This is a good question to ask because it is undoubtedly the single largest issue facing our new Anglican Province (the ACNA) as we move forward into the future. Let me preface a discussion on this by saying that there is integrity in the convictions expressed on both sides of the argument, and there are no villains in this discussion.
Viewing it simply in terms of the health and well-being of the Church, I have seen women’s ordination in the contemporary church as very positive. Beyond of the more radical feminism infecting the liberal branches of the Church, I have experienced effective and healthy pastorates among the orthodox women priests I have worked with. They have been allowed in our post-patriarchal culture to become effective priests and pastors alongside men, and I discern that the Holy Spirit is indeed teaching us something new in this regard (The Rev. Nancy Kenney’s ministry is a case in point). But that is not good enough. As a biblically anchored Christian, we must support such a position scripturally.
Let me first say that I am not helped by arguments around the fact that Jesus was male, or the 12 apostles were male, or that there were no instances of women’s ordinations (anointing for ministry by the laying on of hands) in Scripture. I view this as cultural context more so than New Covenant mandate. As an Anglican I am led to argue from what Scripture explicitly upholds (such as the calling of men to ordained ministry) and do not conclude that it prohibits that on which it is explicitly silent (the calling of women to ordained ministry). Scripture does not explicitly say that women should or should not be ordained.
Nonetheless, Scripture implicitly says a great deal about women in leadership (eldership) in the Church, and we need to look at the broad sense of Scripture on this… how Jesus saw women… the teachings of Paul… the actions and makeup of the New Testament Church. On this basis, I am led to take Galatians 3:28 as a primary text. It permeates the New Covenant Scriptural ethos and washes over the social norms reflected there. This new reality brought to us in Christ is…
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s words here are consistent Jesus’ treatment and view of women in the Gospels. This is particularly clear in John’s Gospel. (A good book to check out on this is The Community of the Beloved Disciple, by Raymond E. Brown, particularly Appendix 2, “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel”)2. A case in point is the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Jesus overrode social barriers, taught her, and perhaps most significantly for this discussion, allowed her to take on the “apostolic” ministry of proclaiming the Good News to her village.
Again, looking at the New Testament broadly, it talks about women congregational leaders such as Lydia (Acts 11), Priscilla (1 Cor. 16, Rom 16), Phoebe (Rom 16). In fact, Romans 16 list twenty-six church leaders, 8 of whom are women. The Book of Acts mentions prophets (speaking for God) 11 times, 4 of whom are women.1 All of this points to an equality of call and leadership of women and men, and it is consistent with what Paul is expressing in my selected text, Galatians 3:28.
Based on this alone, one would conclude that God would not and does not withhold callings and gifts for ministry based on any of these differentiators (ethnicity, gender or social status). But Scripture has much to say that seemingly contradicts itself on this. That needs to be reconciled. We cannot look at it all in this short dissertation, but we can look at a two of the big ones.
The two passages (both Pauline) are 1 Cor. 14:34-36 (traditionally translated, “Women are not to speak in worship”) and Ephesians 5:22-24 (“Wives submit to your husbands”). I understand the 1 Cor. Passage as not being about woman leadership roles, but about women (presumably certain women in the Corinthian church) being disruptive. I think Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message captures this idea well:
Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God's Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking. Do you—both women and men—imagine that you're a sacred oracle determining what's right and wrong? Do you think everything revolves around you?
I, for one, sincerely hope this passage does not mean that women are generally barred from speaking in church. This would mean that Larry, presently our only male choir member, would be singing by himself). The original Greek can perhaps better be translated “clamor” or “tumult,” rather than normal proceedings of worship.
Concerning the Ephesians 5:22-24 passage (“wives submit to your husbands”), John Bristow’s book, What Paul Really Said About Women, is helpful in dealing with the inconsistencies this passage seems to impose. He makes the point that the usual translations out of the Greek of “be subservient to” can perhaps better be rendered “be supportive of.” I can’t make Bristows arguments for him in this short document, but I found them convincing in reconciling this text with Paul’s understanding of the Kingdom of God. For your own study, I recommend Bistrow’s book.
We are, however, a long way from consensus on this in the Anglican Communion, much less in the universal church. To be in communion means not acting in disregard for our brothers in sisters in Christ, and this is a huge factor in the stance our diocese and the ACNA has taken. As Paul said, “If eating meat sacrificed to idols causes your brother to sin, then refrain from it” (even if it is not an issue for you). We find ourselves in this position as The Diocese of the South. We as a diocese do not ordain women, but duly ordained women in apostolic orders may be licensed to function as presbyters (priests) at the discretion of the bishop. Nancy Kenney is being licensed by Bishop Foley to function as a priest at Holy Trinity. Thanks be to God for that, and for her ministry.1 What Paul really Said About Women, John T. Bristow (Harper Collins, 1991).
2 The Community of the Beloved Disciple, Raymond E. Brown (Paulist Press, 1979)