Ordained Women in the Early Church: A documentary history

by
02 November 2006

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Johns Hopkins Press £32 (0-8018-7932-9)

 At the font and the altar: Women long ago were members of the clergy, John Binns discovers

THE AUTHORS of this book set themselves an ambitious task. They have collected together every text in Greek and Latin which refers, or might refer, to the ordained ministry of women in the first 600 years of the Church’s history, with a short introduction to explain the context, and a longer commentary on the meaning of the text.

They have translated the texts, so making them accessible, but have provided good bibliographical references to enable the reader to refer to the originals. The texts include canons of councils, letters of bishops, anecdotes from hagiographers, and many inscriptions from tombs, churches and elsewhere. They have been arranged into sections referring to different aspects of women’s ministry.

Juxtaposing short texts — sometimes, in the case of inscriptions, only a couple of words — from different centuries and countries of the Christian world requires careful exposition. Meanings of words are often unclear: "presbyteress" , for example, could refer to the wife of a male priest, or to a senior member of the church, or to an ordained minister of the altar. Also, the titles "deacon" and "deaconess" are used interchangeably. It becomes clear that ancient texts cannot provide precedents for modern practices, or guidance in contemporary debate.

They do, however, establish that a rich and varied ministry was carried out by women in the Eastern part of the Church, especially in Asia Minor. In the sixth century, the Great Church of Constantinople included 40 women deacons and 100 men on its extensive staff. The women deacons were needed to assist at baptisms of other women in order to maintain decency, but they carried out a range of other ministries, too.

There are intriguing descriptions of the order of widows, with evidence to show that these had a respected and recognised clerical ministry in some places. The scanty but clear examples of women priests (never approved by the hierarchy) are also carefully analysed.

The richly varied texts introduce us to a remarkable group of women, among them Paul’s co-worker Phoebe, and the deacon Olympias who lived in fourth-century Constantinople. It is in the examples provided by these remarkable lives rather than in details of ecclesiastical status that the origins of modern women’s ministry lie.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge.

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