Women's ordination raised issues of conscience across church traditions. The Church of England's statutory legal framework prevented these issues being confined to the Church; they were also played out in parliamentary debate. The interface between law and conscience has, however, considerable historical and contemporary resonance, as well as sound theological pedigree. This article therefore considers the place of conscience in legal and philosophical thought before the Enlightenment. It looks at norms of conscience in Roman Catholic and Church of England liturgical use. On a broader canvas, it looks at the interplay between thought, conscience and religion in human rights case law. The article suggests that a consensus of thought which sees the dictates of conscience as founded in, and inseparable from, the teachings of religion begins to break down in the early seventeenth century. Yet human rights courts find themselves deciding cases of conscience or religion where conscience and religion are often intertwined and where the external manifestation of one is governed by the inner promptings of the other. Such difficulties are not limited to the human rights courts but also play out in debates pertaining to ordination. While the North American churches sought to deal with issues of conscience head on, the Church of England very carefully avoided the language of conscience in its early discussions of women's ordination, conscious, it seems, of a lack of consensus around its meaning and source. As the women's ordination debates developed, arguments of conscience were often deployed more by those opposed to the move than those who supported it. Conscience became as much the locus of pain caused by another's action as it was an inner faculty for self-guidance. Its valence shifted from an intellectual to an emotional category.