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date: 17 August 2019

Abstract and Keywords

The first Presbyterian denomination in America to approve women’s ordination was the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), which removed gender barriers to all church offices in 1956. The Presbyterian Church in the United States followed suit in 1964. Today, following a merger that united those two bodies in 1983, about 12 percent of clergy are female. Yet the issue is far from settled, especially among the more conservative bodies, such as the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, both of which continue to prohibit women’s ordination. The lack of resolution reflects centuries of ambiguity among Presbyterians about the role of women, involving lengthy disputes about biblical texts and practical concerns about employing women’s energy and talents. Institutional dynamics played a role as well. In the twentieth century the ordination issue was deeply tied to the fate of women’s home and foreign missionary organizations, as Presbyterian women faced a choice between maintaining their separate status or achieving equal access to the ministry. Ordination was not a feminist issue: the rationale for the 1956 ruling was simple fairness, articulated in the language of human rights and ecumenical cooperation. Still, in recent years it has become an index of social liberalism, especially in regard to literal understandings of the biblical texts that outline women’s role in the church.

Keywords: women’s ordination, deaconess, ruling elder, ecumenism, women and missions

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