Women Priests and Empty Gestures

Icon of Christ Pantocrator at St Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

Icon of Christ Pantocrator at St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

I’ve just read this little piece in the Guardian, speculating on the (‘unconfirmed’ – you don’t say?) rumour that Pope Francis might be considering appointing a female Cardinal. And it got me thinking about women in the medieval Church.

It might seem that wondering why the medieval Catholic Church didn’t have women priests is a bit like wondering why Fathers For Justice don’t have a reputation as delightfully balanced beings. But I wanted to explore one aspect of the theological arguments against women priests, because it’s still one of the objections made in some Christian Churches today.

When I first met my husband, who’s Russian Orthodox, I spent some time bringing myself up to speed on a form of Christianity I hadn’t really encountered before. And one of the opinions I came across again and again from kind people who took the time to explain their beliefs to me was this: a woman could never become a priest, because a priest is the image of Christ, and a woman cannot be the image of a man.

You can imagine that this was a pretty popular argument with medieval clerics, who tended to see women’s bodies as repulsive and defective. If we just look at one medieval authority – I’ll use Bonaventure, because I’m reading him at the moment – we find lots of arguments against women priests. Women must cover their heads, and so cannot wear the tonsure. Women are forbidden in the Bible to teach men. Popes have forbidden women to touch sacred objects. Most strikingly, for me:

“man by reason of his sex is “imago Dei”, the image of God.”

Despite all of this, the very fact that Bonaventure and other theologians spent time explaining why women should not be priests ought to demonstrate to us that this was a live debate. There’s an image in a twelfth-century Psalter showing Mary Magdalene telling the disciples of Christ’s return from death, and clearly showing her in a position of authority to communicate this important truth. This image – and the position of Mary within the early Church – forms one of the arguments for women priests that’s still often made.

St Albans Psalter

St Albans Psalter

But it’s really later on that the ideas about women, the priesthood, and the icon of God start to be groundbreaking.

I’ve said before that the Lollard heresy that grew up in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England involved people who challenged many ideas about the priesthood, and some of whom did believe women had as much right as men to be priests.  Lollardy wasn’t a wildly enthusiastic proto-feminist movement, by the way. As usual for medieval misogynists, Lollard dislike of women centred on the female body and its reproductive – or in this case – reproductive and then unnaturally destructive – activities.

One of the central statements made by a group of Lollards included this lovely description of women who vow chastity but become pregnant, and who are:

“… fickle and imperfect in kind … [engaging in] the most horrible sin possible to mankind. … slaying of children ere they be christened, abortion, and destroying by medicine”

Such women:

“passeth [ie., surpass; are more than worthy] in worthiness to be punished in pains of hell.”


However, Lollardy did open up a way for women to express their views, and these sometimes included justifications of female priesthood. In her trial for heresy, Lollard woman Hawisa Mone declared:

“every man and every woman who lives a good life out of sin is as good a priest, and has as much power of God in all things, as any ordained priest, be he pope or bishop.”

It was quite common for the Lollards to disapprove of virtually all religious imagery:

“images are but idols and made by working of man‘s hand, but worship and reverence should be done to the image of God, which only is man.”

This argument paves the way for a brilliantly imaginative riposte to the theological objection to women priests, as not being icons of God. During her trial for heresy in 1430, Norfolk woman Margery Baxter spread her arms wide and declared:

“this is the true cross of Christ, and you ought and can see and adore that cross every day here in your own house”

I find it really depressing that, even in current studies of women Lollards, Margery is a bit of joke, and this gesture is often seen as a bit, well, hysterical. Her wiki page calls her ‘outspoken and unorthodox’ (oh, those mouthy women!). It’s true Margery wasn’t as well informed as some of her contemporaries about the theology behind the beliefs she expressed. But her action is powerful. We could perfectly well interpret it as a response to the entirely orthodox strand of medieval doctrine that explained exactly how priests should gesture and move during the Mass, or how people should position their bodies in prayer, for medieval Catholicism was deeply physical.

By making her body into the shape of the cross, Margery became an icon, a physical embodiment of the symbol of Christianity. By transforming her female body into the Cross, she was making a radical statement – a statement still too radical for the Catholic Church in 2013.

I am getting properly fed up with the ‘zany woman’ trope in academia. It occurs to me that when academics describe some woman in history (Margaret Cavendish, say, or Margery Kempe) as a bit mad, a bit ‘unorthodox’, a bit ‘outspoken’, what they’re really saying is: well, for god’s sake, don’t take her seriously … I don’t bother to.

And I’m a little bit narked with that.