Catholics and Women’s Ordination 3

Theodora.jpgIn the major chapter of Gary Macy’s The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, Macy sketches what it is that women were doing in the early Medieval Age. What he sketches clearly demonstrates that women were (1) ordained in the Roman Catholic tradition and (2) this was more rooted in local church decisions than in Rome and (3) that all this changed dramatically in about the 13th Century.

I want to sketch out his major findings and then what he thinks “church” was like in the early Medieval period.

First, there are specific terms used for women and the gifts/functions they performed. These terms include episcopa, presbutera, deaconness, and abbess. The first term might be translated “bishop” and the second one “priest” (or “elder”). These terms referred to functions more than status; they were shaped by local churches; and these terms described women who were “ordained” to those functions in those local churches. Sometimes these terms referred to wives of bishops and priests etc. but sometimes the terms refer to husband-wife teams.

Second, we need to consider functions like these: abbesses heard confessions, gave penances, and absolved people from sins. The episcopae administered churches to the level of an entire diocese. These women served at the altar and passed out communion; they preached and taught and prepared people for baptism. Some women include Theodora episcopa, “the venerable woman episcopa Q,” Brigid of Ireland, Hildeburga, the presbytera Leta, Martia the presbytera, etc..

Now an important point Macy: he suggests that “the church” was simply not uniform during these days. In fact, he thinks much happened in what is called “estate churches,” that is: churches that were part of a large estate. So large that the owner of the estate got his own priest and had his own church for his family and those who worked for him. These estate churches had more control over what happened on that estate. The Pope didn’t always have control over that estate and sometimes was not happy about it.

In this situation many priests who were married and this is where it gets interesting. There are two models: Some priests continued to live with their wives and have children who followed in the priest’s vocation. Others, however, were married but chose — custom and teaching of the time — to live chaste and continent lives. The wives of such bishops and priests took vows and became episcopa and presbutera. The evidence is not entirely clear but this suggestion of Macy’s goes a long way. Macy thus suggests these words were used for women who were, in effect, in an order: married to bishops/priests but continent.

The Gregorian reforms of the 11th and 12th Centuries changed. Clerical marriage became impossible and, once standardized, the evidence for women bishops and priests, etc., diminishes and disappears and then is explained away as “it couldn’t have been that way.”

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  • I’m deeply skeptical of any revisions of Church history that involve some kind of “hidden” history of a conspiracy against women. Sounds too Da Vinci Code-ish.

  • Your Name

    did prohibiting marriage and a celebate priesthood further restrict the ministry of women then?
    At least the women would be free to minister alongside their husband. At the most, the women belonged to a genuine order.

  • joanne

    maybe not a conspiricy… but if one examines history from any religious movement, like various protestent revivlals, there is often greater freedom for women. As a group becomes more mainstream or institutional women generallly are more restricted. I think it is a pattern. The pull of culture to marginalize and restrict women is powerful and everytime the church moves forward, the social/cultural pull toward keep women in their place is very strong.

  • Scot,
    Does this book do more to give precedence for women in ministry or to question the legitimacy of pre-13th century Catholicism? It seems that if individual churches, without support from Rome, did indeed have practices not sanctioned by Rome wouldn’t those practices then be called into question? Or rather, would it legitimize women’s role in ministry because it was necessary and practical? I am not advocating any particular view in these questions they are just honest queries based on these three posts.

  • Rob

    This is a fascinating post. I cannot wait to read it myself. Do you have any idea if there is similar evidence in the Eastern Tradition before/after the Schism of a transition to restriction on women? I wonder how an Orthodox believer would read this?

  • Rob

    In the writtings of the early church fathers there is no evidence of a woman being a monarchial bishop i.e. a single bishop in a city. The New Testamen practice was of a plurality of bishops in each city this is clearly determined by a carefull reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles e.g. Titus 1:5. Between the 2nd & 4th centuries we see the development of the monarchial bishop.
    Now the point where this relates to the ministry of women bishops. The council of Laodicea 363 AD makes reference to the office of women bishop (Presbytides) being disbanded. Canon XI states that ‘Presbytides as they are called are not to be appointed in the church’.
    A later commentator, Balsamon, writes ‘ In old days cetain venerable women sat in Catholic churches, who took care of the other women and kept good and modest order. But from their habit of using improperly that which was proper, either through their arrogance or through their base self seeking, scandal arose. Therefore the fathers prohibited the existence in the church thereafter of any more such women as are called presbytides or presidents …’
    This ruling implies that women were publicly recognised as serving in the church at least untill the fourth century, and of course, that the men were never arrogant or self seeking in thrie behaqviour! (Quotation from ‘Anyone for Odination?’ MARC 1993, page 74).

  • Scot McKnight

    Macy is asking the historical question: was their “ordination” prior to 13th Cent and what did it mean at that time? No, his major concern is not “what should the Catholic church do now?” though I suspect he thinks this historical precedent should be given some life. Nor is he arguing in a a more Prot fashion like this: the more original form is the one to follow today.

  • Rob Cottrell

    It seems we have 2 Rob’s posting identify Post No. 6 with Rob Cottrell
    FURTHER In light of your comment ‘the more original form is the one to follow today’, What do you make of the Council of Laodicea 363 AD and that it disbanded the even earlier practice of ordaining women.
    Rob Cottrell

  • Diane

    The estate churches concept is quite interesting. What I have had to bend my mind around in recent years is the concept of “two” RC churches: the official, papal church and the grassroots church of RCs who disagree with officialdom but are still clearly RC.

  • Diane

    I don’t think most of the history being revealed is secret. I’ve known about early RC priests marrying for almost as long as I can remember. I think the issue is interpretation, not secrecy.