Women ministering among the Celts
in ancient Britain and Ireland
Christian communities among the ancient Celts in Britain and Ireland seem to have met in house churches, that is: in the private homes of prominent Christians. Visiting priests would administer baptism and preside over the Eucharist. But in their work they were assisted by women whose title in old British Celtic and in Irish/Gaelic may have been Bean-tigh(e), literally: 'mistress of the home', 'hostess' (see below no 3). Perhaps this was not a class of ministers who were formally installed. In the situation of house churches, it would have been natural for the visiting priest to recruit one or two prominent women in the main household(s?) to help him as Bean-tighe for the occasion or for a particular purpose.
The Bean-Tighe served at the altar and helped the priests distribute communion. She also assisted at the baptism of women catechumens, helping these to strip naked, anointing them with oil and submerging them in the water of the baptismal font. The Bean-tighe probably played an active role in other pastoral work among women in her neighbourhood, such as instructing catechumens and visiting the sick in their homes.
Archeology tells us that Christianity practised among the Romano-Britons was centered on the home, there being no public places of worship except for the official temple cults. At that time the liturgy was flexible, with masses being celebrated in the homes. Because of the Roman persecutions and pagan prejudices, Christians kept a low profile in society as regards their religious beliefs: they used coded signs such as the Chi-Rho (first two letters of Christ in Greek), fish (ICHTHUS) and the kiss of peace.
At Lullingstone, Kent, in the Darenth valley, the remains of a Roman villa were excavated in 1949. The villa had been built in the late first century AD, and altered and extended several times in the succeeding 300 years. There was evidence for pagan worship at the site well into the fourth century AD, but eventually the family which ran the estate adopted Christianity. At this early date in the history of Christianity, house-chapels and other types of accommodation must have been at least as common as purpose-built churches. A small suite of first-floor rooms at Lullingstone (probably provided with external access) was set aside as a Christian place of worship.
The walls were decorated with elaborate paintings on Christian themes, which have been partially reconstructed. The image above shows a fresco of large praying figures, socalled 'orantes'. The figures pose with upraised hands in an attitude still used by Christian priests when praying before a congregation. This posture of praying, also found in the Christian catacombs, probably reflected Christians anticipating the resurrection with Christ, the eschatological hope expressed in the Eucharist. More about this here.
An analysis of the figures shows both men and women among them, all marked with the cross. The one totally on the right is a man who, perhaps, lifts his left hand in blessing (see above). The figure totally on the left (see detailed image below) is a woman. She wears a white tunic, a shoulder wrap made of pieces of fur and over it all a red cloak. All six figures wear similar dresses
Archeology in Britain has found the remnants of ca 20 baptismal tanks made of lead. Many of them were clearly labeled as Christian by crosses or CHI-RO signs. These tanks were heavy: they measured about one meter across and half a meter deep. These tanks are unique to ancient Britain they are found nowhere else.
One of these tanks, the so-called Walesby tank dating from the 5th century, shows a frieze on its side that depicts a baptism in action. The surrounding scene depicts the courtyard of a home. The catechumen, standing in the middle, is flanked by two women who are obviously there to assist her. They are clearly examples of the Bean-Tighe described above. Their functions at baptism must have run parallel to baptismal tasks of women deacons in the East.
Among 5th century Britons fleeing from the onslaught of Saxons to Brittany in France we find the custom of women assisting the priest at the Eucharist in masses celebrated in people's homes. These women were known as 'conhospitae' in Latin. The original title was Bean-tighe, which in old Celtic/Irish/Gaelic meant 'mistress of the home', the one who makes guests welcome. The word is pronounced in this way: Bean as 'bane', tighe as 'tie' (as in 'necktie).
In a pastoral situation with Eucharists celebrated in the homes of Christians, it would be natural that local prominent women, the 'mistresses of the home', would assist the priest in serving at the altar and distributing holy communion.
"You do not stop carrying portable altars around the dwellings in the territories of different cities, and you presume to celebrate masses there with women, whom you call conhospitae [= joint hostesses] and whom you admit to the divine sacrifice to such an extent that while you distribute the eucharist they hold the chalices in your presence and presume to administer the Blood of Christ to the people." Full text here.
It is extremely likely that the Celtic con-hospitae / bean-tighe were an adaptation of a, perhaps non-ordained?, diaconate of women to the special circumstances prevailing in Britain and Ireland. I say 'non-ordained' on account of Pelagius' commentaries.
Pelagius was a Celtic monk, probably born in Britain, who moved to Rome in 380 AD. When Pelagius comments on Paul's letters, he repeatedly links the text to the ministry of women deacons in the East. He does not mention an equivalent ministry among the Romano-British in his native England. This seems to show that the Bean-tighe did not function as an ordained order of ministers.
At the same time Pelagius witnesses to a great openness to women's involvement, in line with his Celtic background. We may assume that he considered it no more than natural that prominent women in a household were invited by the priest to assist him in some liturgical celebrations, such as the administration of baptism or the celebration of the Eucharist. More about Pelagius here.
An 8th century historical document relates that Saint Patrick and the other pioneers of Christianity in Ireland did not reject ecclesiastical ministry by women. No details are mentioned but the ancient record confirms that women were originally involved in ministry. More information here.
Further confirmation may be seen in partly legendary, partly historical accounts of women such as Saint Brigid of Kildare, who was ordained a bishop. Was she, as ordained head of a community of nuns and a community of monks, a special example of a Bean-Tighe, a 'mistress of the home'?
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