiail Friedman states that Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from being given semicha and serving as rabbis. He holds that the trend towards this goal is driven by sociology, and not halakha.
While the priesthood was traditionally male in Shinto, ordination of women as Shinto priests has arisen after the abolition of State Shinto in the aftermath of World War II.
A partial list with the approximate dates of either the approval of female ordination in principle or the ordination of their first women clergy by Christian and Jewish faith groups appears below:
Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic—For
Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic—Against
Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic—Balanced