- The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West
What more could be written or said about the ordination of women? A great deal, as we find in Gary Macy’s Hidden History. His first point is that Order has not meant the same thing over the centuries in the East or West. Macy finds it unhelpful to take a modern, refined canonical understanding of Order and then look backward into history to see if it appears in some form. Initially, ordination meant to be engaged in ministry, to bring grace to the baptized— the grace of forgiveness, healing, teaching, feeding, and leading the worship service in a Christian community. Macy asks: Did women do any of these things in the ancient and early-medieval Church? They certainly did all these things and were given titles from their contemporaries of epsicopae, presbyterae, diaconae, or abbatissa, reflecting their work in their local communities. They may have been given names (it is and was widely agreed that such names did appear in the ancient literature), but were they ceremonially [End Page 590] ordained as men were routinely and ceremonially ordained to perform the same sorts of functions? Macy presents much evidence to show that women as well as men were ritually ordained in this sense or in a parallel way. One great strength of his book is its wealth of Latin citations, demonstrating that women were doing ministry and were recognized as doing so. For those whose Latin is rusty or nonexistent, he provides English translations and a wealth of footnotes to give them a context. The context Macy provides shows that these titles were not mere honorifics. If women were occasionally titled episcopae and more frequently diaconissae until the early-twelfth century, why did this practice die out? If women ministers were so prevalent, why did they disappear from historical records to become almost invisible? Macy points the finger at reformers under Pope Gregory VII as culprits. We all know of the eleventh- and twelfth-century battles of ecclesiastical reformers who were intent on removing lay (read “royal”) interference with church property and church life. It was then that the notion of Order was changed to carry the specialized meaning of having power to consecrate the Eucharist and preside. In the course of church reform, clergy were separated from laity, the clergy becoming more monastic in lifestyle, and the laity marginalized in the “church.” It was in this century that women were vilified as temptresses and the cause of the Fall of the human race, flighty, and inferior in intellect. Women were further infantilized, no longer capable of being ordained, excluded from the nascent universities, and placed under tutelage of their husbands or fathers. Ordination was closed to women even if their ministry (their good offices) continued in the Church.
Macy’s excellent Hidden History is both a scholars’ book and a comfortable read that is hard to put down. Two points, however, require clarification. To describe order as that which a minister did in a community makes it difficult to distinguish the ordination of a bishop from a priest or deacon, or even from a teacher or a healer. When everyone is ordained, the sacramental notion of ministry seems absorbed into a general notion of function that could be performed by anyone either appointed or elected. Second, the notion that before the Gregorian Reform (or thereabouts) persons were ordained only for service to their local community still needs proof. Surely priests and deacons wandered all over the Mediterranean world in the patristic period ministering with powers independent of what the local community had given them.