Church in Southern Africa Ordains First Women to the Priesthood

Episcopal News Service. September 16, 1992 [92189]

Mike McCoy

On September 5, only 22 days after the synod of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (CPSA) approved the ordination of women, three women were ordained September 5 in Grahamstown, in the eastern part of South Africa's Cape Province, by Bishop David Russell.

Describing the ordination day as "rich and special," Russell thanked the three women for their obedience to their call. "Yours has been a faithful, loyal waiting -- especially those who have been deacons for some time -- which you have borne in pain," Russell said. "It has been a creative pain that has deepened you and our church."

The ordinands were: Nancy Charton, a retired associate professor of political studies at Rhodes University and the first woman deacon ordained by the province in 1985; Bridge Dickson, a retired medical doctor; and Su Groves, who recently completed her theological studies.

"We in this diocese have for some time been ready and have waited in obedience and unity for the province to make its corporate decision," Russell said. "The way is opened, and we move in obedience and unity."

The three-hour service passed without incident, despite fears that opponents of women's ordination might raise objections.

"Today, we stand between two epochs -- the dying old order and the emerging new one," Dean Anthony Mdletshe said in his sermon. "We come from a patriarchal society, a society that believes in the power of the fathers, through which they determined what part women would play or not play," the dean said. "This kind of thinking is embedded in the minds of people; that their status in life, especially of men, was ordained by God."

Dean Mdletshe concluded by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: "With this faith, go and carve tunnels of hope from mountains of despair."

The synod decided at its August meeting by a 79-percent majority to ordain women as priests, but delegates also asked the bishops to draw up guidelines "to meet the needs of those who have difficulties of conscience" with the decision.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu underscored both the pain and the joy of the occasion and stressed that the vote did not compel any bishop to ordain women.

Of the 34 provinces and member churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion, 15 have ordained women as deacons, and now 15 have also ordained them to the priesthood. In some cases, individual dioceses ordain women with province-wide agreement. The Church of England will vote on the issue at its General Synod in November.