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Women and Sex in Early Christianity from 'Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.' by Arthur Frederick Ide

Women and Sex in Early Christianity

Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.
by Arthur Frederick Ide, Ide House 1984, pp. 103-116.
Published with the kind permission of the author

Sex was tolerated as a necessary evil by the early Church Fathers. Augustine was among the very few who saw it as a necessity in life for the countless numbers of faithful who could not embrace celibacy. In part sex was condemned by many of the other Church Fathers because of Judaic condemnations which greyed their thinking, and in part it was condemned because of the influence of Gnosticism which did have a significant influence on the development of Christian thought.

Although the Old Testament YHWH (or God) was given both male and female attributes by the writers of the Law and the Prophets, this early Biblical god never engaged in a sexual relationship as did the fertility gods of the ancient Near East, or the deities of ancient Greece or Rome.(1) This led the early Church Fathers to argue that the Christian god transcended sex, and, in turn, urged the faithful to imitate the deity’s example—declaring that celibacy was the highest virtue and most sublime practice. The contradictions in this thought were many, for although YHWH did not actively engage in penial intromission, there are sexual references to YHWH and the conduct of YHWH: for YHWH had a womb (Is. 46:3, 4), experienced birth pains (Is. 42: 13, 14), was a nursing mother (Is. 49:14-15) and acted as a mother and wife (Ps. 131:1,2). Rather than being “sexless” the Old Testament god YHWH was androgynous. In the Hebrew, God is ’elohim (or ’el, ’eloah, ’elohim)-’elah in the Aramaic portions, which are used interchangeably. Elohim is used interchangeably (Gen. 1:26-27): “Let us make humanity (adam) in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves. ”... “And god (Elohim) created humanity (ha adam in the image of god (Elohim) it was created, male and female god created them."

Passages in the Old Testament which the early Church Fathers capitalized on gave men possession of women (cf. Ex. 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or his ass, nor anything else which belongs to him." (cp. Gen. 19:4-8, Judg. 19:22-29). This was “justified” on the basis of language and semantics, for the Hebrew word b'l had a literal meaning at its root “to master” and is used at times to mean “the man marries” (e.g Deut. 21:13; Jer. 31:32), and is used frequently (Ex. 21:4, 22, Deut. 22:22 and 24:4; 2 Sam. 11:26; Esther 1.17, 20) by the woman in addressing her husband (cp. Joel 1:8). Her subordination came because of her physiology: both her sexual characteristics and her sexual function. A woman was seen as more sexual than man and thus the major cause of adultery (Ezek. 16:37-41)—a “crime” for which she was either stoned (ibid.), or burned to death (Lev. 21:9). She had little recourse, and a double standard was definitely in force, for a man could claim that his wife was not a virgin, compelling the father of the bride to bring out a garment with bloodstains resulting from the breaking of the hymen during the first marital intercourse, and “spread the garment before the town elders.” (Deut. 22:13-21)-a tradition employed against an unwanted wife as late as during the reign of Henry VIII who sought to put aside his legally contracted wife Catherine of Aragon in the sixteenth century. If that was not satisfactory to the male chauvinist, the husband, either out of jealousy or cruelty, could terrorize his own wife by forcing her to undertake a humiliating trial by ordeal to prove her fidelity and sexual purity (Num. 5:11-31).

Much of the Old Testament prohibitions and condemnations concerning women were because of the woman’s menstrual cycle, which is “considered hateful to God.”(2) Purity and holiness was considered as equal: “You shall not contaminate yourselves through any crawling creature. You shall not defile yourselves with them and make yourselves unclean by them. For I am YHWH your god; you shall make yourselves holy and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:43-44. Whereas a menstruating woman was considered “unholy”: “Whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes, bathe in water and remain unclean till evening. If he is on the bed or seat where she is sitting, by touching it he shall become unclean till evening. If a man goes so far as to have intercourse with her and any of her (menstrual) discharge gets on him, then he shall be unclean for seven days, and every bed on which he lies down shall be unclean.” (Lev. 15:23-24).

Menstrual “impurity” carried over to childbirth: “When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the period of her impurity through menstruation. . . , The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days.” which not only made the birth of a female child less desirable and more of a sin (or “entrance into impurity”) than the birth of a male child, but also gave raison d’etre to the Church Fathers to urge celibacy over matrimony or a life of sex without marriage (the worse of all evils). That women accepted this and obeyed this injunction- as they did other male chauvinistic interpretations of Biblical injunctions was because anyone who wrote or could read was considered a person marked with the favor of the deity, and thus “set aside”—his word to be obeyed as if he were truly speaking for the deity. This carried through the early Christian era into the present and has hampered individual intellectual growth and understanding both of divinity and humanity, ranging from the pseudepigrapha of The Books of Adam and Eve, to the Book of Jubilees (20:4, and 33:20), with The Testament of Reuben being the most vicious: For evil are women, my children; and since they have no power or strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves. And whom they cannot bewitch by outward attractions, him they overcome by craft. By means of their adornment. . . they instill the poison, and then through the accomplished act they take them captive. For a woman cannot force a man openly, but by a harlot’s bearing she beguiles him Command your wives and daughters, that they adorn not their heads and faces [and woe to the woman who nevertheless does], because every woman who useth these wiles hath been reserved for eternal punishment.” (5:1-5). As in Ben Sira, the Testament of Reuben details the nature of woman’s evil and constancy in sin: women are overcome by the spirit of fornication more than men, and in their heart they plot against men (5:3), which carried over to the Essenes and the Jewish sect of Qumran.(3)

The Greeks were no more friendly towards women. Women were imprisoned in a gyneceum at the pleasure of men. They were labeled as the source of evil (Pandora being the first sinner who opened the forbidden box which let into the world all forms of evil, disease, and corruption) and were to be silent around men.(4) Into this environment Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul) would come to study as would other Christian thinkers and writers—many of whom may have been the author(s) of the Pauline letters. Out of this background, too, came the color of catacombic Christianity and early Christian thought.

The general tenor of the early Christian thought on women and sex was that both were to be avoided. If women avoided sex as well, the church militant would evolve into the church triumphant. At first, to many this battle would be won when the faithful would totally eschew sex and obtain the gnos or knowledge of the godhead, and bring the gnostic’s pneuma (spirit) to its heavenly origin. To achieve this goal Gnostics were, for the most part, ascetic, denying themselves (as far as was possible) all involvements with the physical world, food, drink, and sexual intercourse—while the remainder of the Gnostic community took an opposite approach, claiming that they would not receive the gnos if they showed contempt for god by denying the splendor of creation and enjoying all that was in it. Although the former was looked upon with askance by the early orthodox Christian Fathers, the latter was totally eschewed. What made the orthodox condemn the Gnostics, in the end, was the Gnostic interpretation of woman and woman’s sexuality—an interpretation totally distasteful to orthodox Christian male theologians.

The Gnostics, like the writers of the first Creation Narrative, saw the godhead (pleroma) as composed of both male and female principles. The Forefather (Abyss) mated with the primordial female (Thought, who is also called Grace and Silence), and brought forth a male and female aeon (Mind and Truth). Abyss and Thought continued to enjoy sex and brought forth numerous other progeny, until the last female aeon, Sophia (Wisdom) throws the pleroma into disruption by her passion to know Abyss. Out of the disturbance she causes in her quest for total knowledge of the Forefather, the universe and humankind are created.(5)

The Gnostic Trinity was not composed of the traditional “orthodox” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (defined as male), but instead, God informed John: “I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son,”(6) This caused Tertullian to cry out “How bold these heretical women are! They have no modesty! They are bold enough to teach, to argue, to perform exorcisms, to undertake cares, and maybe even to baptize!”(7)

In the Coptic Gospel of Mary woman is further vindicated. She not only comforts the apostles after Christ’s ascension, but encourages men to mission for the message of Christ. When various apostles, including Peter object to a woman instructing them because of her sex, the situation is smoothed over by Levi who shows how Christ’s mother had instructed him as an example for other women to instruct men:(8)

When he (Christ] had said this [admonishing the disciples to spread his message], he went away, But they were grieved and mourned greatly, saying, “How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If even he was not spared, how shall we be spared?

Then Mary stood up and greeted all of them and said to her brethren, “Do not mourn or grieve or be irresolute for his grace will be with all of you and will defend you. Let us rather praise his greatness for he prepared us and made us into men,” When Mary said this their hearts changed for the better, and they began to discuss the words of the (Saviour).

Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than other women (cf, John 11:5; Luke 10:38-42). Tell us the words of the Saviour which you have in mind since you know them and we do not, nor have we heard them, , . , [pages 11-14 of the papyrus are lost after Mary begins her discusion of a vision; the papyrus resumes with Mary instructing the men, which led to various apostles opposing her] Peter also opposed her in regard to these matters and asked them about the Saviour. “Did he speak then secretly with a woman (cf. John 4:27), in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us”?

Then Mary grieved and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think I thought this up myself in my heart or that I am lying concerning the Saviour?”

Levi answered and said to Peter, “Peter, you are always irate. Now I see that you are contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Saviour knew her very well (cf. Luke 10:38-42). For this reason he loved her more than us (cf. John 11:5). And we should rather be ashamed and put on the Perfect Man, to form us as he commanded us, and proclaim the gospel, without publishing a further commandment or a further law than the one which the Saviour spoke.” When Levi said this, they began to go out in order to proclaim him and preach him.

This gave women too much authority—too much equality; thus, the Gnostic women had to be suppressed, for not only did they minister, teach, baptize, exorcise, consecrate, administer, and argue, but they were in the forefront of defined sexuality—either being extraordinarily “wanton” or inordinately ascetic. In either case the sexual attitudes of the Gnostic women were seen as a contagious disease which could spread into the orthodox community (Augustine declared: “women must have despaired of themselves, as mindful of their first sin, because by a woman was the first man deceived. . . .The poison to deceive man was presented him by woman.”) Unchecked, woman would destroy both men and the children of the community.(9) The fact that the Gnostic female priests and bishops had a more zealous following among their faithful and daily attracted “orthodox” converts, overwhelmed the early Church Fathers, who attempted to counter it by creating a theology similar to the Gnostic’s in the area of sex. The orthodox Christian understanding of human female sexuality was as weak as the Gnostics, and other movements.

Surprisingly Clement had some hidden understanding, which could have been a promise of more realistic interpretations of and defense for the equality of women, when he wrote: “The female differs from the male species only in that part of her body where posterity is seeded, received and nourished.”(10) But he went on to argue that physiologically a woman was weaker since she was lacking a penis, a scrotum, and bodily hair—all of which was considered in Asia Minor and the Near East to be a mark of manhood.(11)

The physician-bishop Basilius of Ancyra (d. c. 366), was somewhat more open when he acknowledged the physiological difference, but then went on with the trite comment that woman would be insufficient if she was not “equipped” with her “gynological charm” (the vagina), saying that a woman could win the labor and strength of a man when she “charmed the male with the female attraction”—implying, although never precisely stating, that a man had no interest in any woman for anything other than her sexual organ—and then only as a “depository” for his own sexual “burning.”(12)

It was this “burning” which was the cause, den, and sustainer of evil and sin. To know sex was to know sin. To fondle a woman’s breast or sexual organs was to open the gates of sin and flood the human soul with a damning tide of lust and spiritual loss.(13)

Basilius went further, once he defined the gynological charms of a woman, by stating that a woman was the sole reason for sin - for only by her machinations to captivate and enslave a man to “her organs of lust” would a man knowingly sin. Furthermore, Basilius added, that sex was an invention of evil and it was given exclusively to woman; without woman, man would not know or need sex or sexual relief; and, since woman was more dependent on sex than a man, it was more difficult for woman to understand, seek out, or obtain heaven—as her thoughts would rigidly be centered on sex.(14) Only when woman severed her “lustful wanton” needs “and interest in evil sex,” would she have an opportunity to obtain heaven. She was to surrender her physical, psychological lustful nature and interest in quest of a divine union with God: “If the soul in the body where she is, experiences no desire for man, nor for woman (a reference to lesbianism(15)), and does not bear the mark of the [physical, erotic] passions, then there is neither male nor female, neither passion, nor concupiscence, but ‘in all and for all it is in Christ.’ [For] the body has died, since the pleasure instinct of man and of woman has stopped acting, and the soul lives alone in them without corruption through virtue.” And, then, further, as if to give an alternative way of fulfilling her natural instincts and needs, the writer continued—“Then such a woman may touch [!] the servant of the Bridegroom, if indeed feminine voluptuousness no longer lives in her flesh.”(16)

Tertullian carried this “denial of sex” one step further, arguing that the best way to avoid sex was to die!(17) Chrysostom argued that sex was in itself death—likening a woman’s body to a tombstone, and men who sought out a woman’s body for sex (saying nothing here about men seeking out other men!) as tantamount to their surrendering themselves both physically and spiritually to the grave.(18)

If sex had to exist, according to many Church Fathers and canonized by Augustine, it was to be within the bonds of matrimony, Even within the bonds of marriage sex was seen by the male Christian theologians as “sinful, ugly, distasteful, repulsive, unnatural” and a gateway to death.(19) Because it was the gateway to death, Chrysostom argued, men had to be on guard-both against it and over it, lest it tempt not only themselves but also others. The men who were married were to be especially on guard against other men coveting their property(!):, articulating this phobia distinctly and sharply: “We are thus made, we men, through jealousy and vainglory, and whatnot, we like above all what nobody has owned and used before us and of all which we are the first and only master.”(20) To make certain that the “property” was well guarded, husbands were instructed to “surrender to woman her due”—to have sex for the purpose of procreation, and, to be certain that she was pregnant “at all times” so that another man “might not get to her.” Woman was forbidden, at the same time, to “ever refuse to surrender” herself “to her lord and master”, but was admonished to give her husband sex whenever he desired it or demanded it “or needed it.”(21)

Cyprian was even more emphatic than Chrysostom. Good women were pregnant—if they were married, although it was better for a woman not to engage in sex, since sex was that instrument which tied her to the earth and would cost her her salvation! Far better, Cyprian declared, it was for woman to “think on that which is divine and foresake” all thoughts of the flesh, committing her mind and body to a life of absolute chastity and virginity.”(22)

Origen, who had experienced women in the public baths, was, upon his conversion to Christianity, set against women. They were the “betrayers of male flesh.” He singled out two women for his especially hateful and heated attacks, although there is no indication that either woman was “of loose morals”—the fact was that both women in truth were “workers in the Church”—whose work rivaled his own and lessened his own stature. Thus he came out against Priscilla and Maximilia, damning them to “keep silent in the church” (invoking the misquoted Pauline instruction), and “refrain” from discussing their visions with others—especially men! who would not understand how a woman was capable of divine inspiration “on things of concern to all mankind.” He delighted in forgetting the careers of the four daughters of Philip (cf. Acts 21: 9f), Miriam (cf. Ex. 15:20-21), Hulda (cf. 1 Kings 22:14-20), Deborah (cf. Judges 4:4), Anna (cf. Luke 2:36), and so many others.


See my Woman in the Civilization of the Ancient Near East (Mesquite, 1981; revised and expanded under the title Woman in the Ancient Near East, 1982), my Woman in Ancient Greece (Mesquite, 1981; revised and expanded under the title Woman in Greek Civilization to 100 B.C., 1983); my Woman in Ancient Rome (Mesquite, 1981); and my Woman in Biblical Israel (Mesquite, 1981; revised and expanded under the title Woman in Ancient Israel Under the Torah and Talmud with a Complete Translation and Critical Commentary on Genesis 1-3, 1983). On the role of women being disenabled to take an active role in the Jewish community, see also, Raphael Lowe, The Position of Women in Judaism (London, 1966), pp. 44f. The Palestinian Talmud Sukka 55b (Le Talmud de Jerusalem, tr. by Moise Schwab, Paris, 1883, vol. 6, pp. 43ff) gives the statement against women stating that women must be separated from men, while Phyllis Bird, “Images of Women in the Old Testament,” loc. cit., gives an exceptional picture on women in general.

2. Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 13, col. 1405,

3. Philo, Hypothetica 11, 14-17. For a discussion see John Strugnell, “Flavius Josephus and the Essenes: Antiquities XVIII. 18-22” in Journal of Biblical Literature 77 (1958), p. 110. For a tart misogynistic expression of Qumran hostility to women, see John M. Allegro, with the collaboration of Arnold A. Anderson, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan, vol. 5, Qumran Cave 4 (Oxford, 1968), pp. 82-84.

4. See my Woman in Greek Civilization Before 100 B.C., pp.17-18.

5. Irenaeus, Adversus Hereticus 1.1-7,

6. Cf. Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period (New York, 1961), p. 70.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. See my Woman in the Gnostic Church (San Diego, 1973).

10. Irenaeus, loc. cit. 1.13.1-5; on the evils of pregnancy, childbirth, and related matters, see Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion XXVI: 1.3; Philaster of Brescia, Liber de haeresibus XXXIII.3; Acts of Philip 94. On the similarity of Gnosticism and Cataphrygianism, see Migne, Patrologia Latino vol. 42, col. 31c, and Patrologia Graeca, vol. 94, col. 767a; in the sixth century trials of the Cataphrygians, judgement was rendered against them because they did not believe that the church should discriminate on the grounds of sex inasmuch as Christ did not (see Griechishen christlichen Schriftsteller, XXXI:-241). The Cataphrygians had both male and female bishops—the majority of which were female. They were, in time, followed by the Collyridians who raised women on par with men. Ibid., XXXVII: 473, 8-20; on their origin, from Thrace to Arabia, see Panarion 78: 23, and 79:1. For a discussion on the role of women in these movements and communities, see my Woman in the Later Gnostic Churches (San Diego, 1974).

11. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 3.3.

12. Clement, Recognitions VII.32: in Migne, Patrologia Graeca vol. 1, col. 1387. De Virginitate de St. Basile. Texte vieuxslaves; trans. into French by A. Valliant (Paris, 1943), pp. 5-7.

13. Augustine, Soliloquies 1.10.

14. De Virginitate de St. Basile, loc. cit..

15. See my Lesbianism in the Early Church (Los Angeles, 1975)

16. De Virginitate de St. Basile, loc. cit.; cf. Chrysostom, Ep. ad Theodora in Sources chretiennes, vol. 117, p, 71f; cp. with Tertullian, ibid., vol. 125, p. 159f.

17. Ad Genesis IV in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 53, col. 154. Augustine is even more hostile in his attitude, declaring that “sex is sin and sin lives in sex”—a statement uniquely coupled with his own preoccupation with his own bastard son Adeodatus. However, as has been discussed above, there are many contradictions in Augustine because of his rough past. See my forthcoming work, Women and Augustine: A Study of Women in Fifth Century Ecclesiology.

18. Sources chretienne, loc. cit..

19. Patrologia Graeca, vol. 53, cols. 154f.

20. Sources chretienne, vol. 117, p. 167; cf. ibid., vol. 138, p. 159; cp. Gregory of Nazianzen, Carmen ad Olympiaden, in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 21, cols. 897-918.

21. Sources chretienne, vol. 119, pp. 263-274.

22. Migne, Patrologia Latino, vol. 4, cols. 455-457.

23. Cf. “Origen on 1 Corinthians,” loc. cit.. Ambrose would reject this summarily, arguing that woman was not to be classified with man on the same theological grounds, arguing that the injunction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was given only to man and not to woman, thereby excusing woman from the injunction and in fact making any infraction of that injunction by woman not binding nor sinful—thus woman can find an excuse for her “sin” while man cannot: “Sane negare non possumus quod erraverit mulier. Quid miraris tamen si erraverit et infirmior lapsus est sexus, cum sit lapsus etiam fortior? Mulier excusationem habet in peccato vir non habet. Ilia ut Scriptura assent, a sapientissimo omnium serpente decepta est, tu a muliere: id est, illam superior creatura decepit, te inferior; te enim mulier decepit, illam malus licet, tamen angelus.” in Migne, Patrologia Latino vol. 26. cols. 325-326; cp. ibid., vol. 14, col. 32. See also my discussion in Woman in Ancient Israel Under the Torah and Talmud, pp. 7-26. Ambrose would also claim that woman was a model of Christian penance and for Christian penance, while man is to be pitied: Denique Adam conventus, quod contra divina quae coram audierat praecepta, gustasset, nihil habuit quod diceret, nisi quod sibi mulier dedisset, et manducasset; mulier autem ait: serpens traduxit me, et manducavi. Quanta major mulieris absolutio! ille arguitur, haec interrogatur, Adde illud quod et prior culpam fatetur, etenim quae se dicit esse seductam, testatur errorem, Erroris igitur medicina confessio est. in Migne, Patrologia Latino, vol. 14, cols. 327-328. A detailed discussion of Ambrose and his relationship with women and attitudes towards women can be found in the earlier edition of this work (Mesquite, 1980), appearing with the title Woman in Early Christianity and Christian Society, which is not incorporated into this edition, being, instead, in preparation for a forthcoming book which will appear entitled Woman and St. Ambrose of Milan: A Study of Woman in Western Christianity which will cover the social, political, and religious life of women as detailed in the writings of Ambrose as well as civil records.

In analyzing the works of women one must not believe that Ambrose was “liberal” in his attitudes concerning women, for he still believed that women should “subordinate themselves to men” and, preferably, chose the celibate life. In doing so, Ambrose argues, women become sexless—“like God.” The difference between Ambrose and other Church Fathers is that Ambrose gives woman freedom of choice: Woman must respect her husband, not be a slave to him; she consents to be ruled, not to be forced. The one whom a yoke would fit is not fit for the yoke of marriage. As to man, he should guide his wife like a pilot, honor her as his partner in life, share with her as a co-heir of grace. (Mulier viro deferat, no serviat; regemdam se praebeat, non coercendam, Indigna est conjugio, quae digna est jurgio. Vir queque uxorem tanquam guberator dirigat, tanquam consortem vitae honoret, participet ut cohaeredem gratiae.) In Migne, Patrologia Latino, vol. 16, col. 1270. I find no statement anywhere within Ambrose where he gives a husband to have capricious control or absolute power over his wife; it is the opposite, for he admonishes husbands to care for their wives tenderly and with love. This “tenderness” is seen in his comments “scit et ille genquidam interiorum rector affectum, qui de se ipso didicerat legi mentis legem corporis regunare; eadem tamen Christi gratiae cedere scit, inquam, varios incursus mentium repugnare; et ideo neque in tantum adhortationem integritatis intendit, ut aboleret gratiam nuptiarum : neque ita conjugium praetulit (ibid., cols. 254-255, 262) and, Lex divina coelesti inter se conjuges auctoritate constrinxit, et difficile manet mutuus amor (ibid., col. 276) and, Nemo ergo vel qui conjugium elegit, reprehat integritatem (ibid., col. 288).

***** p.116 in book there is a map.

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