Patterns of Women's Leadership in Early Christianity
- ISBN: 9780198867067
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: April 2021
Female leadership in early Christian circles and the emerging church is a topic of unending scholarly fascination, driven not only by a search for historical understanding or scholarly feminism, but also through the ecclesial situation in which Orthodox churches are discussing the revival of a female diaconate. Moreover, Roman Catholic circles at the highest level are engaged in discussing the ordination of women to the diaconate. Both discussions rely to an extent on historical evidence.
Some of the essays in Patterns of Women's Leadership in Early Christianity make particularly valuable contributions to the subject. In their introduction, editors Joan E. Taylor and Ilaria L. E. Ramelli state rightly that the discussion needs to be better “contextualized, expanded, and nuanced”(4). Taylor's essay on gendered space (one of two excellent contributions to the book), Teresa Berger's discussion of the state of the question, and Nicole Denzey Lewis' demythologization of the present scholarly myths surrounding the place of women in “gnosticism” all contribute to the much-needed nuancing of the subject. Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski on the Gospel of Philip, Margaret Butterfield on widows in Polycarp, and Markus Vinzent on Marcionites, are models of careful scholarship—very necessary in this area of concern—and contextualize the discussion valuably. Harry Maier on the widows of the Pastoral Epistles, Kevin J. Madigan on the controverted term “presbytera”, and Taylor on pairings of male and female ministers in early Christian circles introduce genuinely new insights to the discussion.
The editors also admit that their work is motivated by “feminist or egalitarian agenda.” (10) There is nothing wrong with the open statement of presuppositions. However, in some essays the presuppositions have overtaken the concern for historical accuracy. John Wijngaards, writing on female deacons, presents no new evidence and fails to engage with the critical questions of whether these female deacons hold an office identical to that of male deacons, and of whether their ordination is a sacramental ordination. Furthermore, Ally Kateusz and Luca Badini Confalonieri simply gather the material evidence for female office in the 5th century without attempting to contextualize it, in order to present a case for women's ordination today . Fortunately, the lapses in their essay are corrected elsewhere in the collection; Denzey Lewis provides a sensitive reading of the Marcosian ritual, the evidence on the foundation of which Kateusz's and Badini Confalonieri's effort is built is given a nuanced and convincing reading by Kevin J, Madigan, and the liturgical evidence described by them as “gender parallel” (passim) is explained more satisfactorily and contextually by Taylor as “gender divided.”
Finally, the editors also correctly note that the whole question of “leadership” needs careful handling (4), further noting that different offices emerge in the first four centuries of the common era, and that early Christian office extended beyond those which in time became normative. The collection is less successful here. Although Karl Olav Sandnes (on Eudocia) notes the “multiple and less formal ways of executing power and authority” exercised by women in the imperial period (214), and Teresa Berger points us to domestic liturgy, Wijngaards misses an opportunity both to discuss the question of the status of Byzantine female deacons within the new paradigm set by the editors and examine their relationship to other forms of liturgical participation and leadership. Along these lines certain minor criticisms may be noted. For instance, when Butterfield, in concluding that widows are privileged intercessors, describes this role as “sacerdotal” (75, 95) we really have to ask if this is the right word; and when William Tabbernee (169) describes the prophet reported by Firmilian as exercising “presbyteral” functions, we sense a confusion in the meaning of what a presbyter actually is before the latter part of the 4th century (a confusion which affects Ramelli's discussion of presbytides).
A further nuance, which perhaps needs to be introduced into the discussion, is that of what terms like “liturgy” and “eucharist” mean in a pre-4th century context, such that we might assess the roles of women within them. Thus, Berger presents a strong argument that the meal of the ps-Athanasian virgins (celebrated by a female leader in 4th-century Cappadocia) is eucharistic, but Ramelli's conflation of this with other eucharistic meals (45) is questionable.
In a field of study in which both gender politics and ecclesiastical agenda can readily confuse and waylay scholarly effort, the majority of the essays, and the editors' introduction, set the standard for future discussion in the academy and the churches alike.
Alistair C Stewart is team vicar at Upton-cum-Chalvey, UK.Alistair StewartDate Of Review:March 29, 2022