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Celtic women in liturgical ministr

Celtic women in liturgical ministry

In the early sixth century, three bishops from Lugdunensis region (present-day Lyon) in France: Licinius of Tours, Melanius of Rennes, and Eustochius of Angers, attempted to restrain two priests who encouraged the participation of women in the liturgy. The bishops attributed this development to the influence of Montanism, but it seems more likely that we have here a real trace of an ancient Celtic practice. The priests in question were Bretons. We know that many Britons fled Britain in the 5th & 6th centuries to escape the invasion of Britain by the Saxons.

The letter again presumes the context of house churches: the priests carry portable altars, probably on carts, from home to home. The bishops accuse the two priests of allowing women to help them during the Eucharist. Among other things the women stood next to the priest holding the chalice with the consecrated Blood for people to drink from. And most interestingly, the letter mentions the title given to such a ministering woman: 'conhospita', Latin for 'co-hostess'. The woman shared the hosting of the Eucharist with the priest.

Celtic/British Christians would not have used a Latin term. So what was the equivalent in their vernacular? The best candidate term is undoubtedly Bean-tighe, which in old Celtic/Irish/Gaelic means '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). More about the background of this ministry of women can be found here.

Source of this text: Licinius of Tours, Melanius of Rennes, and Eustochius of Angers, Epist. “Viri venerabilis”: see L. Duchesne, “Lovocat et Catihern, pretres bretons de temps de saint Melaine,” Revue de Bretagne et de Vendée 7(1885) pp.5-18 (Latin with French translation); Jülicher, A., “Ein gallischen Bischofeschreiben des 6. Jahrhunderts als Zeuge für die Verfassung der Montanistenkirche,” Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte 16(1896) pp.664-671. The translation followed here is by R. Mathisen, whom I have not been able to contact. Paragraph numbering by John Wijngaards.

“Viri venerabilis”

§1. The Bishops Licinius, Melanius, and Eustochius to the Priests Lovocatus and Catihernus, Their Most Blessed Lords and Brothers in Christ.

§2. . . . quod quasdam tabulas per diversorum civium capannas circumferre non desinatis et missas ibidem adhibitis mulieribus in sacrificio divino, quas conhospitas nominastis, facere praesumatis; sicut erogantibus vobis eucharistiae illae vobis positis calices teneant et sanguinem Christi populo administrare praesumant.
§2. We have learned through the report of that venerable man the priest Speratus that, you do not stop carrying portable altars around the dwellings in the territories of different cities, and that 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 [= the consecrated bread] they hold the chalices in your presence and presume to administer the Blood of Christ to the people.


§3. The novelty and unheard-of superstition of this action grieves us to no small extent because such a horrible sect, which demonstrably never has existed in Gaul, seems to be emerging in our times. The oriental fathers called it Pepodianism on account of the fact that Pepodius was the originator of this schism. Because these people presumed to have women as their associates in the divine sacrifice, the fathers prescribed that whoever wished to cling to this error was to be rendered separated from ecclesiastical communion.

§4. Therefore, we believe that Your Charity ought to be admonished, in the first place, in the love of Christ, for the sake of ecclesiastical unity and the integrity of the catholic faith, that when the pages of these letters come to you, an immediate cessation from the aforementioned practices should have followed, that is, from the aforementioned altars, which we have no doubt were consecrated, as is fitting, by priests, and from those women, whom you call conhospitae, which appellation is not spoken or heard without a certain shivering of the spirit because it disgraces the clergy and such a detestable name strikes shame and horror into blessed religion.

§5. Therefore, according to the statutes of the fathers, we prescribe to Your Charity not only that little women of this sort should not pollute the divine sacraments on account of this illicit ministration, but also that, with the exception of a mother, maternal aunt, sister, or granddaughter, if anyone should wish to have anyone under the roof of his little cell for cohabitation, by canonical sentence let him be restrained from the threshold of the sacrosanct church.

§6. It is fitting, therefore, dearest brothers, that you exhibit a most rapid emendation, if it is true as it has been reported to us with regard to the aforementioned business, because for the sake of the health of souls and of the edification of the people it is expedient to rectify quickly practices so perverted from the ecclesiastical order lest the pertinacity of this obstinacy lead you to greater confusion, and lest we have to come to you with the apostolic rod - should you refuse charity and be surrendered to Satan in the ruin of the flesh - so that your spirit might be saved.

§7. To be surrendered to Satan is this: when someone has been separated from the ecclesiastical flock on account of his own sin, let him have no doubt that he shall be devoured by both demons and rapacious wolves. Likewise, we also recall the advice of the evangelist, where he says, "If our members scandalize us," that is, whoever of the catholic church enters heresy, "it is therefore more useful that this single member, which defiles the whole church, be excised rather then that the whole church be brought down into ruin."

§8. Let these few words, which we have said from many, be sufficient. Give much effort to the communion of charity, and take care to set out with the most eager devotion upon the royal road from which you have strayed a little, so that you both may gain profit from obedience and we may rejoice that you are to be saved through our petition.

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