Though there were women of standing among Christ's followers, and in the early Church women exercised roles of leadership in the emerging communities, it is not known how these roles relate to the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons that was in place by the 2nd cent. The references to women fulfilling priestly functions in heretical bodies indicate that in orthodox circles such behaviour was regarded as an outrage. There is evidence for a distinct order of deaconesses (q.v.) in the patristic period, but it is not clear that they should be seen as women in deacon's orders; their relationship to widows and virgins is obscure, and the order disappeared in the W. by the 11th cent. and in the E. slightly later.
The first Churches to admit women to official ministry were those who had abandoned the three-fold order of bishop, priest, and deacon at the Reformation and which had little or no centralized hierarchical structure. In 1611, for example, the Declaration of Faith of English Baptists provided for ‘Deacons, men and women’. It was not, however, until the 19th cent. that the ordination of women became a serious concern. In most denominations unofficial ministries (e.g. as preachers) preceded the admission of women into the ranks of ordained clergy.
The office of deaconess was revived at Kaiserswerth in Germany in 1836. In 1862 A. C. Tait ‘set aside’ Elizabeth Ferard as the first deaconess in the C of E. In the Episcopal Church in the United States of America the office of deaconess was established by canon in 1889. Methodist deaconess institutes were established in America in 1888 and in England in 1890.
The earliest ordination of a woman as a minister in a recognized denomination took place in the First Congregational Church in Butler and Savannah, Wayne County, New York, in 1853. Later in the 19th cent. women were ordained in the USA by the Universalist Association, the Disciples of Christ, some Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. In England the first woman was ordained to pastoral charge of a local Baptist church in 1918, and in 1925 the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland formally accredited women as ministers. Other Nonconformist Churches followed during the 20th cent. Since the first Lutheran ordination of a woman in the Netherlands in 1929, many Lutheran Churches have admitted women to their ordained ministry, though some still do not do so.
In the Anglican Communion Florence Tim Oi Li was ordained priest in 1944 by the Bp. of Hong Kong to serve Christians cut off by war or revolution in China. His action was condemned by the Lambeth Conference of 1948. That of 1968, however, affirmed that deaconesses ‘should be regarded as within the order of deacons’, opening the way for canonical regulations on the subject in each Province. In the Episcopal Church in the USA legislation to this effect was passed in 1970, and in the C of E in 1986. In 1976, after several irregular ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, the General Convention allowed the ordination of women both to the priesthood and the episcopate. The C of E allowed the ordination of women as priests in 1993. Women have been regularly ordained as priests in a number of Provinces.