Women’s Ordination in the Anglican Communion: the Importance of Religious, Economic, and Political Contexts

by Benjamin Knoll

The Anglican Communion is a global network of national Christian churches that trace their history to the English Reformation. Anglicans claim more than 80 million members in 165 different countries. The Communion is organized into 41 separate provincial jurisdictions throughout the world, including the Episcopal Church in the United States. Roughly half (22) of the provinces and jurisdictions of the Anglican Communion, constituting about two-thirds of the Communion’s membership, welcome women to all traditional orders of the priesthood—deacon, priest, and bishop. Another sixteen welcome women to the deaconate and presbyterate (but not the bishopric), and two to the deaconate only, leaving seven provinces (constituting only about three percent of the Communion’s membership) with a strict male-only ordination policy.

What factors are associated with an Anglican province’s decision to open the priesthood to women? Here I attempt to answer that question, conceptualizing women’s ordination as an institutional policy and analyzing it within the framework of comparative policy analysis. This type of analysis tries to explain divergent outcomes across different domains (in this case, Anglican provinces) by examining the similarities and differences across key characteristics in each domain.

First, societal religious diversity matters.

The figure above displays how differing levels of religious diversity in a province (x-axis) as measured by Pew’s Religious Diversity Index are associated with the probability (y-axis) that the province has a given policy on women’s ordination: no ordination for women, ordination for deacons only, ordination for deacons and priests only, or to all orders of the priesthood including bishops (vertical bars represent 95% confidence intervals).

The key trend in the graph is that more societal religious diversity is associated with a greater likelihood that the province will invite women to be ordained to all priesthood orders. As soon as a province passes 2.0 on the Religious Diversity Index (on a scale of 0-10), the province is more likely to have a policy of women’s ordination to all orders instead of male-only ordinations. Once a province surpasses a religious diversity score of 4.5 they are more likely than not (i.e. more than 50% likely) to have a policy of ordaining women to all priesthood orders.

This effect is perhaps due to the “group contact” phenomenon where people who are exposed to and interact with those of different social groups become more tolerant of and positive toward members of those groups. In this case, Anglicans in provinces characterized by higher levels of religious diversity would theoretically come in contact with non-Anglicans more frequently and become more open to a diverse clergy in their own churches, including gender diversity. Frequent exposure to religious diversity might also increase comfort with the idea that religious traditions and practices can legitimately be expressed in a variety of different ways, including being more open to innovations in leadership, including women’s ordination.

Second, economic development matters.

This graph shows that the more economically developed an Anglican province becomes, the more likely it is to have a policy of ordaining women to all orders of the priesthood—deacons, priests, and bishops. In this case, a province is more likely than not to have a policy of women’s ordination to all priesthood orders once its GDP per capita passes $30,000/year, and is 80-90% likely once its GDP per capita reaches $70,000/year.

Economic development in a country is strongly linked to the development of democratic political institutions which, in turn, strongly influence the desire for social equality in other aspects of society by a country’s citizens. Given that the policies of religious institutions are often influenced by the cultures and societies in which they find themselves, provinces with higher levels of economic development may be more likely to favor equal opportunities for leadership in religious contexts, including ordination to the priesthood regardless of gender.

Third, women in politics matters.

This final graph shows that higher levels of women in a province’s national legislatures are associated with a higher likelihood that the province will have a policy of ordaining women to all three priesthood orders. When a province’s country has 15% of its legislature occupied by women, it is about as likely as not to have a policy of either male-only ordination or to welcome women to all levels of the priesthood, and even more likely that the province allows women to be ordained as deacons and priests (but not bishops). Once a province’s country or region has around a third of its parliamentary or legislative seats occupied by women, however, it is 50% likely to allow women to be ordained to all priesthood orders. This likelihood increases to nearly 90% once women make up at least half of the national legislatures.

Why might this be? All kinds of research shows support for a gender “role model” effect. Seeing women in positions of power and authority in some aspects of society (such as politics) serves to normalize the expectation that women should also fully participate in leadership in other aspects of society (such as religion), as well as to enhance self-esteem and interest in similar leadership positions among young women and girls in those communities.

In broad strokes, then, women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion is somewhat of a straight-forward story. Anglican provinces tend to ordain women to the priesthood when the societies they find themselves in have more religious diversity and more egalitarian economic/political structures in place. This suggests that provinces that do not ordain women to the priesthood, or to only the deaconate or presbyterate, may perhaps continue with their current policies until their wider cultural/political contexts change in a more egalitarian direction and/or their economic contexts improve.

For Anglicans who believe that women should eventually be ordained in all Anglican provinces, this analysis suggests one path to consider. The Anglican Communion has very little formal authority over its member provinces who are almost entirely free to set whatever policies they desire for their own provinces. The Communion instead relies on a much less formal “authority of persuasion,” especially as it relates to episcopal conversations at the Lambeth Conferences and Primates Meetings, when it wants to get its member provinces to do something. These findings suggest, though, that Anglican bishops in provinces that either partially or wholly prohibit women’s ordination will very likely not be open to persuasion on this matter given that it goes so strongly against the grain of their wider cultural and political contexts.

Supporters of women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion should perhaps instead focus on supporting political and economic policies that will boost economic development in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, specifically the areas where Anglican provinces with male-only priesthood policies tend to be most common. This economic development may encourage greater norms of democratization and egalitarianism in society which may, in turn, generate “bottom-up” pressure on Anglican bishops and primates to open all orders of the priesthood to women in their provinces.

METHODOLOGICAL NOTES: This analysis used a multinomial logistic regression procedure to tease out the independent effect of each factor after controlling for the other factors discussed above as well as a variety of other control factors. These include a province’s level of secularism, as higher levels of secularism may produce a “religious threat” for church leaders, leading them to strategically adopt policies appealing that appeal to secular-rational types, including women’s ordination. Secularism is a percentage measure of the proportion of a province’s principal country’s population that identifies as “unaffiliated” as per the 2012 Pew Global Religion Survey. Control variables also include the age of a particular province, as calculated either by the number of years that the province was officially recognized by the Anglican Communion or, if an extra-provincial area, the number of years since a bishop was consecrated in the area. These were drawn from the historical descriptions of each province or area as given on the Anglican Communion website. I also included a control variable for world region, as previous public policy research has shown that geographical proximity is associated with the likelihood of policy adoption (in effect, seeing something working for your neighbors increases your likelihood of adopting it yourself). Here, global regions are those defined by the World Bank: East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, North America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, this analysis controlled for the percentage of women over the age of 25 who are currently employed in the workforce in the province’s principal country and the percentage of women in the province’s principal country who report in the last year experiencing violence from an intimate partner, both additional indicators of gender egalitarianism in a society. In Anglican provinces that include more than one principal country, I took an average measure of each factor from among the various principal countries in the province.

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