Recently, I have been re-watching the Vicar of Dibley, which growing up was, and remains, one of my favourite shows. Watching it again now, I better understand how revolutionary it was when it first came out. Women were not often seen in religion as leaders. In fact, when women first entered the church, it wasn’t easily accepted, not by the residents of Dibley, and not by many others.
Over time, we’ve become more accepting of, even celebrating, women in the church, as our vicars and bishops. But across the world, adjusting to having women as leaders of religious gatherings has been challenged and disputed.
Looking beyond nuns and nurses, whose power extended medically more than religiously, how has the history of women in roles of religious leadership changed over time?
Church of England
- Women were first ordained as priests of the Church of England was in 1994, with thirty two women in attendance. Over twenty years later in 2015, the first female bishop of the Church of England, Libby Lane, was ordained.
- As of 2018, women made up 30% percent of the 20,000 ordained ministers in the Church of England. However, more women entered ordination training than men; an increase that has been growing gradually over recent years.
- There are six women bishops in the Church of England. In 2019, Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Dover), became the first black women to become a C of E bishop.
- Within the Roman Catholic Church women cannot be ordained, but the question into allowing female deacons has been circulating.
- In Islam, there are no formal religious leaders. Instead, there are imam; spiritual leaders who act as the religious authority and lead prayers. Acceptance of female imams vary, but the number of women leading prayers in mixed-gender congregations has been rising. This increase is important, as within ethnic minorities (4.8% of the UK population are Muslim), religious figures hold a great deal of trust and responsibility towards their communities.
- In 1935, the first female rabbi, Regina Jones, was anointed. Since then, women have been anointed as rabbi’s in various denominations of Judaism. Women are also able to become cantors, excepting within Orthodox Judaism.
- There are no priests in Sikhism, and with the religion’s strong beliefs in equality, women can participate, perform or lead any religious function, ceremony or prayer.
- Women and men are both welcomed to become ordained in Chinese Taoism. In 2009, the first female fangzhang (abbot) was anointed.
- There is equal ordination in Hinduism, with men and women able to become purohits and pujaris (priests) and gurus.
- And, in the Ryukyuan Islands of Japan, the indigenous religion of the female-led society is led by female priests. It is thought to be the only known society with a female-led mainstream religion.
Due to the high presence and importance of female deities and goddesses, women in the Ancient world held more religious power than in current monotheistic religions and societies.
Priestesses held a great deal of power, owning property and doing business.
- Sumerian EN priestess were of equal status to priests. The first known holder of the title was an Akkadian princess called Enheduanna.
- In Ancient Egypt, the chief priestess for Amun was known as the Divine Adoratrice of Amun. She held great power and was important in facilitating the transfer of power from one pharaoh to the next. She ruled over the temple’s duties and domains, ultimately in control of a large amount of the Egyptian economy.
- Women often served as priestesses overseeing rituals and festivals in Ancient Greece, but they also served as oracles, like the famous Oracle of Delphi. The importance and credit given to her prophecies extended an unusual amount of power for a woman in such male dominated times.
- Similarly in Ancient Rome, women served as priestesses for Vesta, goddess of the hearth. They often swore vows of chastity and devoted themselves to the study of rituals off limits to the male priests. They also held specific roles dedicated to temples or deities, such sacerdos Cereris, the priestess of Ceres, a position that was never held by a man.
- In Rome, there was also a particular priesthood that was jointly held by a married couple. In these, the woman had her own power and oversaw public sacrifices. Since these duties were so public, there was little restrictions for a woman’s religion, unconfined to a domestic or private space. In these joint positions, if the woman died, the man had to step down.
So why are so many people reluctant to see women leading religious groups and gatherings? Why so people still struggle with seeing women in religion? It’s a question that pulls from so many different angles of society and history, from patriarchal ideologies that oppress and prevent, to the position of women actually within monotheist religions.
In a paper by Mary Farrell Bednarowski, she answers this by focusing on the marginalised religious movements that welcome women in leadership roles, and what it as about these religious that have such positive relations towards women: “These marginal groups are characterized by (1) a perception of the divine that deemphasizes the masculine, (2) a tempering or denial of the doctrine of the Fall, (3) a denial of the need for a traditional ordained clergy, and (4) a view of marriage which does not hold that marriage and motherhood are the only acceptable roles for women.”
Ergo, religions that are evolving with their societies and cultures toward more equal perceptions of men and women have more positive relation towards women in powerful positions in religion. And vice versa. In societies where inequality prevails on deeper levels, the struggle for women to rise into positions of power in religion will be felt more.