Book review by Jay Lindgren
The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West by Gary Macy. Volume 3 in the series A History of Women and Ordination of Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
This book is essential reading for those interested in the role of women in the Catholic Church. Gary Macy surveys the historical evidence for the ordination of Christian women in Western Europe during the early and late middle ages (sixth through thirteenth centuries). He draws a clear distinction between theological dogma and historical scholarship and focuses on a central historical question: In the past, did their contemporaries consider certain women ordained? Macy also identifies and explores key related theological questions: What constitutes a valid ordination? Are the criteria for a true ordination static (“eternally valid”) or are they dynamic – changing over time?
Macy begins his review of the literature in the seventeenth century and progresses through recent scholarship. Many of the writings contrast sacramental, “true ordination,” with ceremonial rites. Macy’s core argument is that historians “should not …assume that women were not ordained in the past” just because the ordination they underwent then does not meet current ordination criteria (p 5).
Macy cites Jean Morin’s collection of Greek, Latin and Syrian rites, which in the year 1655 delineated criteria for “true ordination” – the ritual: (1) is called an ordination, (2) is celebrated at the altar by a bishop. (3) includes hands laid on the one to be ordained, (4) includes the placement of the stole on the one to be ordained, (5) the one to be ordained receives communion of both bread and wine, and (6) is to one of the major orders; priest, deacon or subdeacon (p 8). Morin states that ancient Greek ordination rites for deaconesses, deacons and administrators used “almost the same rites and words” (p 7). Macy challenges the common assumption that the equivalence between ordination and access to the altar (and pulpit) was important in the past. He further argues that medieval authorities did not accept the unity of the three major orders – bishop, priest and diaconate – as a necessary progression. For example, between 715 and 974, ten popes were ordained directly from deacons to bishops without becoming priests.
Macy documents that prior to the twelfth century laity could perform ordinations. Ordination was not linked to “an irrevocable power, but to a particular mission to a particular community” (p 29, emphasis added). That is, ordination did not bestow an office that was independent of location. Ordination covered the selection and appointment processes to many functions including porters, lectors, exorcists, acolytes, kings, queens, empresses. Women were ordained into their own orders as abbesses, canonesses, virgins, widows and nuns. On occasion, there are references to women as “clerics”. Popes and bishops included women among the ordained.
In the final chapters, Macy focuses on the ministries performed by ordained women during, the early middle ages, and how, later, those in authority defined women out of ordination. Women were ordained as deaconesses, abbesses, canonesses, episcopae (bishops) and presbyterae (priests). Some women took parallel religious vows to their husbands, as the latter were ordained as priests or bishops. Other women sought and gained ordination independently. Again, the key historical fact is that all of these women through ordination took on certain functions, role and ministries within specific religious communities. Macy states that the evidence that women were ordained is “overwhelming” – women ministered at the altar, taught younger women, prepared rural women for baptism, received confession, gave penances and reconciliation, excommunicated women who were in their order, received communion with their bare hands and may have preached and read the Gospel. There is evidence that some convents conducted communion without a priest. It is likely the abbess conducted these Eucharistic Services.
Macy posits two competing models in the medieval church: an extended family that valued marriage and “ministry in the world” versus one that valued sexual continence and “a monasticism that stands over against the world” (p 79). In the span of fifty years, the theology of orders declared the latter model correct and prohibited the centuries-old tradition of ordaining women. The justifications for this shift came from canonists and theologians. Macy says that together they not only changed practice – the canonists particularly wrote women’s ordination out of history. Citing Genesis on Eve, St Paul, Aristotle, and Augustine, among others, the dominant theologians deemed woman an inferior impure unreliable temptress. She was therefore unworthy to receive the irrevocable special power to make the risen Christ present at the liturgy and therefore could never be (or never had been) ordained. Macy cites some incredible un-Christ-like misogyny. He also notes the passionate counter voice of Abelard, who in the twelfth century, argued with learning and elegance that Jesus – not the apostles – established the “ordo of holy women”. Abelard further argued that the critical role of women predated Jesus in the Old Testament and that Mary Magdalene and other holy women who followed Jesus were equivalent to the male apostles and at times out-performed them. Abelard found support from Paul in Romans and I Timothy (both sides cited I Timothy) and in the Gospel of John as well as the heretic Pelagius and some of the Church fathers. Those who dominated were not moved despite the protests of Abelard and the argument advanced by three respected twelfth century scholars that it was the words, not who spoke them that confect (i.e. transform bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood). The latter argument seems consistent, to this reviewer, with the view that the human failings of individual male priests cannot nullify the value of the sacraments they minister to their flock.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the church became increasingly clerical, hierarchical, centralized and male dominated. Ordination acquired a narrower definition. Ordination became a rite that transmitted a “special power” to a priest rather than appointing an individual to one of a variety of roles within a particular place. Priesthood became a “‘personal state of life’… (rather than) a service to the community” (Macy quoting Schillebeecx, p 31). The theological teaching that only a properly empowered priest could make the risen Christ present was a redefinition and narrowing of the term ordination. The individual who consecrated the bread and wine became the central authority. The bestowing of this power became the central purpose of ordination and the community no longer chose the person who was to lead the ceremonies in their local church.
Macy states it is not his intent to address directly the theological question of whether women should be ordained today. However, he presents massive evidence that, in the past, women were ordained and filled more significant sacramental and jurisdictional roles than they do today. Despite our clerical, hierarchical, centralized and male dominated present, “our past may be more diverse, and perhaps even more liberating, than expected” (p 74).