Those who read the New Testament carefully, will notice that some texts are more women-friendly than others. For instance, the apostle Paul mentions female prophets, travels together with a deaconess, greets a woman overseer and even mentions a female apostle (yes, really). It's also obvious that these office holders aren't celibate. From this, I draw the conclusion that primitive Christianity, while certainly not "feminist" in the modern sense, nevertheless had more gender equality than the later Church. I also draw the conclusion that the much maligned Paul was actually one of the proponents of this gender equality.
But when did the Church became patriarchal? Most would argue that it happened around AD 100, with the emergence of a monarchic episcopate. Only men could become bishops. And, of course, all popes were men!
The author of this book, Gary Macy, gives a more surprising answer. In his opinion, women weren't excluded from church offices until the High Middle Ages. The decisive change took place during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, with the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) as the end point of the transformation. If Macy is right, the "dark" Early Middle Ages were actually a better period for women than the High Middle Ages, a period that has been rehabilitated by many historians as a forerunner to the Renaissance. Or, at least, it was a better period for those women influential or fortunate enough to become part of the structures of the Church.
Macy admits that the question of "women's ordination" is a tricky one. The definition of what constitutes a valid ordination has changed several times. So have ideas about who is to decide whether an ordination is valid or not. By modern Catholic definitions, for instance, women were (probably) never validly ordained in the past. But how old is this definition? Macy argues that it emerged during the High Middle Ages, and in some forms is no older than the 17th century. Also, the Church was more decentralized during the Early Middle Ages than during the High Middle Ages. Early medieval popes did disapprove of some women ordinations, but how much authority did these popes really have? An even trickier issue is the power and influence of the various orders. Somebody might argue that the ordained women were more lower-ranking than male priests and bishops.
Macy draws the conclusion that the definition of "ordination" was much broader during the Early Middle Ages than later. "Ordination" simply meant appointment to a certain office, neither more nor less. In this sense, even kings and queens were considered "ordained". So were minor officers, such as doorkeeper and acolyte. Also, the ordination was often made by the community the office holders was supposed to serve, or by a temporal ruler. Of course, bishops could also ordain. The number of orders was quite large, and most of them were open to both men and women. Indeed, in some regions, *all* of the orders were open to women, at least occasionally. The rituals for ordaining women were often similar to those ordaining men. (The cover of the book shows the Virgin Mary dressed in something akin to priestly robes! Apparently, those were the vestments of a deaconess.)
Historians have managed to find five references to female bishops. The most famous was a woman called "Theodora episcopa", who turns out to have been the mother of a 9th century pope. Saint Brigid of Ireland was even described as having undergone a successful episcopal ordination, but with a curious twist. Brigid's hagiographer claimed that the priest who ordained her didn't know what he was doing, since he was "intoxicated by the grace of God"! There are also numerous references to female priests, known as presbyterae, who served at the altar together with the male priests, even to the point of distributing the Eucharist. These presbyterae were legally ordained by bishops, but several popes voiced strong disapproval of the practice. Abbesses were also ordained, and often had as much power in their own jurisdictions as had bishops. Abbesses heard confessions from their nuns, prescribed penances and could decree excommunications.
My personal favourite in Macy's book is the Irish abbess St. Bertila, who heard confession from the entire area surrounding her convent, presumably from laborers working the convent's lands. This included men! Thus, we have a Catholic nun hearing the confessions of male sinners. Dark ages, indeed. Once, St. Bertila heard the confessions of a male murderer, who was apparently very recalcitrant, since he refused to do penance. (He relented eventually, as well he might. People did believe in Hell back then.)
There seems to have been one function that was never performed by females, namely the actual consecration of the bread and wine during the Eucharist. However, even here Macy has found tantalizing examples of possible exceptions, once again from convents, where masses and communions may have been occasionally held without male priests present. But even when women didn't consecrate the host and the wine, they were allowed to do almost everything else. Thus, there are examples of women handing over the bread and the wine to the consecrating priest, handling the consecrated elements afterwards and distributing them to the congregation, and (admittedly in a saintly vision) breaking the bread into the chalice, but without consecrating it.
In later centuries, this would all become strictly prohibited. With obvious sympathies for the women, Macy describes how the definition of ordination changed during the High Middle Ages, how this was connected to a deepening chasm between clergy and laity, and the frankly misogynist propaganda accompanying the changes. Another favourite of mine is Peter Abelard, one of the few high medieval churchmen who defended women's ordinations, perhaps under the influence of Heloise (who Macy constantly refers to as Abelard's "wife").
What I lack in this book is an even broader historical outlook. For instance, it's obvious that the influence of women in the early medieval Church was connected to the decentralized character of the Church during this period, which in turn was connected to feudalism and the demands of the Germanic rulers to exclusive jurisdiction over the Church in their respective territories. Also, the early medieval popes were often dependent on the Frankish rulers, and de facto subordinate to them. After all, it was the Franks who had saved the Roman papacy from another Germanic intruder, the Lombards, making the papal states subservient to the Frankish kingdoms. This raises the interesting question whether the stronger role of women was a new phenomenon after the fall of the Roman Empire, or whether women had a strong role already during that empire? The writings of people like Augustine would suggest that they didn't. And what about the role of women in the Eastern church, where a centralized empire still existed? Macy points out that there were deaconesses in the Eastern church, but says little else about this.
But this is a minor point. Overall, I find the book to be well-written, interesting, and honest. Together with this book, you might want to buy "Ordained women in the early Church. A documentary history". It contains translations of many of the primary sources mentioned in Macy's book.
Women, it seems, were the lights of the Dark Ages.