The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination

The Times Literary Supplement has had a back and forth going on over the subject, originating in the September 23 review of Gary Macy’s book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination. The review was written by Bernard Hamilton and says:

In this study of the status of women in the Western Church in the period c.400-1200, Gary Macy pays special attention to three groups: the episcopae or episcopiae, the presbyterae and the deaconesses.

There are only two secure references to episcopae (the female form of episcopus/bishop): a tomb inscription dating from c.300-600 commemorates “the venerable woman, episcopa Q”; Canon 14 of the Council of Tours of 567 enacts that “No crowd of women should follow a bishop who does not have an episcopia”; and a mosaic portrait of 817 in the San Zeno chapel at Santa Prassede in Rome is captioned Theodora episcopa, identified in an inscription as the mother of Pope Paschal I (817-24). The status of “Q” and of Theodora remains enigmatic, but Macey argues that the episcopiae mentioned by the Council of Tours were the wives of bishops who, with their husbands, had taken vows of celibacy while continuing to live together. Macey thinks that the same is true of presbyterae (the female form of presbyter): that they were priests’ wives who, with their husbands, had vowed to live together in continence. The evidence about deaconesses is unambiguous. Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon states: “A deaconess shall not be ordained until she is forty years old. If, having received the laying-on of hands, and having spent some time in her ministry she then marries, scorning the grace of God, she shall be anathematized together with her husband”. Dea- conesses had some limited liturgical functions, but their most important work seems to have been to instruct women in the faith.

Macey points out that in the early medieval West, the term ordinare was used in its classical sense, meaning to institute someone in office, and stresses that in some pontificals it was used to designate a wide variety of ministries.

In addition to doorkeepers, lectors, exorcists, acolytes, subdeacons, deacons and priests, all of whom served the altar, emperors and empresses, kings and queens, abbots, abbesses and deaconesses were also described as ordained.

The ministries exercised by ordained women in the early Middle Ages are unlikely to seem very attractive to the modern proponents of women’s ordination, since there is no evidence that any of those women could celebrate the Eucharist or exercise other priestly functions – with one exception. Abbesses, and abbots who were not in priest’s orders, could hear the confessions of members of their communities. This monastic tradition of spiritual direction survived in the Western Church until the twelfth century, when it was assimilated to the sacrament of penance and reserved to priests. Macey argues that although the ministries that ordained women performed were different from those of the clergy who served the altar, deaconesses, abbesses (and, presumably, queens and empresses) enjoyed parity of status with the ordained male clergy.

After c.1050, the papally led reform movement was concerned to enforce clerical celibacy and to suppress simony in order to free the Church from the control of the lay nobility. This affected women because when clerical marriage was made illegal, clergy wives ceased to exist in the Latin Church. Deaconesses, widely regarded as being identical with abbesses, continued to be ordained, until the revival of the study of Aristotelian logic and of canon law in the Western schools led educated churchmen to develop a precise technical vocabulary: one consequence of this was that the term ordinatio became reserved for the clergy who served the altar, while the rites for instituting abbots and abbesses, deaconesses, kings and queens, emperors and empresses were described as blessings (benedictiones).

Macey argues that this change of name was very important, because ordination then ceased to mean institution in office and came to mean the conferring of spiritual powers. I am not convinced that any significant change occurred, since the ordination rituals had always emphasized that powers were granted to the candidates commensurate with their ministries, and those liturgies did not change significantly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Indeed, the form for the blessing of an abbess contained in the Rituale Romanum of Clement VIII (1592-1605) directs that the can- didate should kneel before the bishop and say: “I [N], of the monastery of [N], who am about to be ordained abbess [ordinanda abbatissa] promise obedience to … “. The content of that rite had not changed: only its name.

Having restricted the use of the term ordination, theologians stated that women could not be ordained, because they had never held the offices described by the new definition of the word. Gary Macey argues that this ruling reflected the widely held view that women were inferior to men, but although some churchmen did hold that opinion, women did not occupy an inferior position in the Church after 1200.

The exponential growth of the cult of the Virgin Mary during the central Middle Ages, which emphasized that a woman had a central role in the divine economy of grace, had practical consequences, such as the foundation of the Order of Fontevrault, made up of double monasteries of monks and nuns, in which authority was vested in the abbess. Moreover, the church authorities recognized the prophetic office of a number of spiritually gifted women, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth of Schonau, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich, who exercised considerable influence. Although women religious no longer had ordained status, they all continued to enjoy a privileged clerical status: they, together with their often considerable estates, were exempt from secular jurisdiction and subject to the church courts alone.

This review prompted several letters to the editor, first one by Gary Macy himself:

Central to the argument of the book is that the definition of ordination changed radically in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, creating a new church organization centred on the priesthood and its power to consecrate the bread and wine. Before that shift, ordination was, as Hamilton points out, the institution of someone in a particular office, not the granting of a personal power. Ordained ministries other than the priesthood, therefore, could and did celebrate sacramental rites, including the Eucharist. Some of these were women. Professor Hamilton reads the book as if the only group capable of celebrating the Eucharist during this period were priests. This error results in other misrepresentations.

When Hamilton asserts, “there is no evidence that any of these women could celebrate the Eucharist or exercise other priestly functions – with one exception”, he ignores my lengthy discussion of a number of sources that do claim that women served at the altar. From the fourth to the twelfth centuries, a series of laws forbidding bishops to continue to allow women to serve at the altar, hagiographical stories of abbesses who led liturgies, and survival of communion services performed by women suggest that two groups of women led liturgies: women who served with their husbands in the liturgies, and abbesses who performed sacramental functions for communities and for the surrounding villages. Given this evidence, Hamilton is again incorrect when he states that I argue ” that … the ministries that ordained women performed were different from those of the clergy who served at the altar”. They were often the same.

Hamilton rejects the argument that any substantial change in the role of women took place with the changing definition of ordination. His evidence is that the rituals for abbesses did not change. This example strikes to the heart of the argument of the book: that the change in the definition of ordination would necessarily change the meaning of the ritual even if the words remained the same. As I point out, the ritual for the ordination of a woman deacon or an abbess before the twelfth century was a true ordination to a clerical state that allowed them to exercise sacramental functions. The same ritual by the thirteenth century bestowed no ordination at all and did not give them sacramental functions.

Furthermore, the ordination ritual for women deacons was completely removed from the papal pontifical in the thirteenth century and no longer practised.

Finally, Professor Hamilton asserts that “women did not occupy an inferior position in the church after 1200”. He cites a growing devotion to the Virgin, the influence of certain powerful religious women, and the use of clerical courts by women religious. Again, this ignores significant evidence. By the thirteenth century, for example, in law, the testimony of women was disallowed because of their weak minds. In theology, women’s “matter” was incapable of receiving ordination because they were not the direct images of God that men were. In sum, before the thirteenth century religious women could be, and sometimes were, considered the intellectual, ministerial and legal equals of men partly at least because they could be ordained. That equality was impossible by the thirteenth century.

I should add that Gary Macey did not write this book. Gary Macy did. This may be a small point, but it is indicative of the lack of attention to detail prevalent throughout the review.

This was followed by a letter from John Wijngaards, a noted heterodox teacher on the subject:

Sir, – It would not surprise me if many readers of the TLS are left confused by the discussion between Bernard Hamil- ton, reviewer of The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination, and Gary Macy, its author (Letters, October 21). A wider view might be helpful.

The discussion is not about the East. In the Byzantine Church, part of the Catholic Church until 1054, women were sacramentally ordained deacons, just as the men were. We know the exact ordination rites used. Women deacons instructed catechumens, assisted at baptisms, took communion to the sick, and administered the last rites. Ecclesiastical legislation such as that under Emperor Justinian gave them full clerical status like their male colleagues. Not so in the West.

Apart from some exceptions, massive prejudice based on Roman culture effectively barred women from any ministry. Women could not hold public office. Women were declared intellectually inferior. They were not allowed to enter the sanctuary for fear of polluting its space by menstruation.

They were forbidden to sing in church choirs. These prejudices voiced by the Fathers of the Church and endorsed in local synods entered the Decree of Gratian in 1140 and then became part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici. Until 1916 this

Church Law stated that women were not created in the image of God. It also forbade women to touch sacred vessels, read or preach in church or be members of pious associations. To claim that women “did not occupy an inferior posi-tion in the Church” as Hamilton does, simply beggars belief.

Gary Macy is a brave man to document the exceptions. Perhaps, here and there, he overstates his case. Evidence seems to indicate, for instance, that the Latin ordination rite for women deacons had already eroded by the eighth century. And abbesses who were ordained Sacerdos Maxima or Sacerdos Magna, while enjoying jurisdiction in the administration of parishes and even in forgiving sins, could not preside over the Eucharist. But that does not disprove the value of his book. While studying women’s involvement in the Western Church, I found that valuable testimonies have often been ignored, dismissed or even maliciously suppressed. The real complex truth needs to be fully uncovered.

And another letter from Bernard Hamilton:

Sir, – I read Gary Macy’s book with great attention, as I would any book which I was reviewing. The conclusions I reached are based on the detailed examples which he cites and I see no reason to modify them. I do not consider that the evidence which Macy produces is strong enough to support the case about the role of women in the early medieval Western Church which he wishes to make. I also consider that his description of the place of women in the Church in the later Middle Ages is highly misleading because it is based on a very selective range of sources.

I do, though, apologize unreservedly to Gary Macy for spelling his name wrongly.

Finally, a letter from R.I. Moore:

Sir, – It’s a bit rich of Bernard Hamilton to accuse Gary Macy of undue selectivity (Letters, October 28). The last para- graph of Hamilton’s review (September 23) offers the foundation of Fontevraud in 1100, housing both women and men, as an example of the improved status he claims the Church offered to women in the high Middle Ages. He might have added that several other of the religious orders that appeared around that time placed men and women on an equal footing, including most spectacularly the Premonstratensians.

But from the 1130s they were the objects of a strong reaction, led by those prominent champions of mariolatry, the Cistercians.

Fontevraud was too well connected to be affected, but elsewhere the women were removed from most of the double houses to ill-endowed “sister” foundations, most of which soon withered away. Many men and women, thinking this contrary to the apostolic ideal of their founders, took voluntarily or involuntarily to the roads, and were from the 1140s demonized as heretics and ruthlessly persecuted. Since theirs are among the valuable testimonies to which John Wijngaards refers that have been “ignored, dismissed or even maliciously suppressed” (Letters, October 28), we know little about them. But there is enough to justify a strong suspicion that they held just the views on women’s capacity to administer the sacraments that Macy suggests, and quite enough to confirm that Macy’s, not Hamilton’s, view of the direction in which the Church’s treatment of women was changing is correct.

Lots to chew on here.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *