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The Ordination of Women in the Early Church: Our Right to Know

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That everyone who thirsteth for the truth may obtain it, these publications are, as a Christian service, provided without charge. They levy but one exaction: the soul's obligation to itself to prove all things and hold fast to that which is good. The only strings attached to this free proffer are the golden strands of Eden and the crimson cords of Calvary - the ties that bind.
 
Shekinah Magazine





Shekinah Magazine


The Ordination of Women in the Early Church: Our Right to Know


by Dorothy Irvin


The Vatican "Declaration on the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood" issued in October, 1976, has, like most statements coming from Rome, served the valuable purpose of letting us know what points the controversy will hinge on. Although its formal purpose is to squelch definitively any thoughts anyone might have in that direction, its actual result is to set future debate (which it has certainly aroused)


Dorothy Irvin received her doctors degree in theology from the Catholic Theology Faculty of Tubingen University, Germany, with specialization in Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern archaeology. She is currently on the faculty of the Theology Department, College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minn. and is available for slide-lectures on women's ordination in the early church.

on the footing of now-we-know-where-we-stand.

Whether this is the conscious intention of Roman statements I cannot say, although a glance backward at "Humanae Vitae" and even farther at "Veterum Sapientia" leads me to believe that this is the curiously involuted Roman way of taking a step forward, while meeting the needs of both conservatives and liberals at once.

Once the points we were to debate had been announced Arlene Swidler and Leonard Swidler took the next step of organizing the opposition in the form of a volume of essays commenting on individual phrases of the statements


Cover Page  SHEKINAH, April 1981




Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, Paulist, 1977). Subsequently the Women's Ordination Conference took up its "Second Argument Project," collecting signatures and theological material to counter the statement's argument that priests must necessarily be males in order to present the image of Jesus as a male. The difficulty of dealing with this argument begins, I think, with our inability to maintain a straight face and sober credulity when hearing it, and this loses us several points in the opening round.

A more respectable issue is the statement's contention that to ordain women would be against the tradition of the Church: "The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women . . . by calling only men to the priestly order and ministry in its true sense the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles. . ."

This assertion has been countered so far by the extremely weak argument that tradition should not be permitted to be normative on this point, which is really only the simple and inadequate appeal to justice of the have-nots against the haves, a technique seldom effective in any realm – certainly not among Christians.

And it would be a shame to abandon tradition here, for all along our suspicions should have been alerted by the statement's use of such words as "never" and "only." Behind such absolutes are sure to lie motives which narrow the breadth of our history to what is "desirable" today; the scope of Christian tradition should not be gauged by the wishfulness of the present clergy.

For several years before the appearance of the statement, I had been trying to ascertain the breadth of Christian tradition in the matter of the ministry of women in the early Church. Given a first impetus by Joan Morris' careful history of women in high ecclesiastical office in the Middle Ages, (The Lady Was a Bishop, Macmillan, 1972) I put my background in ancient near eastern archaeology and iconography to work in the area of early Christian archaeology. This is not the place to survey the material which, as I discovered, is known, but I would like to try here to answer the first question generally asked when I have presented this material in the form of a slide lecture, and that is "Why haven't we heard this before?"

Although it is not perfectly clear what constituted ordination at different times and places in the early centuries of the Church, the archaeological evidence shows women as receiving ordination and exercising ministry on a par with men, however uncertain and variable we know the latter to have been. The archaeological material confirms many of the written sources. The archaeological material is of the following types:

* Inscriptions from the Roman period, from tombstones or for legal-financial purposes, which name women who bore the titles archisynagogos "ruler of the synagogue;" "mother of the synagogue," and presbitera, the feminine of presbyter. These titles were used by Jewish,


Jewish-Christian, and Christian communities. We have inscriptions of the same type giving men these titles, as well as burial inscriptions of the wives of men who have such titles. These have a different form from the inscriptions in which the woman herself bears the title.

* A fresco, dating to the end of the first century, in a Roman catacomb, which depicts a group of seven women celebrating a Eucharist. Several similar scenes from a later date depict groups of seven men.

* A fourth century catacomb fresco, also in Rome, shows a woman receiving ordination from a bishop. I do not know of any scenes of the ordination of a man, although all agree that men were ordained at this period.

* Many frescoes of women (as well as men) dressed in liturgical vestments and standing in attitudes of liturgical leadership.

* A mosaic, dating probably to the ninth century, which shows a female head with the superscription, also in mosaic, Episcopa Theodo(ra), "Bishop (feminine) Theodora." She wears a coif, indicating that she is not married.

* Tombstone inscriptions of women bishops, for example (hono) rabilis femina episcoa, an "honorable woman bishop."

Although we have information from early texts that certain heretics, in particular Montanists, ordained women, I do not have any material which is to be identified as Montanist. In view of the unpolemical nature of the six types of sources mentioned above, in contrast for example to texts which oppose the ordination of women, these sources must be taken very seriously.


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Although this is not the place for a study of the attempts to interpret, or sometimes, to interpret away, this evidence, the reason why we haven't heard of it before is closely related to the necessarily rather brief history of its interpretation. Most of this material has been known for only about a hundred years or less, with the exception of the Bishop Theodora mosaic which I suppose has always been visible in its present location in the church of St. Praxedis in Rome since it was first made. The reason why we haven't heard of the inscriptional material – the tombstone and votive inscriptions – is that they are published in scholarly books and journals, hidden away in seldom-visited basements of libraries, often not even photographed. Sometimes the original stone has been lost and we have only a copy made many years ago. A well-photographed collection of the tomb inscriptions of the women presbyters from the catacombs of Rome would do much to raise our morale, by reminding us of our historical importance.

In some cases, the reason why we haven't heard of a piece of evidence is more interesting. The fresco of the women celebrating a Eucharist in the Catacombs of Priscilla (that name is surely significant) was uncovered and cleaned in 1893/4 by Joseph Wilpert, working under the direction of de Rossi, and is visible today to tourists, who can buy postcards and slides of it. Many of those who see it,

however, are not aware that they have seen a group of women celebrating a Eucharist. This faulty perception is due in part to a copy of the fresco, made in mosaic and displayed in the chapel above. The many changes that have been made in the copy are clearly identifiable when postcards of both are projected simultaneously; they evoke roars of laughter from the audience, because most of the women have been changed to men, in particular the figure at the left end of the group, identified by Wilpert as the principal celebrant (with some of the others possible concelebrating). Although this person's ankle-length skirt has been retained – men at this period wore knee-length skirts – a beard has been incongruously added. It seems that even people who have seen both the original and the copy often carry away the visual memory of the better lighted but masculinized copy.

The pilgrim to Rome is also very likely to see the impressively beautiful mosaic of the Bishop Theodora over the doorway of the Zeno chapel in the Church of St. Praxedis. The memory carried away, however, will not be as clear as the original if the tourist relies on the postcards and guidebook – for sale on the premises – to refresh her memory. In these photographs of the mosaic, a curious dark shadow falls on the upper left corner of the mosaic, right over the Episcopa Theodora, rendering it illegible. A visit to the archaeological archives and to a photographic firm specializing in archeological reproductions fails to unearth a better photograph. This, however, is not the fault of the original. Thanks to Joan Morris, I have a slide of it so clear that four-year-old children in the audience have been known to spell


4  SHEKINAH, April 1981




through the Latin inscription out loud with me – a tribute to its clarity and preservation.

Joan Morris herself reports, when asked why her important book The Lady Was a Bishop carries no pictures of the material she talks about, that the publishers were unwilling to go to the expense of photographs, and this answer contains, in miniature, all the elements of the entire problem. (I might add that she has been unable to find a publisher for her study of the manuscripts relating to Pope Joan.)

A final reason why we haven't heard of this important material must be described as "mindset" and here I must admit to having participated in the sociological phenomenon, already noted by perceptive blacks and women, by which the "oppressor's" view of the "oppressed" is accepted by the "oppressed" themselves as true, even against what both groups can observe in reality. In the small German museum at Bebenhausen, I found and photographed many beautiful mediaeval carvings and paintings of

women holding the host and chalice, of women preaching, and of women singing the office, all public liturgical acts for which ordination was required. (I must leave aside here the dating of these sources, and the possible variations of interpretation). However, before I made these photographs, I had visited that museum many times over a period of ten years without realizing what I saw before me, or wondering about its significance. I hadn't seen these things before, although often studying them with my eyes, because I assumed they couldn't be true. And I was not conscious of assuming they could not be true!

Such a rejection of the evidence may well take place, without hypocrisy or dishonesty; in fact, it is scarcely to be described as rejection. On the other hand, it cannot be described as scholarly and accurate study of our own tradition, either.

Sound historical method now teaches us to overcome our own presuppositions in favor of a look at the evidence. We know that these sources' attestation to the breadth and diversity of the early church must not be ignored in favor of what church' practice has become today. Our history can help us to the solution of many problems, not least the problem of the Good News to women.


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Articles and letters printed in SHEKINAH do not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of the Staff. The SHEKINAH is simply a sounding-board and explores all sides and all angles, leaving the reader to choose, with the aid of the Spirit, that which is truth.





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