book review

The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination
(Oxford University Press 2008)

By: Gary Macy
Review By: Dorothy Valerian

The women’s ordination issue is all too often framed as a debate — the church has always vs. the church has never ordained women — with ponderous scholarship, rhetoric and vitriol to support each position. It is refreshing to read Gary Macy’s well-documented and researched book that offers, without argument, the historical background on how it happened that women came to be considered as incapable of ordination. Macy has a point of view but he is not heavy handed. His intention here is more to inform than to persuade.

Historian and theologian Gary Macy earned his doctoral degree from Cambridge University and has spent most of his professional career teaching, researching and writing about Medieval historical theology, history of the Eucharist and women’s ordination. He was recently appointed John Nobili, S.J. Professor of Theology in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. The engaging writing style of this theology professor makes scholarship accessible to the nonacademic. He provides nearly 100 pages of notes and bibliography but much can be readily gleaned from the body of the work. His study is a timely resource for those who want to clarify their position and, perhaps, strengthen their ability to advocate effectively for women’s ordination.

Macy affirms with historical certainty that for the first 1200 years of Western Christianity women were ordained into roles in the church. They are described as leading liturgies, distributing communion, hearing confessions and serving at the altar. He uncovers references to the ordination of women in papal, episcopal and theological documents of the time. Surviving prayers and rites for these ordinations are provided in the book’s appendix. (Unfortunately, they are in Latin, without translation.)

In the early church, Macy explains, ordination was the process by which men and women moved to any new ministry (ordo) in the community for service to that community. It was a fluid concept with women freely participating in several ministries. He discusses four of them to demonstrate the liturgical roles of women in the Middle Ages: episcopa (female bishop), presbytera (female priest), deaconess and abbess. The local church was often an extended family with married clergy and the probability of spouses serving in co-ministering roles. He explores the critical implications of this early understanding of ordination, particularly that the ability to consecrate bread and wine during mass was not exclusive to the priest.

Macy notes that early on the Latin words ordinatio, consecratio and bendictio were used interchangeably and somewhat loosely. (For example, monarchs were “ordained” to the throne.) During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a radical change in the definition of ordination evolved that not only removed women from the ordained ministry but served to eradicate its memory. The church expanded and enhanced its definition to signify a permanent change and elevation of spiritual status, exclusive to the ability to consecrate the Eucharist. Ordination became an appointment for ministry anywhere, not tied to a particular community.

Macy explains how several historical factors shaped a sort of “perfect storm” of misogyny that wiped out women from ordained ministry, among them the Gregorian Reform Movement and its insistence on clerical celibacy; selective reading of Roman law to enforce the notion that women were incapable of leadership roles in the church; and the biology and politics of Aristotle that promoted the natural inferiority of females, “mistakes of conception.” By the end of the thirteen century, the canon lawyers and theologians concluded that women could not and never have been ordained.

Today, the canon lawyers and theologians continue to argue about the ordination of women. Those who support it based on historical evidence of women’s roles in the first millennium of Christianity face the argument that the earlier understanding of ordination was defective because it does not meet the important criteria: the ability to consecrate bread and wine at Mass. Macy concludes that the real theological debate should center “not so much on whether women can or should be ordained [he has given us plenty of affirming historical evidence], but rather what definition of ordination should be used to make that decision.” Macy leads us to consider the question as a theological one. What is our understanding of ordination? What kind of Christianity embraces women as priests? If we are intrigued by the questions and willing to enter the discussion, Macy states he will consider this project a success. Bravo!

Focus on FutureChurch

Spring 2008


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