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Mary Kenny: Women must be given back key role within the church


Historian Bettany Hughes has found that women played an integral part in the foundations of the early Christian church.

Historian Bettany Hughes has found that women played an integral part in the foundations of the early Christian church.

Historian Bettany Hughes has found that women played an integral part in the foundations of the early Christian church.

It's an astonishing claim, but not at all an implausible one. The historian Bettany Hughes affirms -- in a BBC television series, 'Divine Women', which starts on Wednesday -- that the very foundations of the Christian church were created by women.

In the first 200 years of Christianity, she says, more than half the churches in Rome were constructed by women. Headstones from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD show that women were celebrates as "episcopa" -- as bishops within the early Church.

Women were priests, deaconesses and preachers. It was not until the Christian church became the official religion of Rome -- in the 4th Century -- that the men took over, and little by little, suppressed women's role in the forming of the faith.

One aspect of this we knew already. The New Testament shows women as among the first followers of Christ. We know there were many women among the early Christian martyrs -- Saints Perpetua and Felicity, for example.

It is well-established that among the first, and most influential, converts to Christianity were the Roman matrons, for whom it was a gentler faith than the old Roman gods of war and militarism. Christianity's emphasis on the unique value of human life also appealed to women in a culture when "unwanted" infants were exposed on mountaintops for the wolves to devour.

And the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity has always featured women saints prominently -- and the central importance of the Blessed Virgin, an emphasis shared with Orthodox Christians.

In terms of structures, Dr Hughes is surely correct. From the 4th Century onwards, the formal Christian church became increasingly patriarchal, and some of the fathers of the early church were fiercely misogynistic. Tertullian is often quoted -- he who thought that the gates of hell were represented by women's sexuality.

As Christianity became more powerful, it became more masculine in its management. As the popes grew into figures of secular power -- from the fifth century the Holy See was beginning to exercise international diplomacy -- they were more and more patriarchal. The notion of women as preachers, let alone priests or bishops, became unthinkable.

Holy women were accepted as counsellors and advisers: Catherine of Sienna advised the Pope, as did Brigid of Sweden, Hildegard of Bingen advised both popes and emperors. Dr Hughes's thesis that women's activity within Christianity was suppressed for 1,500 years is, it seems to me, open to nuanced interpretation.

There are even some historians, such as Lawrence Stone, who claimed that it was the Protestant revolution of the 16th Century which put women back in their place. Professor Stone wrote that Martin Luther closed the convents because he believed that all women should be married -- and under the control of a man, their husband. The convents had been sources of female religious power, and again, many prominent female saints built their own convents -- Teresa of Avila (Discalced Carmelites), St Madeleine Barat (Society of the Sacred Heart), and St Louise de Marillac (Daughters of Charity), among many more.

But it is a complex picture because some Protestant sects, such as the Quakers, allowed women to preach, and by the 19th Century the Baptists encouraged women preachers -- often because they were the more fiery opponents of alcohol.

But why did the early Christian church so quickly shed the tradition of women playing a prominent role in the structures of the church? Perhaps partly it was a reaction against an earlier association -- which Dr Hughes illustrates -- between women and paganism.

The pre-Christian faiths had often featured goddesses, and voluptuous goddesses at that. The oldest-known religious place of worship, at Catal Huyuk in Turkey, dating back 9,000 years, features a "Mother Goddess", a figure with great breasts, sitting on a throne, flanked by two cats.

The patriarchal grip on the Christian churches must also be explained by the fact that men are, in general, more competitive about power, and more dominant in seeking power.

To this day, there is no society in which women have more power than men, and almost no profession in which women dominate at the top. Even cooking and fashion have alpha males in dominant positions, albeit in the fashion world, usually gay alpha males. So it is not all a "conspiracy" to suppress women. It also reflects the way the secular world has been structured.

Still, Dr Hughes is providing serious historical reasons why the balance, within Christianity at large, does need to be tilted back to its basic foundation. We should indeed be aware that the foundations of the Christian church are in a large part female. That should be honoured in the contemporary churches.

Dr Hughes is a supporter of female bishops in the Church of England and this is the evidence she is offering for their elevation.

I can't see the Catholic Church proceeding at any fast pace to ordain women (and the Orthodox churches are even more opposed). There are, many believe, other priorities right now, such as the acceptance of married priests.

But the bishops and archbishops would do well to remember that there is a long history of women playing a vital role in counselling church leaders, and some of the regretful episodes we have seen in recent times might not have occurred if a strong-minded holy woman had exercised some authority in Episcopal matters.

Irish Independent