Ordination of women at Ely Cathedral (1994)LSE Library
The General Synod of the Church of England
voted to ordain women as priests on 11 November 1992. Baptists, Methodists and the United Reformed Church already had women ministers. The Anglican churches in Ireland, Scotland and Wales agreed to ordain women in 1990, 1994 and 1996 respectively.
Agnes Maude Royden
Behind the momentous decision in 1992 lay a long history of struggle and controversy going back to the work of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage and of Agnes Maude Royden in the early twentieth century.
In 1972, Dame Christian Howard wrote in her introduction to The Ordination of Women :
‘In asking “Can a woman be ordained in the priesthood?” we are dealing not with a woman’s question but with a church question. Our answer must be determined not primarily by what is good for women, but what is good for the Church.’
Many people wrestled with this question for the next 20 years.
The General Synod of the Church of England debated women’s ordination as priests in 1975. The debate was lost.
In the same year, the Sex Discrimination Act was passed but its provisions did not apply to the Church.
In 1978, women’s ordination was debated again but was lost.
What was needed was a unified, nationwide movement which would get legislation through the General Synod so that women could be ordained first as deacons and then ordained as priests. On 4 July 1979, the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) was launched.
‘Waiting’ MOW in silent witness at General Synod in York (1987)LSE Library
MOW began a campaign of study, prayer and action. This included holding witness silently outside cathedrals before male ordination services.
Florence Li Tim-Oi
By 1979 different Provinces (countries) of the Anglican Communion worldwide had decided to ordain women. Florence Li Tim-Oi was the first in South China in 1944. Criticism followed this irregular but valid ordination and she later resigned her role but not her orders as priest.
Nearly 25 years later the Anglican Communion decided each province could make its own decision to ordain women. In 1971 Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett were ordained in Hong Kong.
Joyce was the first British born woman to be ordained.
Visits from women who had been ordained overseas became a regular part of the MOW scene. However, these women could not celebrate the Eucharist in the Church of England because ecclesiastical law had not been changed to allow visiting women to do this (visiting male clergy could celebrate). Instead, celebrations took place in college rooms, private homes, ecumenical centres and church halls.
‘Ordain Women Now’ banner at vigil at St Martin-in-the-Fields (1984)LSE Library
In January 1984 MOW organised a special service at Westminster Abbey to mark the 40th anniversary of Florence Li Tim-Oi’s ordination. A candlelit vigil followed on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields with a 32-foot golden banner, ‘Ordain Women Priests Now’, across the portico.
Ordination of Women as Deacons
In 1986 the Deacon (Ordination of Women) Measure received Royal Assent and became law. Deaconesses could also be ordained as deacons, recognising the work they had done in the parishes for so long.
The Measure on Women Ordained Abroad was defeated in the same year.
Cartoon by TaffyLSE Library
Around this time, MOW received an extraordinary bonus: the offer of help, free of charge, from the advertising agency GGK. Campaigning through humour was an effective way of getting the message across and into the mainstream press.
By 1988, draft legislation for the ordination of women to the priesthood came with controversial ‘safeguards’ allowing a bishop, cathedral or parish to refuse a woman as their priest. There was also a financial provision for any clergy who decided to resign if this became law.
Welcoming the new Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey (1991)LSE Library
MOW stepped up a gear now that proposed legislation was to be debated in every deanery and diocese. MOW increased its profile in every diocese to help people ‘feel good’ about voting for the ordination of women.
Rose Hudson Wilkin (centre) at vigil outside Church House on 11 November 1992 (Brenda Prince, Format Photographers @Bishopsgate Archive) (1992)LSE Library
The historic debate took place in Church House in Westminster on 11 November 1992. Crowds of supporters gathered outside, waiting all day for the decision of the vote.
Chrysalis, newsletter of MOW (1993-01)LSE Library
Although members of the Synod and visitors were told to receive the result of the vote in silence, great intakes of breath could be heard from the public gallery in Church House.
Cathy Milford, last Moderator of MOW, toasting the Royal Assent in 1993 (1993)LSE Library
But pressure from opponents continued and more provisions to “protect” parishes and clergy from the ministry of women, and even from the ministry of bishops who ordained women, were added in an Act of Synod that became law in 1993.
32 women ordained at Bristol Cathedral on 12 March 1994 (Brenda Prince, Format Photographers @Bishopsgate Archive) (1994)LSE Library
Women ordained as priests
Thirty-two women were ordained in Bristol Cathedral on 12 March 1994. This was followed by the ordinations of over 1000 more women deacons in the next three months.
MOW closed in 1994: they had achieved their purpose.
Two years later, Women and the Church (WATCH) was founded to work for gender justice in the Church of England.
In 2000, the Venerable Judith Rose, the Archdeacon of Tonbridge, began the process for women to be appointed bishops. It took 14 years for the General Synod to pass the necessary legislation.
In 2015 the Right Reverend Libby Lane became the first female bishop installed as the Bishop of Stockport.
For more on this campaign see the archive of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, catalogue reference 6MOW, held in The Women's Library at LSE.
This exhibition draws on Margaret Webster’s book A New Strength, A New Song: the journey to women’s priesthood (London: Cassell, 1994).
For more information about WATCH see Women and the Church - Affirming, challenging and transforming