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Women and Christianity

Women and Christianity

Reflections from a visitor to www.womenpriests.org
Del Cain. Orlando, USA.

Women have been involved in Christianity since its very beginning. One of the first mentions of female Christians in the New Testament is in Luke 8, verses 1-3, where Luke states that several women disciples travelled with Christ and the Twelve Apostles and that the women paid some or all of the expenses of the trip. Christ had female as well as male followers throughout his ministry, as attested to by Mark 15: 40-41 and Matthew 27:55 .

Later, in the Early Christian Church, women were in positions of authority for about the first 300 years. Many wealthy women had church services in their homes for the small Christian congregations and officiated during the services as the heads of their congregations.

There is evidence for this and for women preaching and prophesying in the Letters of St. Paul. In several Letters, he greets numerous women by name and praises their church-founding work. In one Letter, Romans 16:7, he describes a woman named Junia as an “Apostle”, the same title he uses for himself. Some Bible translations change the ending of Junia’s name to Junias to make her of the male sex thereby not having to admit the possibility of a female apostle in Christianity. But two early Church Fathers, Origen and John Chrysostom both believed this Apostle to be female. John Chrysostom, in a Homily to St. Paul, talked about, “How great is the devotion of this woman..” .

Elsewhere in his Letter to the Romans, Paul commends a woman named Phoebe, who was Deaconess of a church at Cenchrea (Corinth, Greece)-Romans 16:1-2 . She was one of the leaders of her church and likely took an official part in the church services.

There is also archaeological evidence for women functioning as Deacons, Presbyters and Bishops in the early Christian churches. There are tombstone inscriptions, frescos and mosaics in Rome and elsewhere that name or picture a woman and list her religious title of authority.

For example, in Rome at the Church of St. Praxida, inside the Chapel of St. Zeno, an inscription on a mosaic(possibly 5th. Cent.) denotes the figure on the mosaic as the “Episcopa Theodora” Bishop Theodora. The inscription has been changed and the “Ra” part of her name removed to give the religious title a male name, but a veiled woman is pictured in the mosaic. There are also tombstone inscriptions in Rome, where the women listed on the stones are described as “Honorable Bishops.” Many more examples of this type of evidence is in the books;Fore-Mothers:Women of the Bible by Janice Nunnally-Cox; Women in the Church: a Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry,by Stanley J. Grenz and The Lady Was a Bishop by Joan Morris.

(History Note: In 313 A.D., by the Edict of Milan, the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christanity).

In the years that followed, large churches were built in the major cities of the Empire and many men found a vocation in this new religion desirable.

The smaller house churches, as the founders died, were replaced by the larger churches subsidized by the state.

And as time went by, women were not allowed to have any official positions in any church. One way this was accomplished was by Church Council Ordinances:

Council of Orange(A.D.441)-Canon 26

“Let no one proceed to the ordination of Deaconesses anymore."

Council of Epaon(A.D.517)-Canon 21

“We abrogate completely in the entire Kingdom the consecration of widows who are named Deaconesses.”

Council of Orleans(A.D.533)

“No longer shall the blessing of women deaconesses be given, because of the weakness of their sex.” (The above information on Church Councils is from the book, Fore-Mothers:Women of the Bible by Janice Nunnally-Cox)

This changed in the 1100’s A.D., when there arose a third wave of women who would have power in Christian affairs. Royal families in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, England and other countries over scores of years, established Royal Abbeys to be headed by women of noble birth.

In many of these countries, the Head Abbess was ordained wearing a Bishops Alb, Stole, Crozier, Ring, Gloves and Miter. She was ordained by the local Bishop but her direct superior was the Pope, who had approved her ordination. She was exempt from the authority of the local Bishop and had status and power comparable to and in some ways exceeding his.

Most Royal Abbeys were endowed with large tracts of land and the farms and towns on them. The Abbess had jurisdiction over the people, the towns and the churches on this land. She also supervised, disciplined and paid the salary of all the male clergy of her churches. The Head Abbess, in many instances, appointed local parish priests, heard confessions and participated in official church councils.

Popes from the 12th to the 16th century, by Papal Bulls, repeatedly affirmed these women in their rights of authority over their property and of obedience from the people and clergy within her territory. This had to be done because of recurring attempts over these 400 years by local bishops to bring the Abbeys and their assets under their religious authority.

The end of power for these Royal Abbesses began with the flowering of the Renaissance and its Greek and Roman ideas of the subservience of women. Male clergy increasingly rebelled at being under the authority of a woman priest. The Council of Trent (1545-63) put the Royal Abbeys in Europe under the direct control of either the local abbots or bishop. Most Abbeys had schools to educate women. These were eventually closed; an unfortunate by-product of the Reniassance and its humanistic ideals.

Some Abbesses, due to their Royal Charter, were able to avoid coming under the domination of their male counterparts. It was a brief respite of about 200 years.

The Napoleonic Wars of the 1800’s lead to most of the Royal Abbeys being closed and confiscated;(the same had happened in England earlier on orders of Henry VIII).

The Abbeys in Spain and Italy not confiscated were put under pro-Napoleonic Bishops. Napoleon’s later defeat and demise did not result in the Abbeys being restored to their former conditions.

A few regained independence and the last surviving Royal Abbey was Las Huelgas near Burgos , Spain. It and its twelve subsidiary abbeys were still ruled by an abbess until 1874, when the abbey was put under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Burgos.

The next upsurge in women’s struggle for participation in Christanity took place in the 1700 and 1800’s in Britain and North America. Revivalist movements provided entry to brilliant or charismatic women preachers.

One example is the rise and spread of Methodism in the mid-1700’s in England. John Wesley, the founder, supported and backed gifted women preachers as his denomination grew. After his death, as Methodism became a larger, more respectable religion, women were ultimately excluded from all positions of authority.

In addition to Methodism, there were other evangelical movements in the U.S. in the late 1700 and 1800"s. Charles Finney was one of the revivalits who encouraged women to preach at his meetings. He was also the first professor of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio and Antoinette Brown, one of his students, in 1853 was the first woman in the U.S. ordained as a minister of a recognized denomination. Other women also received theological degrees from Boston University, beginning in the 1870’s and the Hartford Theological Seminary (1890’s).

Most of these early pioneers were unable to get mainstream church positions so they preached at revival meetings, newly-founded churches or churches unable to hire a credentailed male clergyman. Many also went into religious education and the Sunday School movement.

Women ministers also flocked to the smaller religious denominations such as the Quakers, Free Methodists, Freewill Baptists and Congregationalists. Some women founded their own churches such as Ellen Harmon White(Seventh Day Adventist) and Amy Semple Mcpherson(Four Square Gospel Church). Catherine Booth, with her husband, founded the Salvation Army and Mary Baker Eddy founded her own religion(Christian Science).

In the 20th century, the work of these many predecessors, has paved the way for the increasing number of women who, with spiritual and historical justification, have claimed their right to be ministers in Christanity.

Books Used

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. by E.A. Livingstone,3rd.ed.0xford Univ.Pr.,1997.

When Women Were Priests-Karen Jo Torjesen, Harper San Francisco, 1993.

Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in the Ministry-Stanley J. Grenz with Denise Muir Kjesbo, Interuniversity Press, 1995.

The Lady was a Bishop-Joan Morris, Macmillan Co.,1973.

Fore-Mothers: Women of the Bible-Janice Nunnally-Cox Seabury Press, 1981.

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