Gary Macy – The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West

For the first twelve hundred years of Christianity, women were ordained into various roles in the church. References to the ordination of women exist in papal, episcopal, and theological documents of the time, and the rites for these ordinations have survived.

Yet, many scholars hold that women, particularly in the Western church, were never ordained. A survey of the literature discussing the ordination of women in Western Christianity reveals that most of these scholars use a definition of ordination to determine whether earlier references to the ordination of women were “real” ordinations that would have been unknown in the early Middle Ages. In the early centuries of Christianity, ordination was the process and the ceremony by which one moved to any new ministry (ordo) in the community. By this definition, women were ordained into several ministries. Four central ministries of episcopa (women bishop), presbytera (women priest), deaconess and abbess are discussed in detail in order to demonstrate particularly the liturgical roles women performed in the early Middle Ages. A radical change in the definition of ordination during the 11th and 12th centuries not only removed women from the ordained ministry, but also attempted to eradicate any memory of women’s ordination in the past. The debate that accompanied this change has left its mark in the literature of the time. However, the triumph of a new definition of ordination as the bestowal of power, particularly the power to confect the Eucharist, so thoroughly dominated western thought and practice by the thirteenth century that the early definition of ordination was almost completely erased.

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