May 25, 2009

Ordaining women

The Christian tradition of a male priesthood would seem to be well established.  In the cases of the Catholic and Eastern churches, this is now orthodox practice.  Among the Western Protestant churches, a wide variety of stances toward women clergy have been adopted.  (Sadly, one need not search hard to find ill-informed preachers eager to blog wildly complex theories of Scriptural translation that, cleared of the fog of incoherence, present despotic fantasies of the husband as autocrat with rod close at hand.)

With some controversy, Gary Macy, a professor of theology with a named at Santa Clara University (a Jesuit university where Frederick Copleston once taught), has apparently been for some time been presenting what he claims is historical evidence of a well-established tradition of ordaining women in the Medieval Church.  He begins his recent book, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination (published by Oxford University Press) with the following provocative introduction:

In 1997, I gave an address at the Catholic Theological Society of America that suggested that women in the Middle Ages had presided over ceremonies during which they distributed the bread and wine consecrated during the communion ritual.  It wasn’t a very radical suggestion but seemed to touch a nerve with some people.  My talk, along with the addresses of my colleagues John Baldovin and Mary Collins, earned the disapproval of Cardinal Avery Dulles in an issue of the Catholic journal, Commonweal.  There was a bit of a kerfuffle that seemed to be fading when a colleague of mine, Evelyn Kirkely, stopped me in the hallway and remarked, “I heard you proved that a woman had been in ordained in the Middle Ages.”  I was perplexed and a little annoyed.  No, I protested, I had proved no such thing, and further, women never had been ordained in the Middle Ages.

Kirkley, not being Catholic, had not followed closely the minor uproar over papers given at the CTSA.  She was suggesting, nevertheless, a possible conclusion that could be drawn from the examples I had given.  She was herself an ordained minister and an accomplished scholar.  She doesn’t voice opinions lightly.  On the short trip back to my office, I reconsidered my hasty response.  I had never checked the evidence.  Maybe women were ordained.  Maybe, as Kirkley intimated, women distributed communion because they were ordained to do so.

There is no point in rehearsing the fascinating hunt that followed.  As so often happens in scholarship, one small clue led to another and yet another.  Slowly, a pattern emerged.  There was no shortage of evidence about ordained women and of secondary studies analyzing this evidence.  But the sources were dismissed as anomalies, and the studies that argued that women had been ordained were attacked or marginalized.  Mostly, though, both were ignored.  Few historians questioned, as I had not, the assumption that women had not, and could not have been, ordained in the Middle Ages.  The memory of ordained women has been nearly erased, and where it survived, it was dismissed as illusion or, worse, delusion.  This was no accident of history.  This is a history that has been deliberately forgotten, intentionally marginalized, and, not infrequently, creatively explained away. 

Macy further explains his historical discoveries in a May 11th lecture he recently gave at Vanderbilt.  (Here is the referring page.)  This lecture is currently the most popular on Vanderbilt’s site.  (No wonder Macy’s book is back-ordered from Amazon; I have ordered it, but see that Amazon says 2 to 4 weeks are required for delivery.)

Now this topic is far, far away from my own expertise, and I must confess that Macy’s tone seems more than a bit politicized to me; still, I did think his lecture was interesting I am find myself looking forward to reading his book. If I have something intelligent to say after I have read his book, I may post it here.

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