The Apostolic Episcopal Church, in common with all traditionalist Anglican denominations, believes that women should not be ordained to the major orders. It does not hold this belief because it believes that women should not have a significant role in the Church, but because it believes that their role is different from that reserved to men. Indeed, the universal Church reserves the highest place of honour to a woman, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Many of the saints are women, and many women have given notable service to the Church either as lay ministers or as lay participants in its governance. There is no truth to the assertion that the Church regards women as generally inferior to men.
The Apostolic Episcopal Church takes a position on this issue that is in line with mainstream historical and theological scholarship, particularly from within Orthodoxy, and which is not driven by prejudice against women or the need to rewrite the early history of the Church. Its concern in deciding not to ordain women is above all that were it not to adopt such a policy it would impair its commitment to ecumenism and to reunion among traditionally-minded Christians. It leaves the ultimate decision to a future Ecumenical Council comprised of representatives of the reunited Body of Christ.
In the preparatory document (“Past and Present”) addressed to the International Synod of the Apostolic Episcopal Church in June 1996 the then-Primate declared that the decision of the AEC not to ordain women meant “neither a condemnation of churches nor an obstacle to co-operation with churches that have adopted women clergymen.” More recently, the present Primate of the Apostolic Episcopal Church has qualified this position by emphasising that any such co-operation must be on terms that, while they avoid any discourtesy to other churches and their ministers, do not compromise the witness and established identity of the AEC as a Continuing Anglican church.
The Primate has issued general guidance on this matter as follows:
“The arguments in favour of the admission of women to Holy Orders have been recounted at length by scholars in other contexts, and we do not propose to reiterate those arguments in this place except in outline terms for the purposes of necessary exemplification.
1. The Apostolic Episcopal Church is representative both of the tradition of the undivided Church of Christ and of the precepts of Orthodoxy as defined by the canon of St Vincent of Lerins, as well as of the Catholic tradition within the Anglican Communion.
2. The ordination of women is an issue which has profound historical and theological implications and that is currently the subject of earnest discussion in other communions. We address this matter for the benefit of the faithful, and to clarify both the canonical position of the Apostolic Episcopal Church and the basis of that position. As a preliminary, we restate our position that “The traditional Christian believes sexuality and gender are psychological, biological, significant, and permanent” [Women and the Priesthood, edited by Fr. Thomas Hopko, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999, p 200]
3. Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, one of the foremost scholars in contemporary Orthodoxy, has written: “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 (chirothesia) but a χειροτονια (chirotonia). However, the ordination of women in the Catholic Church does exist. Although it is not widespread, it is official by the Roman Catholic Church.” [“Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ,” in Women and the Priesthood, ed. T. Hopko (New York, 1982, reprinted 1999), 16, as quoted in Women Deacons in the Early Church, by John Wijngaards, ISBN 0–8245–2393–8.] We should note that the Greek Orthodox Church has admitted two women to the diaconate in recent years. See http://web.archive.org/web/20041011174458/http://www.ana.gr/anaweb/user/showplain?maindoc=2182957&service=10 “The church High Clergy also re-examined the matter of the ordination of deaconesses, a practice common in the Church during the 4th and 5th centuries which was later faded away. The synod decided that bishops could decide at their own discretion to ordain certain high-ranking nuns if no priest was available, for example in isolated monasteries. It was stressed that the role of deaconesses should be social, for example the granting of last rites to the sick. According to the Archbishop of Peristeri, deaconesses should “play a role in society and not in the monastery.”
4. It is further evident that women occupied positions of ministry and leadership in the Christian Church of the first century after Christ. Such examples include Priscilla who with her husband Aquila (both of these are counted among the Seventy) instructed the powerful preacher Apollos, Lois and Eunice who taught Timothy (their grandson and son respectively) as a child and were noted as eminent for their piety and faith, Phoebe who is named as a deacon in the church at Cenchreae, and deacons Mary, Tryphaena, Typhosa and Persis who are mentioned by St Paul. Of the later church, we note the deacon Olympias, among the close friends of John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, and the Episcopa Theodora, mother of Pope Paschal I.
5. Of the examples given at 4 above, the most theologically significant is that of the deacon Phoebe who is mentioned in Romans 16:1. This reference should be read together with the passage in 1 Timothy 3:11 where St Paul describes the qualities that holders of the office of deacon must possess, “the gunaikas [Greek for women] are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” We also note that the church at Philippi was established by and was in the charge of three female deacons, Euodia, Syntyche and a third, for which St Paul uses the affectionate term, syzugē to mean “mate” (Phil. 4:1-3).
6. The evidence thus presented in 5 above indicates that it is clear beyond doubt that women were admitted to the ordained diaconate in the early Church. Following the interpretation of Metropolitan Kallistos in 3 above we cannot regard the interpretation that the female diaconate was a lay ministry, or that the status of “deaconess” was separate from the diaconate, or a term that meant anything other than “female deacon”, as in any way credible. Further, the sacrament of Holy Orders is a unified sacrament, that is to say if a woman may be ordained deacon, there is no theological impediment that would then prevent her in theory from being ordained priest or consecrated a bishop. However, it should not be concluded that the role of female deacons was necessarily directly analogous to that of male deacons with respect to the Eucharist.
7. Additional reference to female deacons is to be found, inter alia, in the Didascalia of the Apostles, where it is claimed retrospectively that Mary Magdalene, Susanna and Joanna were among their number. The Council of Nicaea of 325AD likewise makes reference to female deacons. The legislation of Justinian in the sixth century mentions female deacons on multiple occasions, and in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia he lists the male and female deacons together, and goes on to specify that there should be one hundred male and forty female deacons. In the eighth century the Barberini Codex contains a rite for the ordination of female deacons which is in large part identical to the corresponding rite for male deacons. In the tenth century, Constantine Porphyrogenitus in De Ceremoniis refers to a special area for female deacons in the Hagia Sophia.
8. Many female deacons in the early church were in monastic orders (particularly abbesses) or widows (such as Olympias). However, others were the the wives of bishops. Although a number of communities were founded by female deacons for unmarried women (whether widows or virgins), marriage did not preclude the raising of a woman to the diaconate. The Apostolic Constitutions recognise female deacons as having power over widows.
9. After the time of Constantine, notwithstanding a number of examples mentioned above, the female diaconate was gradually suppressed by forces within the church which sought to subjugate women and promote an ordained ministry that was exclusively male, and in time would become exclusively celibate within the Catholic Church.
10. The Apostolic Episcopal Church must condemn such developments as those listed at 9 above. It cannot collude with any party that seeks to deny the facts of the history, origins and practices of the Church in order to promote a particular theological agenda. It preserves its obligation to represent truthfully and in faith that tradition which develops directly from the heart of the teachings of Jesus Christ, as a body representative of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. However, it rejects those arguments for the ordination of women that originate not in Tradition, but in contemporary secular modernism and feminism. It holds not that sexual distinction is something to be effaced, or that there are no psychological differences between male and female, or that the soul is sexless. Rather, it holds that the ordination of women is of a particular nature with the female just as the ordination of men is of a particular nature with the male.
11. The Apostolic Episcopal Church is engaged in earnest prayer and ministry with the object of the restoration of the true Catholic faith and the eventual reunion of Christendom. As such, we must regret any pronouncement designed to make this object more difficult or distant.
12. The Apostolic Episcopal Church therefore affirms its understanding of the ordination of women and the historical and theological basis of this understanding in the practice and teaching of the undivided One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church: lex orandi, lex credendi.
13. Notwithstanding this conclusion, it is clear that at present the Body of Christ is divided profoundly on this issue, and the position of the Apostolic Episcopal Church must therefore not be to place any obstacle towards reunion, or to cause the validity of its Holy Orders to be called into question. Even if it is acknowledged that women can be ordained validly, that does not mean that they should be.
14. The decision of the Apostolic Episcopal Church is therefore that women should not be admitted to Holy Orders at the present time. It continues to regard the issue as a subject for historical and theological debate, and will accordingly follow any future developments, particularly within Orthodoxy, with interest. The Apostolic Episcopal Church will continue to set aside women to the lay ministry of Deaconess, noting the revival of this office within Anglicanism from the nineteenth-century onwards and its place within our own communion from its foundation. The Apostolic Episcopal Church remains committed to the preservation of the historic Apostolic Succession within the Church through an unbroken lineage of male bishops.
15. The Apostolic Episcopal Church’s policy on this matter is influenced by its origins, history and Orthodox and traditional Anglican heritage. It recognizes that other Christian communities may not share in these factors, and may come to other conclusions on them. No policy of the Apostolic Episcopal Church shall be deemed simply by its existence to invalidate or otherwise affect the past actions of any of its members while serving in other Christian communities.
16. The Apostolic Episcopal Church further rejects comprehensively any argument that valid male bishops who may have ordained women are thereby “tainted”. Such an argument is theologically wholly without foundation, being reminiscent of the Donatist heresy, and is contrary to normative Catholic sacramental understanding.”