The Vote

The 1976 General Convention opened in Minneapolis after a triennium of mounting tension, fear of schism, and heated debate. Women's ordination was to be voted on again, but as a canonical change rather than a constitutional amendment, meaning that if the resolution passed women could immediately be "regularly" ordained. Observers felt that the House of Bishops was certain to pass the measure; the uncertainty lay in the House of Deputies.

After the irregular ordinations of the Philadelphia 11 and Washington 4, Presiding Bishop John Allin had convened an emergency meeting of the House of Bishops and, though a majority of bishops favored women’s ordination, the house had voted overwhelmingly to find the ordinations invalid on the basis of episcopal authority and had issued a statement urging members on both sides to “wait on and abide by” the results of the 1976 Convention. The House of Bishops then voted to censure the five bishops who participated in the ordinations. This censure caused Charles Willie, Vice President of the House of Deputies and member of Executive Council, to resign in “protest against the inhumane treatment of women in The Episcopal Church, particularly women priests.” He told the 1976 General Convention that his resignation was the only way he could counter “the sin and folly of sexism” in church structures.

The House of Bishops received the resolution to amend the Canons for women’s ordination and adopted the measure on September 15th. The following day, the House of Deputies met to cast their votes to accept or reject the resolution. Suspense was palapable in the packed convention hall as the vote by orders was tallied. The Rev. Alla Bozarth later remembered that there was "absolute silence in the large, crowded room... No one was breathing in my section of the gallery." With 57 votes needed in each order, the votes were read out: 64 in favor from the lay deputies and 60 in favor from the clerical deputies. After years of debate, prayer, protest and pain, women were finally eligible to be ordained to the priesthood and the episcopate in The Episcopal Church.

The canonical change did not automatically validate the ordinations of the Philadelphia 11 and Washington 4, which the House of Bishops had deemed irregular. The Bishops adopted a Mind of the House Resolution that outlined options, including conditional ordination, that would make completion of the ritual of ordination possible for the women, in an effort to effect a "reconciliation" of church and individual.

The first regular ordination of a woman took place on January 1, 1977, when Jacqueline Means was ordained at the Church of All Saints in Indianapolis, Indiana. In spite of the objections of traditionalists, including some bishops who refused to ordain women in their dioceses, women flocked to fulfill their vocations. One year after the General Convention resolved that the canons on ordination "shall be equally applicable to men and women," Presiding Bishop Allin announced at a special meeting of the House of Bishops that he was "unable to accept women in the role of priest" and that he would resign, "if it is determined by prayerful authority that this limitation prevents one from serving as the Presiding Bishop of this Church." In response and in support of the Presiding Bishop, the House issued a statement that affirmed, "no bishop, priest, or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner" for opposing, or supporting, women's ordination.

Twenty years later, what became known as the "Conscience Clause" in the House of Bishops was being used by a handful of dioceses to deny women access to ordination and the right to exercise their ordained ministry. In response, the 1997 General Convention adopted resolution A053, which stipulated the canons were mandatory and applicable in all dioceses, and that "no member of this Church shall be denied a place in the life and governance of this Church on account of their sex."

The 1977 canon change removed any prohibition of women in the episcopacy, but no women were elected as bishops until 1989, when Barbara Harris was consecrated as Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts. Women remain a distinct minority in the episcopacy. Though nearly every year since 1989 has seen the election of at least one female bishop, the ratio of women to men has historically been very small, with 46 women being elected from 1989 to 2023 as opposed to 234 men. On June 18, 2006, the role of women in The Episcopal Church reached new heights when Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as the 26th Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church.

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