In ministry, but not in holy orders

13 January 2009

But it was less simple than it sounds, says Christopher Hill


The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female clergy in the medieval West
Gary Macy

WHAT happened to women in min­isterial office after the first millen­nium? Gary Macy, John Nobili SJ Professor of Theology at Santa Clara, tells the story of the demise of female clergy in the medieval West.

His impressive knowledge of Western medieval liturgy, theology, and canon law is apparent. This is a work of investigative analysis rather than advocacy. Two appendices are devoted to the reproduction of liturgical texts for the ordination of deaconesses and abbesses.

His hero is Abelard, who argued, for the benefit of the Abbess Heloïse, his former wife, and con­trary to the emerging dominant position, that abbesses were a con­tinuation of the ancient order of deaconesses. Macy’s villain is Aris­totle, whose teaching that irrational women should always be subject to rational men became orthodoxy.

That women held some forms of ministerial office in the early Church is evident from the New Testament and a considerable patris­tic literature, including epi­taphs and the canons of ecumenical councils. Macy explores these minis­tries, including the ministry of the wives of priests and bishops, as well as women’s diaconal liturgical min­istry in service of word and sacra­ment.

But the debate has been whether such women were ordained to holy orders: the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate in the strict sense as these orders at this time came to be understood.

Macy’s holistic analysis of liturgy, canons, and theology prompts him to argue that this somewhat sterile debate invokes a circular argument. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the definition of ordination changed. Be­fore this, ordination had been un­derstood as appointment to a parti­cu­­­lar ministry, and the term in­cluded more than the rite of or­dina­tion. After this, ordination was defined as relating to the consecra­tion of the eucharist. Deacons as­sisted, but were, in any case, probationary priests.


All this was part of the 12th- and 13th-century reform of the Church associated with Pope Gregory VII. To achieve the (laudable) aim of reclaiming the spiritual authority of the Church over feudal claims, a permanent division between clergy and laity emerged. The priesthood was elevated and separated.

This insight is not original to Macy. It is the phenomenon once described by Edward Schillebeeckx as “the hegemony of the presbyt­erate”: all ministry was collapsed into priesthood. But Macy spells out that the result of this change was that the women in ministerial office for the first 1000 years of Christian­ity became historically invisible. Women could not be ordained (in the proper sense). Therefore, whatever historical evidence for their ministry survived in liturgy and canons had to be reinterpreted.

An important and timely question for members of the Church of England not raised by Macy is the significance of such women in office, especially abbesses, who, until the end of the 13th cen­tury and even after, exercised quasi-priestly and -episcopal functions, such as hearing confessions, excommunicating, appointing to benefices, and generally exercising a recognised authority.

While they probably didn’t preside at the eucharist, they did exercise ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Could those who cannot accept female presidency still recognise such quasi-episcopal authority along­side a “complementary” bishop?

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is the Bishop of Guildford.

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