Following up on the previous post, here is a fascinating article by US church historian Gary Macy on the existence of women’s ordination for the first 1200 years of Christianity. Macy’s book is entitled The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination.
Women in the Middle Ages played a far larger role in the life of the Church than they would in later centuries. In the early Middle Ages, they performed both sacramental and administrative functions that would be reserved to men after the thirteenth century. They celebrated the Mass, distributed communion, read the Gospel, heard confessions and preached. Some abbesses also exercised episcopal power, and indeed, a few were considered bishops. The powerful Abbess of Las Huelgas in Spain continued to wear her miter and exercise administrative episcopal power until 1874. This paper will discuss the evidence for these claims.
What is key here is that in the patristic and early medieval church is that the notion of a sacrament was not limited to Seven (if you are Catholic) or 2 (If you are Protestant). The Orthodox Church prefers the term mysterion to sacrament and while there are debates, generally are open to more expansive understandings of mysterion (as in how many there are).
In the Early Church, as my liturgy professor would say, if you asked them how many sacraments they had they might tell you thousands or an infinite number. Sacraments are signs of God’s grace prior to the legalistic scholastic argument about how many, what kind, dominical (i.e. instituted by Christ) or not that came later to dominate particularly Western theology.
Similarly as Macy details, the notion therefore of ordination and ministry was similarly more wide open in the earlier church and by that set of understanding–i.e. judged by their own criteria not the later criteria of the Church–women served in roles as deacons, priests (presbyters), and bishops. Whatever the technical terminology, the de facto praxis was clear.
Macy quotes from a number of church documents, Councils, Pope’s Letters decrying women serving at the altar–you don’t pass laws against something unless people are doing it.
The Gregorian Reform Movement began a process of changing the notion of ordination–one that involved more top-down authority, as well as clerical celibacy, and an attempt to both separate the church from the world and have the church (i.e. Papacy) rule over the World. The sticking point was the existence of married clergy–sometimes both husband and wife being priests according to Macy–who could bequeath church property to their descendants. Women clergy (and clergy wives more generally) were depicted as essentially demonic temptresses, bringing men out of the purity of celibacy into the evils of the flesh.
More could, and should, be said here, especially about the change in the definition of ordination that took place in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; a change that excluded women from many, if not most, liturgical functions. However, the purpose of this presentation was merely to present the case that women have played a much more significant role in the liturgical and administrative functions of the Church for the first twelve hundred years of its history. And that raises the important and intriguing question, if they have played such roles in the past, can they not play such roles in the future?
Bonus coverage: You can listen to Macy on BBC’s OnToday here.