Last week’s birth of a new Anglican province in the dusty plains of north-central Texas left the question of women’s ordination dangling in the air.
Of the 800 people attending the founding of the Anglican Church in North America, 368 were priests and deacons. Of that number, about 10 percent, or 36, of the clergy were female.
The new province is a mishmash of former Episcopalians, ranging from almost-crossing-the-Tiber Anglo-Catholics to low-church charismatics, and it’s a mystery as to how they’re all going to get along. Many are against ordaining women. Others are just as adamant that females be given access to the diaconate, priesthood and the episcopate. The Episcopal Church approved female priests in 1976 and elected its first female bishop in 1988.
The ACNA’s new canon laws state women can be deacons and priests, but not bishops.
I queried retired Eau Claire, Wis., Bishop William Wantland, an old friend and an ardent opponent of ordaining women. He reminded me that 22 of the ACNA’s 28 dioceses do not allow female priests. It’s a system known as “dual integrity,” dioceses that differ on a question where Scripture can be read both ways agree to respect and live with each other’s views.
I asked him if he wanted the ACNA to eventually outlaw ordaining women entirely.
“Of course. That’s our mission,” he said. “Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. The priest at the altar is an icon of Christ. What image is that if the person at the altar is a woman? It’s a lesbian relationship.”
Not much room for negotiation there.
Archbishop Robert Duncan, the new head of the ACNA, pointedly had a woman, the Rev. Travis Boline, at his right hand during legislative sessions. She reminded me that even the conservative African provinces are split on the question. Although Nigeria forbids female priests, Kenya and Uganda allow them.
“The global south has shown us a model of keeping to the main thing, while not being of one mind,” she said. “Bishops serve the whole church, and if the church is not of one mind, then it’s not appropriate for women to be bishops.”
The other women I talked with were trying to put a good face on it all.
“It’s more important to be part of an organization preaching the Gospel as the Word of God,” one cleric said.
“We’re trying to be servants,” Katherine Martin, a cleric from Auburn, Ala., told me. “I’m not being welcomed to consecrate [Communion] in Quincy [Illinois] or Fort Worth [Texas],” which are two dioceses that don’t ordain women, “but both the bishops of those dioceses couldn’t be more kind.”
I wondered if the men would take a similar position, agreeing to be “servants” while limitations were placed on them.
“I’d be lying if I’d say I wasn’t disappointed,” said Canon Mary Hayes of the Pittsburgh Diocese. “I’ve been a priest 25 years. I’m delighted to be in a body of people who have different views. It’s not about getting my way.”
Other women told me they hope men will see the light.
“They’ll wake up,” predicted the Rev. Joy Vernon, a Canadian priest ordained in 1989. “Jesus Christ ministered to women way beyond the culture of His day.”
“We’re not going to go away,” a female priest told me. “Women have been patient since the beginning of time.”
• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.