Dear readers, we will now start our discussion of canons and comments on church practices. We have seen from a few inscriptions that, although the evidence is scarce, women did serve as deacons and deaconesses.
Now, however, we are going to examine church councils and their attempts to stop the advancements of women in the early church. Our beginning council to start will be the Council of Orange. We are given the following information about the council by Madigan & Osiek:
“The Council of Orange was convoked in November 441…with seventeen bishops from three provinces in attendance, it produced thirty canons on a wide variety of matters. SEVERAL OF THESE deal with the STATUS AND CONDUCT OF WOMEN IN CONSECRATED OFFICE. For example, one decreed that widows should make a profession of chastity and wear the proper dress…finally, Canon 26 deals with deaconess, in particular the question of whether they should be ordained” (“Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History,” page 145).
We are now gonna look at Council of Orange Canon 26:
“Female deacons (Diaconae) are BY NO MEANS (omnimodis) TO BE ORDAINED (ordinandae). If there are any WHO HAVE ALREADY BEEN ORDAINED (si quae iam sunt), let them submit their heads to the benediction (benediction…capita submittant) that is granted to the laity (quae populo impenditur).”
Notice that the council seems to be adamantly against women’s ordination: “female deacons are by no means to be ordained.” This says that women are not to be ordained for any reason whatsoever. Then, the canon presupposes some women have been ordained: “If there are any who have already been ordained…” The fact that the Council of Orange presupposes a thing tells us that women’s ordination did exist even as late as the fifth century. Last but not least, the “ordained” women are to be placed among the masses: “let them submit their heads to the benediction that is granted to the laity.” Here we find that these women were to be demoted, pulled down, from their places of ordained authority.
Madigan and Osiek write regarding Canon 26:
“It seems quite likely that the forbidden practice [ordaining women] had been occurring in the early fifth century in Gaul. That would account both for the canon having been promulgated at all and for its force…the recommendation to receive the blessing given to the laity is thus intended as a ritual act intended to UNDO THEIR [deaconesses] ELEVATION TO THE CLERGY AND TO RESITUATE THEM WITH THE PEOPLE, where they belong” (145, 146).
Although this canon tells us of the ordaining of women in Gaul, it suggests a bigger problem than just that of the council’s disagreement with a certain church practice:
“The forbidding of ordinations in this Western province is of special interest because it is unambiguously clear from several sources that, in the East, female deacons WERE BEING ORDAINED PUBLICLY AT THE SAME TIME BY IMPOSITION OF HANDS AND PRAYER OF THE BISHOP and using prayers similar to those used in other sorts of ordinations. In other words, in the East female deacons were considered wholly part of the clergy in the fifth century—probably the very understanding the fathers at Orange were at pains to avert in the West” (146).
The practice of ordaining women was making its way from the East, and this likely would have terrified the Council to write to the churches to stop this practice. The fact that the Council responded this way tells us that women’s ordination was a real thing in the West (and the East).
Funny, but, isn’t this different from what we’ve ALWAYS heard about women’s ordination? Isn’t it amazing that it’s been called a “liberal” practice, a “work of the feminists,” but, yet, it was also a practice of the early church? Most of you, my readers, have probably never even read of something like this before. It seems that conservative Christians are not very aware of their church history; for, if they were, they wouldn’t make such claims about the practice of ordaining women. The fact that conservative Christians know very little of this information does not mean that it does not exist, or that Madigan’s and Osiek’s information is wrong—rather, it demonstrates an attempt to suppress the information.
I’ll cover the issue of women’s ordination in more detail in the months to come; for now, though, I’d like to recommend a book for all to read: the book is called “The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination” by Gary Macy. I will cover this book in the days to come so stick around.