There are three Episcopal letters I will tackle in this post: (1) Letter 14 (to bishops in southern Italy) by Pope Gelasius I (492-96), (2) Letter of Three Gallic Bishops, and (3) Letter of Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, to Ambrose the Priest.
First, Pope Gelasius’ letter:
“We have heard to our distress that contempt of divine things has reached such a state that WOMEN ARE ENCOURAGED (firmentur) TO SERVE AT THE SACRED ALTARS (ministrare sacris altaribus) AND TO PERFORM ALL THE OTHER TASKS (cunctaque) THAT ARE ASSIGNED ONLY TO THE SERVICE OF MEN (non visi virorum famulatui sexum), and for which they [women] are not appropriate (cui non competunt)” (186).
Madigan and Osiek tell us that there is much controversy surrounding this letter, and that most don’t believe this refers to sacerdotal ministry. However, Giorgio Otranto “reads the text as evidence for the argument that ‘at the end of the fifth century, some women, having been ordained by bishops, WERE EXERCISING A TRUE AND PROPER MINISTERIAL PRIESTHOOD IN A VAST AREA OF SOUTHERN ITALY, as well as perhaps in other unnamed regions of Italy” (186).
What makes Madigan and Osiek believe Giorgio Otranto?
“...the single Latin word with enclitic ‘cunctaque’: ‘and ALL THE OTHER THINGS’ (emphasis added) that male presbyters do and for which women, in Gelasius’ view, are not competent. Otranto captures the significance of ‘cuncta’ very well: this word, he correctly notes, implies ‘all the attributes of the male services: liturgical, juridical, and magisterial.’ When that piece of philological evidence is introduced, then we can agree with Otranto that: ‘The functions exercised by women at the altars, therefore, can refer only to the administration of the sacraments, to the liturgical service, and to the public and official announcement of the evangelical message, all of which comprise the duties of ministerial priesthood...Hence...Gelasius...intended to stigmatize and condemn not the exercise of a feminine liturgical service, but an abuse that appeared to him a great deal more serious: that of TRUE AND PROPER PRESBYTERS WHO WERE PERFORMING ALL THE DUTIES TRADITIONALLY RESERVED FOR MEN ALONE’” (187).
What we have here is Pope Gelasius writing against women who are serving in tasks that were “only to the service of men.” It is the idea of women acting as official presbyters of the church that offends Gelasius.
Madigan and Osiek point out another great detail of the text:
“...the letter itself states (albeit in the passive voice) that women are ‘encouraged’ (firmentur) to serve at the altars. Bu whom? The bishops? It is certainly possible but, on the basis of this text, far from certain, especially since Gelasius implies some of the bishops simply CONDONED this behavior rather than encouraged it. Be that as it may, this text, especially when put in context of contemporary inscriptional evidence, constitutes very strong evidence that some women in the south Italian dioceses were functioning as fully-fledged presbyters with the knowledge of their bishops. It is crucial to observe that these were not women in heretical sects but IN CHURCHES CLAIMING TO BE ‘CATHOLIC’ OR IN COMMUNION WITH THE CHURCH OF ROME” (188).
The last sentence of Madigan and Osiek’s quote says it all: Gelasius’ letter shows us that women were ordained and active not in heretical sects (like the Priscillianists), but in the orthodox church (which, at the time, was the Roman Catholic Church). And this is the proof needed when someone comes up and tells you that only the heretical groups allowed women such activities. Point to this letter as evidence that the heretical sects were not alone in their permission of women.
The next letter is called “The Letter of the Three Gallic Bishops.” Madigan and Osiek provide this background:
“Written in 511 by three bishops from the northern Gallic dioceses of Tours, Rennes, and Angers, this letter is addressed to two Breton priests. All five clerics are named in the first sentence of the letter, which reprehends a situation (in their eyes an abomination) very like the one described by Gelasius less than two decades before” (188).
Here it is:
“Bishops Licinius, Melanius, and Eustochius to priests Lovocatus and Catihernius, our most blessed lords and brothers in Christ. We have learned through a report of the priest Speratus, a venerable man, that you have not desisted from carrying certain altars (tabulas) through the domiciles of several citizens and PRESUME TO SAY MASSES THERE WITH WOMEN, whom you call ‘conhospitae,’ whoo are EMPLOYED (adhibitis mulieribus) IN THE DIVINE SACRIFICE; so that, while you are distributing the eucharist, THEY HOLD THE CHALICES AND PRESUME TO ADMINISTER THE BLOOD OF CHRIST TO THE PEOPLE OF GOD. This novelty and UNHEARD-OF SUPERSTITION saddens us not a little, as such a horrendous sect, which by no means has ever existed in Gaul, SEEMS TO BE EMERGING IN OUR TIMES” (188).
Notice that the “conhospitae” here are holding the instruments of Holy Communion and also administering it to the believers. The letter calls the idea of women doing such things an “unheard-of superstition,” which is their attempt to label women serving the eucharist as an unholy act. And then, they go on to state that this act “by no means has ever existed in Gaul,” which implies that the idea of women serving and administering the eucharist is against tradition. Because it goes against the status quo, it is seen as something wicked.
The last Episcopal letter is from Atto, the Bishop of Vercelli, to Ambrose the Priest. According to Madigan and Osiek,
“Atto was an accomplished canon lawyer and bishop of Vercelli, a town in the Piedmont, in the early tenth century. Among his writings are a commentary on the epistles of Paul, collections of various canons, and several letters; the following is taken from his Letter 8, to an otherwise unknown priest named Ambrose, who had apparently written to him to inquire about the meaning of the terms ‘presbytera’ and ‘diacona’ in the ancient canons. Atto replies that the terms could refer to women who had married priests and deacons before their ordination. But he also says (and then the quote follows):
“Because your prudence has moved you to inquire how we should understand ‘female priest’ (presbyteram) or ‘female deacon’ (diaconam) in the canons: it seems to me that IN THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH, according to the word of the Lord, ‘the harvest was great and laborers few’; RELIGIOUS WOMEN (religiosae mulieres) USED ALSO TO BE ORDAINED AS CARETAKERS (cultrices ordinabantur) IN THE HOLY CHURCH, as Blessed Paul shows in the “Letter” to the Romans, when he says, ‘I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church at Cenchrea.’ Here it is understood that not only men BUT ALSO WOMEN PRESIDED OVER THE CHURCHES (sed etiam feminae praeerat ecclesiis) BECAUSE OF THEIR GREAT USEFULNESS. For women, long accustomed to the rites of the pagans and instructed also in philosophical teachings, were, for these reasons, converted more easily and taught more liberally in the worship of religion. This the eleventh canon of the Council of Laodicea prohibits when it says it is not fitting for THOSE WOMEN WHO ARE CALLED FEMALE PRESBYTERS (presbyterae) OR PRESIDERS (praesidentes) TO BE ORDAINED IN THE CHURCHES. We believe female deacons truly to have been ministers of such things. FOR WE SAY THAT A MINISTER IS A DEACON (DIACONUM), FROM WHICH WE PERCEIVE FEMALE DEACON (diaconam) TO HAVE BEEN DERIVED. Finally, we read in the fifteenth canon of the Council of Chalcedon that a FEMALE DEACON is not to be ORDAINED BEFORE HER FORTIETH YEAR—AND THIS WAS THE HIGHEST GRAVITY. WE BELIEVE WOMEN WERE JOINED TO THE OFFICE OF BAPTIZING so that the bodies of other women might be handled by them without any deeply felt sense of shame…JUST AS THOSE WHO WERE CALLED FEMALE PRESBYTERS (presbyterae) ASSUMED THE OFFICE OF PREACHING, LEADING, AND TEACHING, so female deacons had taken up the office of ministry and of baptizing, a custom that NO LONGER IS EXPEDIENT” (192).
I wanna say to the readership, KEEP THIS LETTER QUOTE HANDY! You will need this one as well.
Now, let’s look at the details of the above quote. Atto (Bishop of Vercelli) writes Ambrose the priest, and tells him that in the “primitive” (early) church, women were ordained. Then, he quotes Romans 16:1-2, using the example of Phoebe and then mentions that “Here it is understood that not only men BUT ALSO WOMEN PRESIDED OVER THE CHURCHES (sed etiam feminae praeerat ecclesiis) BECAUSE OF THEIR GREAT USEFULNESS.” So Phoebe, to Atto, was a “female presider” over the church at Cenchrea. “The eleventh canon of the Council of Laodicea” prohibits women serving in such places of ordained leadership. And the fact that a church council had to issue a canon AGAINST this practice proves that such a practice existed in the early church. Finally, in his discussion of female presbyters, Atto states that “those who were called female presbyters assumed the office of preaching, leading, and teaching…”
And the female presbyters bring to mind the passage of 1 Timothy 5. I’ve covered 1 Timothy 5 here at the site regarding biblical eldership (read under the section labeled “biblical eldership”). However, until this quote, my views regarding 1 Timothy 5 were just pure speculation. But now, I’ve got proof…
The word regarding “older women” in 1 Tim. 5:2 is “presbuteras.” This word is very similar to “presbuterae.” Now someone may say, “Well, how do we know that these “older women” mentioned are official elders in the church? They could just be “older women,” women who are advanced in years.” That is very true: they very well could just be women who are old in age. However, this view, as impressive as it may be, doesn’t do justice to a little something we call CONTEXT!!
While chapter 5 may seem to start with just discussion of the elderly, it ends up being about the office of elder. Verse 17 states, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” In this verse, Paul is telling Timothy that the elders that labor in the word and teaching are to be compensated (including financially) for their labor in God’s service. In verse 19, Timothy is told not to receive an accusation against an elder “except from two or three witnesses.” In verse 20, Timothy is told to “rebuke before all” those elders who are deliberately sinning in the church. In addition, we read that “widows” can be enrolled on the church list (v. 9), and these widows have certain qualifications to meet for list enrollment. As we can see, the context of chapter 5 is about church leadership and structure. Therefore, the “older men and women” of 1 Timothy 5 are not just people advanced in age; instead, they are the “eldership” of the church. This would make sense with the eldership being mentioned just a few verses prior to chapter 5 (4:14), the eldership that had laid their hands on Timothy.
1 Timothy 5 proves to us that women were part of the ordained leadership as well—and this Bishop of Vercelli, Atto, tells us that women were teaching, preaching, and leading (which matches 1 Timothy 5).
I have now covered the Episcopal letters. The next post will cover tomb inscriptions of women presbyters in the West. Keep reading...