Billy Kennedy's Churches: Theological differences over women in the pulpit

​The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is looking back 50 years to a landmark decision taken by its General Assembly tin 1973 to ordain women as congregational ministers.
First Armagh Presbyterian church.  Picture: Billy MaxwellFirst Armagh Presbyterian church.  Picture: Billy Maxwell
First Armagh Presbyterian church. Picture: Billy Maxwell

​The issue of women in the pulpit has long been and still is a contested debate within Irish Presbyterianism and, although church ministry is open to those from both sexes, it remains that only a small minority of ordained clergy are females.

With regards to women in ministry, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland officially stipulates that it ordains men and women on an equal basis.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Women, says the church, are also called to serve in the church in many different ways, as deaconesses, home and foreign missionaries and as congregational elders.

Since 1908 they have served the church as deaconesses and have been ordained as elders since the 1920s.

The Irish Presbyterian church currently has 330 ministers in its 19 presbyteries. 30 of whom are women, 15 in active ministry (congregations/chaplaincy and specified ministry), with 15 females who have retired from active ministry.

The 1973 General Assembly decision came after a protracted debate within the church and, on an 18-3 presbytery vote, it was agreed that "women shall be eligible for nomination as students for the ministry and for ordination thereto".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Interpretation of Old Testament and New Testament theology comes into play when opposition to female clergy is debated in the various churches.

There is reference back to the preaching from the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth and some are reminded that when Jesus Christ called his 12 disciples all were men.

The first Irish Presbyterian female minister was the Rev Dr Ruth Patterson who was ordained in 1976 and went on to minister in KIlmakee congregation in South Belfast, where she spent 14 years before being involved with Restoration Ministries in Northern Ireland.

The Church of Ireland, interestingly, did not authorise female ministry in its congregations until 1988 and today 21 per cent of its clergy in Northern Ireland are women (55 as compared with 265 men) and in the Irish Republic 25 per cent (59 compared with 233 men).

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In the Church of Ireland there is one female bishop - the Rev Pat Storey, bishop of Meath and Kildare, who is from Belfast and previously served as rector of St Augustine’s church, Londonderry. Senior female clergy include Archdeacon Elizabeth Cairns in Armagh diocese, and Dean Liz Fitzgerald in Raphoe diocese, Co Donegal.

Significantly, the Church of England did not begin to authorise female clergy in its parishes until 1994 and today it has a number of women bishops and many vicars and rectors..

The Roman Catholic Church, despite a marked decline in the number of its priests globally, does not permit female clergy. The strict Vatican ruling on this issue is absolute and will not change.

The Methodist Church in Ireland has a number of female clergy, and has had a woman President the Rev Dr Heather Morris, elected in 2013.

There are no female ministers in the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster congregations.

The present Church of Scotland moderator is the Rev Dr Sally Foster-Fulton, an American from South Carolina.