In the Afterfeast of the Dormition of the the Theotokos, we are mindful of the fact that it is a woman, the blessed ever-Virgin Mary, whom the Orthodox and indeed others venerate as the most honoured and significant of Christians. By virtue of her pivotal role in the Incarnation and the life of the Church she has blazoned a trail in Christian history for all women. It is strange that many secular feminists start denounce the Christian Church for being “paternalistic” and geared to keeping women in a subordinate place.
Until modern times quite the opposite was true: the only place where a gifted woman could be sure of an honoured role, independent socially and economically from her male relatives, was within the Church. This was true in the Christian east and the Christian west until the late Middle Ages, but the advent of Protestantism did make these heterodox Christians traditions largely more patriarchal in the west and now the feminists judge the whole Church by what has happened here since Luther! Let us now look at some of these important Christian women in both the Orthodox east and the Orthodox west.
That women were able to find a life of fulfillment inside the Church is not surprising. Our Lord preached and taught everyone equally and St Luke tells us that not a few women accompanied Him on His journeys. Our Church honours St Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the Resurrection, as “equal to the Apostles” and places his Mother in a rank of her own, above all others, male and female. Moreover it was, the Panagia, the Theotokos who, guided by the Holy Spirit, rallied the demoralized apostles after Jesus’ death on the Cross. Following his resurrection, Jesus appeared to those who needed re-assurance, and though the argument from silence is always risky, it does seem important that there is no appearance recorded to His Mother. She didn’t need that reassurance. She knew already.
It is not surprising to find in Acts that several women play a major role in the development of the early Church. Six times St Luke mentions the interesting married couple, Prisca and Aquila, and in four of them, the wife is mentioned first. It is also interesting that the first recorded convert in Europe was Lydia, the influential business woman of Philippi, who provided a hospitable base for the apostles Paul and Silas, and whose “household” (which probably included work-colleagues) were baptized with her.
In the middle of the fourth century, the intrepid Spanish nun, Egeria, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wrote probably the first popular Pilgrim’s Guide. She recorded her experiences for the enlightenment of her own monastic community back in Spain. This tells us that by 381 there were obviously thriving, womens’ communities here in the west
The earliest mention of such a community occurs in the writings of St Cyril of Jerusalem about 348 where he urges both the monks and virgins to stick to his teaching on chastity because, he says, they are establishing “an angelic life in the world”. For our purpose, the interesting point is that the nuns are listed there together with the monks, bishops, priests and deacons. In other words such a community was already well established in Jerusalem by the middle of the fourth century. The church had begun the long process of preparing women for positions of authority and service in her common life.
Over here in Britain we find that the influence of women started almost at the top. St. Helen, the Mother of the future Emperor, Constantine, whom the locals in Colchester still stoutly claim was born there (though there is another claim from the Middle East) was no doubt one of the most important women in the early Church being blessed with the title, “equal to the Apostles” for her work in bringing peace and unity to the Body of Christ. She is venerated both in Colchester, and also in York where her son was proclaimed Emperor in 306. She is especially remembered for discovering the True Cross, and the founding churches both on the Mount of Olives and in Bethlehem.
By the early seventh century, new patterns of ministry were emerging in southern England copied from northern France. This entailed using what were called “minsters” – monastic centres for both mission and pastoral care. Sometimes the land for a minster was provided by a local king or thegn as a dowry for a daughter who chose Christ as her Bridegroom and wanted to live with like-minded relations or friends in community.
Because they needed clerical assistance, there then grew the tradition of “double monasteries” of men and women with separate accommodation and a single Church building, much like our Orthodox monastery at Tolleshunt Knights in the south east of England today. In her survey of the Pre-Conquest Church, Margaret Deanesley records the earliest known of these. She says: “The minster of Dover was early founded where the Watling Street reached the Channel….it was a house for clerics. Folkestone was founded about 640 by King Eadbald as a minster for his daughter Eanswyth and her nuns and chaplains”.
At present, this is the first known record of a double monastery in England, but it was followed by many more. Also, there were often houses, convents which were the home for a small women’s community. Just how many of each type there were, it is now impossible to say: some had a short life centred on one person, others lasted much longer.
The important point to remember about this development is that it nurtured women in positions of leadership and service which were not available at the time anywhere else; so far from excluding women from positions of authority, the Church was in fact nurturing them and encouraging this. The best known example in England concerns St. Hilda who is of great interest to us as she was a protégé of St Aidan. She was the great-niece of King (later Saint) Edwin of Northumbria with whom she was baptised by St Paulinus at York when she was 13 years old..
She led the life of a noblewoman until she was 30 and then proposed to join her sister, Hereswitha, who was a nun at Chelles in Gaul. However St Aidan intervened and stopped this by asking her to form her own community, first on some land he gave her beside the River Wear, and then at Hartlepool. Finally in 657 she founded a double-monastery at Whitby which soon became famous as a centre of learning and in time it produced no less than five bishops. During her Abbacy, a simple monk in the community called Caedmon was experiencing visions which she encouraged him to record and now he is often claimed to be the father of English poetry. Importantly, Hilda became the spiritual Mother to a whole generation of nuns, monks and churchmen generally, and was consulted by kings and bishops and was said to always have time for high and low alike.
These holy women present to us a challenge I think in our own day that we at least match our forefathers and foremothers in the dignity and importance we all ascribe to the service of women in the Church. The first human being to be deified was a woman, the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary. She leads the way. Other women, and men, must follow.
This is not an agenda, however, for the ordination of women to the episcopate and derivatively to the priesthood. Such a thing was never envisaged or endorsed by our forebears but it is an invitation to take the service of women seriously in the Church, perhaps a little more seriously than currently it is …. here and there, shall we say.