Belfast Telegraph

Women's vital role in early church should be restored

As Pope Benedict reaffirms the Catholic Church's ban on female priests, Mary Kenny argues women deserve to have a more prominent role in church life

It's an astonishing claim, but not at all an implausible one. The historian Dr Bettany Hughes affirms - in a BBC television series, Divine Women, which starts tomorrow - that the very foundations of the Christian church were created by women.

In the first 200 years of Christianity, she says, more than half the churches in Rome were constructed by women. Headstones from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD show that women were celebrated as "episcopa" - as bishops within the early Church.

Women were priests, deaconesses and preachers. It was not until the Christian church became the official religion of Rome in the 4th Century that the men took over and, little by little, suppressed women's role in the forming of the faith.

One aspect of this we knew already. The New Testament shows women as among the first followers of Christ. We know there were many women among the early Christian martyrs - Saints Perpetua and Felicity, for example.

It is well-established that among the first, and most influential, converts to Christianity were the Roman matrons, for whom it was a gentler faith than the old Roman gods of war and militarism.

And the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity has always featured women saints prominently - and the central importance of the Blessed Virgin, an emphasis shared with Orthodox Christians.

In terms of structures, Dr Hughes is surely correct. From the 4th Century onwards, the formal Christian church became increasingly patriarchal, and some of the fathers of the early church were fiercely misogynistic.

As Christianity became more powerful, it became more masculine in its management. As the popes grew into figures of secular power they were more and more patriarchal. The notion of women as preachers, let alone priests or bishops, became unthinkable.

Holy women were accepted as counsellors and advisers: Catherine of Sienna advised the Pope, as did Brigid of Sweden, and Hildegard of Bingen advised both popes and emperors. Dr Hughes's thesis that women's activity within Christianity was suppressed for 1,500 years is, it seems to me, open to nuanced interpretation.

There are even some historians, such as Lawrence Stone, who claimed that it was the Protestant revolution of the 16th Century which put women back in their place. Professor Stone wrote that Martin Luther closed the convents because he believed all women should be married - and under the control of a man, their husband. The convents had been sources of female religious power.

But it is a complex picture because some Protestant sects, such as the Quakers, allowed women to preach, and by the 19th Century the Baptists encouraged women preachers.

But why did the early Christian church so quickly shed the tradition of women playing a prominent role in the structures of the church? Perhaps partly it was a reaction against an earlier association - which Dr Hughes illustrates - between women and paganism.

The patriarchal grip on the Christian churches must also be explained by the fact that men are, in general, more competitive about power, and more dominant in seeking power.

To this day, there is no society in which women have more power than men, and almost no profession in which women dominate at the top.

Dr Hughes is a supporter of female bishops in the Church of England though I can't see the Catholic Church proceeding at any fast pace to ordain women (and the Orthodox churches are even more opposed).

But bishops and archbishops would do well to remember that there is a long history of women playing a vital role in counselling church leaders, and some of the regretful episodes of recent times might not have occurred if a strong-minded holy woman had exercised authority in Episcopal matters.

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