The female ordination debate(s)

One of the dominant news stories this week in the UK is the vote on whether or not to allow women bishops in the Church of England. Although the majority of church members – bishops, clergy and lay – voted to allow women bishops, the majority in the lay house was not sufficient to pass the motion overall, so women will continue to be excluded from the highest ordination.

This debate has a parallel in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which officially does not allow higher ordination for women. The issues here are not theological, but ritual. The nuns’ ordination lineage died out and – according to many – cannot be legitimately reintroduced until the next Buddha comes along in the distant future and inaugurates a new Buddhist community. This is because ordination requires a quorum of nuns in order to be effective. Those in favour of female ordination have found a way forward by bringing in nuns from another ordination lineage, namely the Dharmaguptaka lineage which survives in East Asia. This was the solution used to ordain ten Sri Lankan women in India in 1996, and the many ordinations that have followed have largely grown out of this initial move. However, since these nuns have a different, non-Theravada, monastic code (vinaya) their ordination has been challenged, and the debate has been fierce. In the Thai sangha controversy still surrounds the ordination of Thai nuns in Sri Lanka, and Ajahn Brahmavamso’s decision to ordain women in his Australian monastery in 2009 led to a backlash and expulsion from the Thai forest tradition. Meanwhile, many women continue to choose a life of semi-ordination, taking on some of the monastic precepts but stopping short of full bhikkhuni ordination, perhaps largely because of the ongoing hostility towards female ordination in many centres of Theravada Buddhism.

In both the Buddhist and CofE debates, supporters of higher ordination for women have pointed to the potential irrelevance to modern society of a religious institution that denies equality to its female members. It is not clear how either of these debates will end, but one thing does seem very clear: women around the world are not going to stop asking for religious equality.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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