Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal Church Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After several “irregular ordinations” of women as Episcopal priests, and following subsequent debate on the validity of women’s ordination, the Episcopal Church decided at its General Convention in 1976 to permit the ordination of women. A few months later, Jacqueline Means became the first woman to be officially ordained a priest, opening the way to further liberalization within the church in the following years.

Summary of Event

Beginning in the 1950’s, mainline Protestant denominations in the United States began to allow women full participation in the ranks of their clergy. Several denominations, notably the Methodists and the Presbyterians, formulated policies as early as 1956 that allowed women to become pastors. However, it was not until 1977 that the Episcopal Church formally opened up its priesthood to women, ordaining Jacqueline Means in 1977. Women;as clergy[clergy] Episcopal Church Religious groups;Episcopalians [kw]Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal Church (Jan. 1, 1977) [kw]Ordained by the American Episcopal Church, Means Is (Jan. 1, 1977) [kw]American Episcopal Church, Means Is Ordained by the (Jan. 1, 1977) [kw]Episcopal Church, Means Is Ordained by the American (Jan. 1, 1977) [kw]Church, Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal (Jan. 1, 1977) Women;as clergy[clergy] Episcopal Church Religious groups;Episcopalians [g]North America;Jan. 1, 1977: Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal Church[02730] [g]United States;Jan. 1, 1977: Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal Church[02730] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Jan. 1, 1977: Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal Church[02730] [c]Women’s issues;Jan. 1, 1977: Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal Church[02730] Means, Jacqueline Hiatt, Suzanne Allin, John Maury Harris, Barbara Clementine

On January 1 of that year, Means, the forty-year-old wife of a truck driver and the mother of four, became the first woman to be regularly ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. Means had been ordained a deacon in 1974 following theological study that included Catholic and Disciples of Christ seminaries, and she had been assigned to All Saints Episcopal Church in her hometown of Indianapolis.

Episcopalians had allowed women to be ordained as deacons for several years before Means’s admission to the diaconate. In fact, the order of deaconesses had been recognized by the church since 1889, but it was only in 1970 that Episcopalians had removed the distinction between deaconesses, who were not “ordained,” and deacons, the lowest rank of ordained clergy, and open only to men. Also, even though major denominations in the United States had resolved the issue of admitting women to the clergy decades before, the issue of female priests was somewhat different for Episcopalians.

It has been observed that a major reason for Episcopalians’ delay, despite the progressive moves of other Protestant denominations, is that the Episcopal Church is regarded as “sacramentalist,” along with the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Sacramentalist churches Sacramentalist churches are distinguished from other branches of Christianity (evangelical Protestants, for example) by the importance they place on baptism, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, and other rites significant to their faith. Furthermore, sacramentalist churches have held that apostolic succession—the unbroken line beginning with Jesus and extending through the apostles down to present-day bishops, priests, and deacons—is necessary for a valid priesthood. For conservative Episcopalians, particularly the party known as Anglo-Catholics, maintaining the all-male priesthood was crucial to maintaining orthodoxy.

Episcopal bishop Donald Davis of Erie, Pennsylvania, welcomes Jacqueline Means during Saturday rites at All Saints Episcopal Church in Indianapolis.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The church’s modification of its policy on female deacons in 1970 seemed to make more changes possible, and some bishops began to take steps toward furthering the official role of women in the church. In fact, before Means’s ordination to the priesthood, there were several “irregular ordinations.” The most notable of these is the case of the “Philadelphia Eleven,” a group of women who in 1974 were ordained to the priesthood by three retired bishops. These eleven included Suzanne Hiatt, who went on to become a prominent scholar and clergyperson. Conducted at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, the event created a crisis in the national church, forcing the issue of ordination of women on Episcopalians.

In response, Presiding Bishop John Maury Allin called an emergency meeting of bishops, where those women’s status as priests was declared invalid. Despite this, Hiatt and another of the eleven, Carter Heyward, were hired in 1975 by the Episcopal Divinity School and began celebrating the Eucharist on campus; later the same year, four more women were ordained to the priesthood in Washington, D.C., by bishops acting in disregard of the church’s official policy.

In September, 1976, the church’s General Convention met in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and debate centered on the status of the fifteen women acting as priests, as well as on the possibility of opening up to women the ranks of the ordained clergy, including the episcopacy. Strong opposition from conservative, Anglo-Catholic clergy and laypeople notwithstanding, the convention declared women eligible to serve in all orders of the ordained ministry. This made possible Means’s ordination a little more than three months later.

Means was ordained to the priesthood at All Saints Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where she had served as deacon. Barbara Clementine Harris, who later would become the first woman ordained as bishop, bore the processional cross and led participants into the church. Bishop Donald Davis of Pennsylvania officiated at the ceremony. In attendance was a small group of protesters who rose to condemn the ordination, calling it heresy, before leaving the church prior to Bishop Davis’s actual consecration of Means. As part of the service, Means was clothed in a white robe to symbolize her new office. The following morning, she returned to All Saints Church to celebrate the Eucharist for the first time.


Within one year of Means’s ordination, about one hundred women had been ordained priests and were ministering within the church. Within three years, there were almost three hundred women priests. Many people view Means’s ordination as having opened the way for later progressive moves within the church, notably the ordination in 1989 of Harris as the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church, the ordination of Gene Robinson in 2003 as the first openly gay bishop in the church, and the election in 2006 of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the church’s first female presiding bishop.

Some within the church have decried these moves as impediments to strengthening the church’s ties to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, which do not ordain women. Also, many have viewed these steps as being politically, rather than theologically, motivated. Beginning in the 1980’s, the Episcopal Church has seen decreasing membership, and some point to the church’s increasing liberalism as a cause of this decline. Schismatic groups within the church even have sought to align themselves with more conservative Anglican bodies, particularly those in developing nations in Africa, where there have been many objections to the American church’s ordinations of women and gays. Women;as clergy[clergy] Episcopal Church Religious groups;Episcopalians

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaves, Mark. Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Examines a disjunction between American denominations’ formal policies on the ordination of women and the application of those policies. Observes that churches’ provisions for female clergy often have been symbolic and have been created because of pressure from external cultural forces rather than from internal agitation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hein, David, and Gardner H. Shattuck, Jr. The Episcopalians. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Extensive history of Anglicanism in America, from the time of Elizabeth I through the General Convention of 2003, which saw the election of Bishop Gene Robinson. “Part Two” is a biographical dictionary of notable figures in church history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hewitt, Emily C., and Suzanne R. Hiatt. Women Priests: Yes or No? New York: Seabury Press, 1973. Consideration of the orthodoxy and prudence of ordaining women, published on the cusp of the Episcopal Church’s dealing with the crisis of the so-called Philadelphia Eleven, of whom Hiatt was one.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyles, Jean Caffey. “Episcopalians: Wounded Healers.” Christian Century 29 (September, 1976): 803-804. Editorial piece addresses the tentative mood and the absence of general celebration among Episcopalians in the wake of the 1976 General Convention of the church, at which it was decided to formalize the ordination of women priests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marrett, Michael McFarlene. The Lambeth Conferences and Women Priests: The Historical Background of the Conferences and Their Impact on the Episcopal Church in America. Smithtown, N.Y.: Exposition Press, 1981. General history of the Lambeth Conferences, the gathering every ten years of representatives of the various member churches of the Anglican Communion, headed by the archbishop of Canterbury, with a particular focus on how the American Episcopal Church has been at variance with other Anglican churches concerning the issue of ordaining women priests.

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Categories: History