The Church of England has just voted to allow women to become bishops. But while there are rumblings across most major religions in favour of allowing women to lead, some insist that only a Y chromosome gets you closer to God.

A Crikey survey of major religions has found Protestant Christian churches are perhaps the most open to giving women power. Progressive Judaism is not far behind. As for Islam, the perception some may have of “downtrodden Muslim women” is far from the full picture.

The spectrum that operates here is weighted towards men anyway, but some religions — e.g. the Catholic and Mormon churches — are at the extreme end of that spectrum, excluding women entirely from formal leadership.

Here’s a guide to how much formal power and authority religions grant to women.

Protestant Christianity

Women can be priests in some Anglican churches, and there are quite a few in Australia. The Church of England — i.e. the Anglican church in the UK — voted last week to allow women to be bishops, after years of arguing. This decision only really affects the UK but is significant because the UK is the homeland of the Anglican faith.

Some regions already allow female Anglican bishops, including Australia (except for the Sydney diocese), New Zealand, the United States (where it’s called the Episcopal Church) and south India. Other regions, mainly in Africa, don’t allow female bishops.

Sarah Macneil made history when she obtained a certain rank as bishop of Grafton (in New South Wales) a few months ago. She told Crikey that while some parishioners hadn’t expected a woman to get the job, there had been no overt opposition.

“A few people have said to me that they weren’t sure, I think they were waiting to meet me,” Macneil said. “A lot of people of all ages, both men and women, have come up to me and said how pleased they are there’s a woman in the role.”

Religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey, national correspondent for the US-based Religion News Service, noted the head of the Episcopal Church (ie Anglicans, mainly in the US) is a woman — Katharine Jefferts Schori. But she told Crikey the situation for Protestants was nuanced. There are many Protestant churches that are not Anglican, and some don’t ordain women as priests.


In progressive (ie not orthodox) Judaism, women can be rabbis. Vivien Brass, president of the Victorian section of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia, said women had “equality in every sense”. Speaking in her personal capacity as a progressive Jew, Brass explained that girls could have a bat mitzvah, could be cantors (singers / teachers) and could be rabbis. Women trained to be rabbis at the same colleges as men and could perform the same functions as men; marriages, funerals, services (which are mixed-gender). Brass said there were many female rabbis and cantors in Australia.

In orthodox Judaism women cannot be rabbis and usually sit in a separate section at the synagogue (upstairs or behind a curtain).


Islam has a less formalised hierarchy than the Catholic and Anglican religions. Imams are spiritual leaders who lead prayers; most schools of Islam allow women to be imams at women-only services. Women have on occasion acted as imams for mixed-gender congregations, mainly in western countries (eg Canada, the US, Spain), but it’s controversial.

Shakira Hussein, a researcher on gender and Islam (and Crikey writer), explained the process was quite informal; women would gather for prayers, sometimes in someone’s home, and decide who would act as imam. “Women lead other women in prayer, that’s quite standard,” she said. But a woman leading mixed-gender prayers would cause a “media fracas” in Australia, and she wasn’t aware of it happening.

Hussein said some non-Muslims viewed Muslim women as downtrodden, but “they’re not dormant, they are participating”. She said senior mullahs were men, but women sometimes took senior roles in community organisations.

Hussein explained that in Australia, converted Muslim women from western backgrounds had different expectations of women’s roles, “and they can be put down because of that”. She described the role of women in Islam as “a work in progress”.


The Catholic Church does not allow women to be priests (or bishops). Pope John Paul II set this in stone in a special decree in 1994, which was directed at “venerable brothers”:

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (OrdinatioSacerdotalis 4).

The decree quoted an earlier Pope who said “the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church”. John Paul II justified his decision partly because Jesus chose men as his Apostles.

In 2007 the Holy See issued a decree saying that any attempt to ordain a woman as a priest would result in an automatic and immediate “major excommunication” for the woman and the ordainer. Former Australian priest Greg Reynolds was excommunicated for supporting the ordination of women. Other acts that earn this type of immediate excommunication include a woman who has an abortion.

On the other hand, Pope Francis was recently quoted as saying about 2% of the Catholic Church clergy are paedophiles. They don’t appear to have been excommunicated.

Religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey said the Catholic Church was the main religion where women were not in church leadership. She did not think Pope Francis would do anything radical, but noted he was a “leader who has a new tone … down the road, will there be an opening from the Catholic Church on this issue?”

Other religions

Women cannot be priests in the Mormon religion. Bailey said the issue had been heating up and was now widely discussed (a women was excommunicated recently for advocating women as Mormon priests). In the Hindu religion, women can be priests and gurus. The situation among Buddhists is complicated, but in some areas women have not been allowed to be fully ordained as nuns, with status reserved for male monks. Countries like Japan are more open to women moving up the Buddhist ranks.


The Richard Dawkins Foundation, set up to reduce the influence of religion and eliminate the stigma around atheism, has five people on its board of directors and advisory board. All are male.