Church of England's vote to ordain women hailed in U.S. as symbol of hope

The Church of England's historic vote to ordain women as priests is being welcomed as a powerful symbol of progress and hope by advocates of a greater role for women in American denominations.

"For women in many churches, it's a great step forward," says Jane Redmont of Cambridge, Mass., a Roman Catholic activist and writer who has long challenged the Vatican's opposition to female priests. "It's a strong statement that women are equally capable and called and committed to the ordained ministry and to serve God's people in the broadest and deepest possible way."


The Episcopal Church in the United States, part of the Church of England's worldwide Anglican Communion, began to ordain women as priests in 1976 and three years ago elected its first female bishop, Barbara C. Harris, in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Most other Christian denominations in the United States ordain women as priests, pastors or ministers. The Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist churches, the nation's largest, oppose the ordination of women, as do Orthodox Christian faiths.


But the strength of their opposition may be tested because of yesterday's vote, says Bishop David E. Johnson, the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

"It certainly lends more focus and support to the issue," Bishop Johnson says. "It strongly affirms that the gifts which women bring to the ordained ministry are quite significant and complement the priesthood in a way that has been needed for many, many centuries."

The Vatican strongly disagreed, issuing a statement that described the vote as "a new and grave obstacle" to improved relations between the Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies.

The Church of England's vote occurred as the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops prepares to renew debate in Washington next week over a pastoral letter on women's roles in the church.

A survey of Roman Catholics conducted by the church in the United States and released in June showed that support for female priests had risen to 67 percent, up from 29 percent in 1974 and 47 percent in 1985.

But the pastoral letter, which has been in progress for eight years, conforms to traditional church doctrine, which prohibits women in the clergy. And Bishop Joseph Imesch, of Joliet, Ill., who heads the committee working on the document, said yesterday the letter was likely to be rejected by the national conference.

Still, the vote to ordain women does not heal the injustices women have suffered in the church, according to the Rev. Carter Heyward, a professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.

Ms. Heyward was one of 11 women ordained by an Episcopal bishop in Philadelphia in 1974, despite the church's opposition.


"A great number of women have been badly battered spiritually in their struggle for justice in the church," she says.