While the decision on women's ordination that faced the 1976 General Convention seemed innovative to some, the debate, in fact, took place 87 years after the Episcopal Church began ordaining women as deaconesses and 42 years after the first woman was made a priest in the Anglican Communion.
Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained a priest in 1944 in Hong Kong by Bishop R. O. Hall. To protect him from censure while awaiting the Anglican Communion's acknowledgement of her ordination, she decided not to function as a priest.
She was forced by the Communist government of the Peoples' Republic of China to work on a farm and then in a factory from 1958 to 1974. Deemed a counter-revolutionary, she had to undergo political re-education. Her orders were recognized in absentia in 1971. As China emerged from the Cultural Revolution, she resumed priestly ministry in the nationalized Chinese church. In 1981 she was allowed to visit family in Canada. She was licensed in the dioceses of Montreal and Toronto, where she later came to live until her death in 1992.
In 1971, Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett were ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Gilbert Baker of Hong Kong.
In the Episcopal Church, the 1889 General Convention agreed to allow the ordination of deaconesses. During the 24 years preceding that decision, the bishops of Maryland, London, Alabama and New York agreed to "set apart" deaconesses by the laying on of hands. But in 1919 the board of the Church Pension Fund ruled that deaconesses were not considered clergy.
In 1970 the General Convention, with women seated in the House of Deputies for the first time, eliminated the deaconess canon and ruled that women would be ordained as deacons equally with men (and thus were eligible to be in the pension fund). The first ordinations of women deacons happened the next year.
Also at that convention, lay deputies approved the ordination of women to the priesthood, but the proposal was narrowly defeated by clerical deputies.
At the 1973 General Convention, the House of Deputies again defeated a resolution to change the canons to permit the ordination of women. Following the 1973 convention, 11 women deacons took part in "irregular" priestly ordinations in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974, and another four in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1975.
"Extensive and often bitter debate and ecclesiastical and civil court actions have grown out of these actions," the Episcopal News Service reported.
The Rev. Jacqueline Means became the first woman to be regularly ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church on January 1, 1977.
Another milestone was reached on February 11, 1989, the Rev. Barbara C. Harris was consecrated Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts.
A month after Harris' consecration, the Most Rev. Robert Eames, archbishop of Armagh and the primate of Ireland, said that the Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate was meant "to produce guidelines which will enable Provinces which differ to live together in the 'highest possible degree of communion"' - a phrase echoed in the 2004 Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which Eames also chaired.
The Eames Commission was "deeply conscious of the serious divisions that exist within Anglicanism on this question." Those divisions were expressed "in the individual attitudes of members to their work."
Eames told the Primates that the report "represents only the first step in a process of prayerful thought that must develop gradually in time. There are no instant solutions to problems that lie in time."
Whereas the Episcopal Church's 1976 decision opened both the priesthood and the episcopate to women, the Church of England agreed in 1992 to begin ordaining women only to the priesthood. At its General Synod meeting in February, 2006, the issue of allowing women to be bishops continued to be debated but was not settled. A study group has made a number of proposals, including a provision for what are called Transferred Episcopal Arrangements (TEA) to meet the needs of those who cannot accept women as bishops, while avoiding the creation of any new jurisdiction, diocese or province within the church.
A more complete timeline of the history of women's ordination is available at www.episcopalchurch.org/41685_3276_ENG_HTM.htm.
The status of women's ordination in the Anglican Communion is summarized at www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/Anglican_Communion_Provincial_Checklist_on_Womens_Ordination.pdf.