Menu lock

People & Ideas

Jul 21, 2014

Crikey survey: which religions ban women from leadership?

Some religions prohibit women from having formal power, while others are open-minded. You might be surprised where some religions fall on the spectrum ...

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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.

We recommend

From around the web

Powered by Taboola


Leave a comment

10 thoughts on “Crikey survey: which religions ban women from leadership?

  1. morebento

    Buddhism is a lot more complex, due in part to differences in the traditional and national attitudes towards women. An interesting event recently centred on Australian Theravada senior monk Ajahn Brahm being censored speaking on women’s full ordination at a Buddhist conference

    Japanese traditions such as Jodo Shinsu have full ordination for women. The Tibetans have a mixed set of responses

  2. cassandra.richardson

    When did the Richard Dawkins Foundation become the be-all and end-all of atheism?

  3. Yclept

    When did atheism become a religion?

  4. RachelK

    There are many fine religious affairs journalists in Australia with an understanding of the complexities and nuances of the Australian religious landscape. For some reason Crikey offers consistently superficial commentary in this area, perhaps assuming that your subscribers are not religious people. A little more research, and looking to an Australian rather than US source for this article might have revealed that the third largest church in Australia, the Uniting Church, is an Australian church that has always ordained women clergy.

  5. Pointy Hatted Party Monster

    Sorry to indulge in churchy in-talk, but Anglicanism is not a protestant church in the same way you might apply the term to the Uniting Church, or bodies such as the Church of Christ or the Presbyterian Church. Anglicanism is reformed Catholic — which is why it retains bishops, priests and deacons as the form of ordained ministry (compared to other protestant bodies which don’t have these) and does not acknowledge the authority of the Bishop of Rome (some of you know him as the Pope). This is the legacy of arguments whose roots go back to the thirteenth century, which you can witness being reenacted between Rome and Beijing in the current day.

    Katherine Jefferts-Schori has had a really hard time, not least because she is the first woman to become the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. Her time in the job has coincided with large amounts of litigation brought about by congregations attempting to realign themselves with bishops in various parts of Africa, where they’ve attempted to make off with the buildings in the process. As Presiding Bishop, Jefferts-Schori has also had to oversee the process of disciplining fellow-bishops who encouraged these congregations while muttering about not accepting her leadership. It’s been painted in all sorts of dark colours in various parts of the Anglican blogosphere, but the reality is that all the Presiding Bishop has been doing is fulfilling her fiduciary duty of not letting people run away with assets held in trust for The Episcopal Church. To add international insult to domestic injury, on one visit to the UK Jefferts-Schori was asked not to wear her mitre (the pointy hat) because the Church of England was in the middle of the second-last round of fighting over the legislation that passed synod last week.

    Another aspect of Anglicanism that gets lost when you describe it as ‘protestant’ is that it is not a unified world church with a singular source of authority in the same sense that you have with the (Roman) Catholic Church (or Dawkinite atheism, apparently). It is better to refer to the Anglican Communion, which is a family of national churches that share roots in patterns of British settlement. The fact that practices about the ordination of women differ radically from one part of the Anglican Communion to another is a result of this fairly lax structure: the Americans (including Canada), Hong Kong and the New Zealanders were ordaining women in the 1970s, when their fellows in England and Australia were still recovering from the arrival of General Synods. Many African churches don’t ordain women, and it’s unlikely that development will come very soon given the influence of displaced conservatives from places like…the US, England, and Australia.

  6. sparky

    They don’t mind taking the tax free status benefits from the 50+% of the population they won’t let near the phone to God.
    Not many people vote themselves out of privileged positions.

  7. AR

    “Which Religions?” ALL, by definition. Why would a woman want to be a part of such idiocy as religion?

  8. Bruce Joyce

    Please amend your last section which is misleading.
    The Executive Director, Development Director and Operations Director at the Richard Dawkins Foundation are all women. That makes three out of eight – pretty damned good in the context of your article.

  9. Harold Rogers

    So what . Let women be popes for all I care.

    This is a priority for whom ? I guess it must be the women who want to be on the same gravy train as the rest who write rules for morality and the way people should live their lives and be allowed to ponce around in funny costumes.

    Intelligence ….where is that to be found these days??

  10. AR

    HaroldR, alas, nowhere near, as you opine, funny costumes, smells & bells.