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Ordination of women in the LCA - Yes or No?

The Leadership Role of Women in the Early Eastern Church
Wendy Mayer, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane

Before we can tackle the issue of leadership by women in the early church there are several issues that need to be dealt with. The first and most important is that history is almost always written by the dominant party, with the consequence that what survives has a strong bias towards the winner's point of view. It is also an inescapable fact that the Christian factions that have been dominant in both east and west for these past two millennia have been patriarchal (that is, male dominated) and that we therefore necessarily observe women throughout the history of the church largely through the eyes of men. In addition to these factors, there is also the problem that what was said is not necessarily what was done. In other words, not only is the evidence usually written by men from the winning factions in Christianity (that is, those who followed the Nicene creed), but what is written often represents only their opinion of what should have occurred and does not necessarily reflect reality.

In addition, the decisions of church councils or synods are extremely suspect, because they are inherently conservative and legislate either in favour of what the hierarchy or administration of the church feels ought to occur (and therefore does not), or legislate to maintain a status quo which has often long since ceased to be normative. There is also the problem that what the hierarchy says must occur does not always filter down to the individual congregations, especially those that are more isolated. In fact there has always been a tension within the church between dogma and practice, and politics have always interfered with theological decision-making. The church is, after all, made up of humans.

All of these considerations are of particular relevance to the issue of the leadership of women and the roles that they have played historically. That is, by the time that one works through all of the levels of bias and misinformation, retrieving what women really did at the local level is one of the hardest tasks for the historian.1How then do we get at what really went on in the church over the centuries? The only way in which we can hope to come close to retrieving the real church as opposed to the church presented in the writings of church fathers and councils, is by matching up as many points of view as possible from among the writers of the same period and location and reading between the lines when one comes up with discrepancies. In other words, there are ways of coming close to the reality of women's lives and roles within the church. The first and most important step is to avoid accepting what is written by the fathers and their councils at face value.

Having said that, there are several points that must be made from the start. The most important is that, however much we might wish it were not the case, at no point in the first millenium did any mainstream Christian church adopt the ordination of women as normal practice. While there is some slight evidence that in certain areas in Italy in the late fifth century, women were perhaps ordained as presbyters and performed what were usually considered priestly functions,2 within the mainstream church such occurrences were isolated and undoubtedly suppressed. It is only in so-called heretical groups — most notably amongst the Montanists (a charismatic church which was founded in Anatolia in the second century on the basis of the prophecies of two women) — and even then, only amongst a sub-sect, the Quintillions or Pepouzians — that we find women openly ordained as priests and bishops.3It should also be pointed out that in preserving the priesthood as a male office, the fathers of the church appealed to all of the same scriptural proof texts that have been raised in this current debate (with perhaps a lesser emphasis on Genesis and the argument about the order of creation). What should also be pointed out, however, is that even though it was agreed that the priesthood was an office open only to males by scriptural assent, it was not all males who had access to it. In fact, the number of men eligible was quite restricted — this too, was by the legal decree of the great councils and synods of the church.4 The most significant ban is one that has strong scriptural basis, namely, the injunction in 1 Timothy 3:2–12 that all bishops and deacons must be married only once. This rule was strictly applied in the first six to seven centuries of the church, such that in a number of churches any bishop, deacon or priest, either widowed or divorced, who was found to have married again was subjected to disciplinary action and steps taken to strike him from the register.5 This leads us to the second point: If we are going to appeal to historical precedent, we must ask why we have ceased to observe those proof texts that apply to men in relation to the priesthood, when we have continued to observe those that apply to women.

These circumstances do not mean that the question of the ordination of women was not being raised by the laity of the mainstream churches, even if the male clergy themselves did not approve of it. In fact in one of the sermons of John Chrysostom we find subtle but clear evidence that the issue was being discussed in the second half of the fourth century amongst the laity in the east, even if the clergy did not consider the matter open.6 Part of the reason why the issue was being raised at that point in time is because of peculiar social factors relating to women which bear a strong analogy with the recent decades of the twentieth century. This leads us to the third point, namely, that the leadership opportunities available to women within the church varied greatly according to the window of opportunity that society allowed them.

Having made these points, I want to focus for the remainder on this particular period because it is in the fourth century — particularly after the effects of the peace of Constantine have had time to settle in — that the Christian church begins to operate openly within society and the roles of the various ministers of the church (the term is used here in its broadest sense) begin to settle into a pattern. Because there is still considerable flux at this time, it is in the later part of the fourth century above all that we have a chance to observe the fullest range of what might be possible.

What then were the social factors peculiar to this period which liberated women for ministry and which led people to ask why they should be barred from preaching? One of the most important was relief from childbearing. Just as the advent of effective contraception has had a profound effect on women's liberation since the 1960s so in the fourth century the rise of asceticism — that is, a life of celibacy and physical deprivation — allowed women to refuse to marry again after they had become widowed (widowhood at a young age was frequent) or to refuse to marry initially. The first option — refusing to marry for a second time — was the most common. In the case of middle class and wealthy women, this choice freed them from male supervision and enabled them to administer their own households and dispose of their property in whatever way they saw fit (often to the considerable benefit of the church and the despair of male relatives).7 Not all of these women were left childless, but those that were widowed after they had borne children were usually left with only a small number of offspring. The other two factors which are analogous to the present day — freedom from the burden of labour and access to education — were again open to the wealthier women. For the purposes of our discussion, it should also be pointed out that it is only the women who operated at this level of society who were prominent enough to have made it into the records.

So what kind of leadership roles were available? In what areas of the church were women active in ministry? In the major cities of the eastern half of the mediterranean we see a number of very prominent women who had a profound influence upon the direction of the church. While these women could not preach in the public sphere, they actively converted and instructed in the faith children and adolescents who visited them with their mothers.8 A number of men who went on to become bishops and important fathers of the church were brought into the faith by these women.9 In one spectacular case, that of Olympias — a fabulously wealthy young widow at Constantinople, who declared herself an ascetic and resisted all attempts by both the church and the state to control her wealth and property — we see a woman who for almost twenty years acted as a close personal adviser to the local bishop and as a medium for bishops who visited from elsewhere and were hoping to gain favours from the emperor and his court.10 In the fourth century in the east bishops were usually from a class below the highest level of the aristocracy and so relied on members of the highest class to act as mediators for them with the palace. Because of the way in which social networks functioned at the time, it was almost always women who acted as mediators for the bishops who visited the imperial cities and who provided hospitality for them and funds for their activities.11 In the case of John Chrysostom, who is known for his vehement strictures against the foibles of wealthy women, it was a small group of women deacons and widows to whom he is most closely attached, upon whom he relies when he cannot be seen to associate himself with certain needy individuals for political reasons, and through whom he conducts a large part of his ministry. Olympias, in particular, bankrolls his personal day-to-day expenses. These are not women who are tucked away passively in their houses, or shut away from society. He relies on their networks to provide safe haven for his male clergy and to support his ongoing ministries when he is sent into exile. Two of his closest female deacons — Olympias and Pentadia — are actually dragged before the courts on charges of arson.12Women also did much to promote the work of the church in the area of social welfare. We find ordinary lay women on their own initiative, taking food from their houses to the poor and homeless.13 We find wealthy women spending much of their income on the same activities,14 just as we see the wife of the emperor Theodosius (Flacilla) visiting the church-run hospitals and feeding the inmates with her own hands.15 In the sermon in which John Chrysostom briefly raises the matter of the ordination of women to the higher ranks of the clergy (priest and bishop), he holds up women who have adopted a life of asceticism as the greatest model of this activity. Such women, raised in wealth and great comfort and with a vast array of slaves, who are no more than 25 years of age, devote their time to changing the beds of the sick and to even cooking meals for them.16 The point here is not that such roles were the exclusive domain of women. At this time ascetic men were also the ministers of the sick and needy, and in fact at Constantinople social welfare was to a large extent carried out by independent groups of ascetic men and women who worked together.17 The point that John wishes to make is that the women tend to make by far the greater lifestyle sacrifice and that they are to be admired because they are so much better at it.18In fact, the reason that lay people are asking why women should not be ordained is precisely because the witness of women to the gospel and to the example of Christ at this time is so visible and so obvious. Ascetic women, in particular, (especially those who shave their hair, wear chains around their necks and wear sackcloth; and live as harsh a life as any similarly dressed male) are highly noticeable within society.19If women in the east acted to a large extent independently (at least within the upper levels of society), the church at this time was working hard to control their activities. The most significant means was by ordaining prominent women as deacons. As we have already seen, there was an important group of such women who worked closely with the bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. Such women were supposed, according to the canons of the church, to be widowed and over sixty years of age (that is, well beyond the age of child bearing and past being attractive).20 In the fourth century we see ordinations of women to the diaconate as early as the age of thirty, in a desperate attempt to place their activities under the authority of the church and its male hierarchy.21 What is interesting is that, unlike in later centuries, where women deacons would not be directly under the authority of the bishop but under a male deacon or subordinate member of the clergy, in this period we see them interacting directly with their bishop and being instructed directly by him.22 Their status within the church, as within society, was considerable and they were treated with great respect.

What did these women do as deacons? Their primary task was to instruct women in the faith and to assist at the baptisms of adult women. In the late Roman world the roles of men and women were strictly segregated. It was inappropriate for men to spend time alone with women or to see them naked outside of the public baths (as necessarily occurred when baptism was by full immersion). In other words, even if men could publicly preach and administer the sacrament, there was a whole area of ministry that was technically shut off to them. Women also acted as doorkeepers for the women's entrances to the church (much as today we see men and women acting as stewards together). Whether female deacons took the consecrated elements and administered them to the women in the congregation (who were usually situated apart from the men in the church)23 is not clear, but is certainly possible. At baptisms they anointed the women about to be baptised with the sign of the cross on the forehead, assisted them in and out of the font and dressed them afterwards in the white robes of the neophyte.24To place all of this evidence in context and to conclude, it should be stated that as the office of female deacon developed in the east and as the ascetic women began to cluster together into monasteries or convents, the prominence of women achieved in the second half of the fourth century and the early part of the fifth appears to have declined somewhat. This decline is linked as much to the increasing regulation of women's ministries by the hierarchy of the church as it is to the withdrawal of such communities of women from mainstream society. Nonetheless, the range and vitality of women's leadership and ministry in the church in the fourth century is strongly analogous to the situation which pertains both in church and society today and has much, I believe, to say to us. It is also important to point out that in the Eastern churches women have been allowed to play a greater role in ministry and leadership than is perhaps the case in the West, from which we derive our own Lutheran tradition.

1.  The difficulties and some current theoretical trends and approaches are set out by E.A. Clark, 'The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the "Linguistic Turn"', Church History 67, 1998, 1–31.

2.  G. Otranto, 'Note sul sacerdozio femminile nell'antichita in margine a una testimonianza di Gelasio I', Vetera Christianorum 19, 1982, 341–60; W. Tabbernee, Montanist Inscriptions and Testimonia. Epigraphic Sources Illustrating the History of Monstanism (North American Patristic Society Patristic Monograph Series 16), Georgia, 1997, 67.

3  Tabbernee, Montanist Inscriptions, 70-72.

4 See J. Bingham, Origines Ecclesiasticae; or the Antiquities of the Christian Church, 8 vols, rev by R. Bingham, London 1834, IV.iii-iv.

5 Bingham, Antiquities, IV.v.2–4 (who points out that the text was applied variously according to differing interpretations). For examples, see Severus, Ep. I.41 and 63 (Brooks I, 151 and 218).

In Eph. hom. 13 (PG 62,100 18–26).

7 The literature on this topic is vast. For a summary (relying in the main on western evidence) see The Cambridge Ancient History, XIII. The Late Empire A.D. 337-425, A. Cameron and P. Garnsey (eds), Cambridge, 1998, 344-8. For some recent trends see E.A. Clark, 'Ascetic Renunciation and Feminine Advancement: A Paradox of Late Ancient Christianity', Anglican Theological Review 63, 1981, 240–257; P. Brown, The Body and Society. Men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity, New York, 1988, 259–84; S. Elm, 'Virgins of God'. The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity, Oxford, 1994; G. Cloke, This Female Man of God'. Women and spiritual power in the patristic age, AD 350-450, London, 1995.

8. Theodoret, HE 3.10, for example, tells the story of the son of a pagan priest converted during regular visits between a female deacon and his mother. The young man, in the face of much opposition, persisted in the faith and later converted his own father.

9.  Two such women are the grandmother and the sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, both named Macrina. On the influence of the second see P. Beagon, 'The Cappadocian Fathers, Women and Ecclesiastical Politics', Vigiliae Christianae 49, 1995, 165–179; Brown, Body and Society, 277–9. Note, however, the cautionary comments in Clark, 'The Lady Vanishes', 23–4, and P. Rousseau, '"Learned Women" and the Development of a Christian Culture in Late Antiquity', Symbolæ Osloenses 70, 1995, 124–7.

10. W. Mayer, 'Constantinopolitan Women in Chrysostom's Circle', Vigiliae Christianae, forthcoming.

11 J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, 'Friends and Enemies of John Chrysostom', in A. Moffatt (ed), Maistor. Classical, Byzantine and Renaissance Studies for Robert Browning (Byzantina Australiensia 5), Canberra, 1984, 103; F.D. Gilliard, 'Senatorial Bishops in the Fourth Century', Harvard Theological Review 77, 1984, 153–75.

12 Mayer, 'Constantinopolitan Women'.

13 Julian, Misopogon 363A (Wright II, 489-90).

14.   Eg, Nicarete. See Mayer, 'Constantinopolitan Women'.

15 Theodoret, HE 5.19.

16 In Eph. hom. 13 (PG 62,98 3-38).

17 G. Dagron, 'Les moines et la ville. Le monachisme Constantinople jusqu'au concile de Chalcédoine (451)', Travaux et Mémoires 4, 1970, 229-276; T. Miller, 'The Sampson hospital of Constantinople', Byzantinische Forschungen 15, 1990, 111–12.

18 This point is repeated elsewhere by him, although usually with emphasis on the defeminisation of the women involved and on the fact that they have overcome their inherently delicate and feeble physical make-up. See, eg In Matth. hom. 8 (PG 57,87–8: referring to the reputation of women ascetics in Egypt); In Matt. hom. 55/56 (PG 58,548 29–39).

19 For a description of such women see Chrysostom, De studio praesentium (PG 63,488-9). Not all female ascetics are so readily distinguished, however. See E.A. Clark, 'John Chrysostom and the Subintroductae', Church History 46, 1977, 171-185 regarding Chrysostom's complaints about the lifestyle of women who live in celibate relationships with unrelated men.

20 Cod. Theod. 16.2.27 (21 June 390), based on the injunction in 1 Tim 5:9.

21 Olympias is a case in point. See Vita Olymp. 6; J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth. The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, London, 1995, 113.

22 Mayer, 'Constantinopolitan Women'.

23 W. Mayer, 'The Dynamics of Liturgical Space: Aspects of the interaction between St John Chrysostom and his audiences', Ephemerides Liturgicae 111, 1997, 108-9.

24 J. Daniélou, 'Le ministère des femmes dans l'Église ancienne', Le Maison-Dieu 61, 1960, 70-96. Despite its age the article still provides a sound outline of the female deacon's duties.


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