Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When Women Ruled the Churches

Ruins of Whitby Abbey
Yesterday I mentioned Matilda, the Abbess of Quedlinburg, and the immense ecclesiastical power she wielded.  It was not unusual in the Middle Ages for women to exercise such authority even though they were technically not in Holy Orders.  In the future, and perhaps in the near future, I do want to look at the issue of women’s ordination from a historical perspective.  It is not as black and white as some would have you believe—either as to the point that the Church has never had women priests and bishops, or the position that some have taken that in the early centuries the Church did in fact ordain women as priests and bishops.  But we will save that conversation for a series of entries of its own.  Let me for now just bring up the story of Saint Bridget of Kildare as her situation is pertinent to today’s topic of jurisdiction.  There is an ancient tradition that when Saint Mel was bestowing the canonical blessing upon Bridget as Abbess, he actually (but mistakenly) ordained her a bishop.  The rites of episcopal ordination and abbatial blessing are very similar.  Of course the key word here is mistakenly.  What is significant for us today is not whether or not she was a bishop, but what her powers as an abbess actually were.
The Irish Church before the twelfth century was very different than the other Churches of Christendom.  Irish society was very different.  It was clan based.  There were no cities or towns.  The various “kingdoms” of Ireland were ruled by clan chieftains or petty kings who were more or less subject (the Irish have never been good on authority) to the four regional kings of Ulster, Connaught, Munster, and Leinster who, in turn, owed allegiance to the High King.  The religious authority in each region was exercised not by a bishop, but by the abbot of the clan monastery—the monastery to which the monks of that clan belonged.  The Abbot was not necessarily a priest; sometimes the king himself was the abbot, or the abbot was also king.  Several of the monks would be priests and one would be a bishop but he had no authority (that being exercised by the abbot) and his role was to perform the various ministries reserved to bishops, notably ordination.  In the case of Bridget of Kildare, she was the abbot of her clan monastery and exercised the jurisdiction over her clan which was centered in Osraige (Ossory) which includes much of modern County Kilkenny and parts of  County Laois.  Bridget’s power, probably due to her family connections, was immense and her influence even more widespread.   Though she lacked ordination (despite the legend about Saint Mel there is no evidence that the mistaken ceremonial was taken to actually confer the episcopacy and its ministries upon her) she was the most important prelate in Ireland.
A similar Abbess of influence was Hilda of Whitby.  Converted in her youth along with the rest of the court of her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria, Hilda was consecrated as a nun by Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne.   Aidan named her abbess of Hartelpoole and she then went on in 657 to establish a new monastery at Whitby.  B0th monasteries followed the Celtic monastic pattern of double communities of monks and nuns who lived in separate enclosures but worshipped together in a common church.  Hilda’s authority as abbess extended over the monks as well as the nuns.  In 664 Hilda hosted a synod at her abbey in which the English Church agreed to give up many of its Celtic traditions and conform to Roman practices, healing the division between the older English Church in the North of England and the newer Roman-planted Catholic Church spreading out of Canterbury.  This will be an interesting topic to return to when we talk about the Ecclesia Anglicana and non-Roman Catholicism and the question: Was there an Anglican Church  before England was ever Catholic?  Did King Henry VIII start a new Church or did he revive the ancient Church of England?  Sister never knew just how complicated the history of the Church is and Father was sworn to secrecy.  Fun, fun, fun.  But for today just note that women were not always without power in the Church. 

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