|Women and Christianity:
representations and practices
IV The Distribution of Knowledge and Power
In the Galatians (3; 27-28), Paul writes the following which is directly
relevant to our discussion:
By writing this, Paul very certainly intended to emphasis what distinguished Christianity from Roman religion and Judaism. The Roman religion is a State religion in which only citizens were allowed to take part; Judaism is a “tribal” or ethnic religion: the Jewish people is the “chosen people” and Yahve is often in biblical scriptures referred to as the “God of Israel”. By writing that baptism erases all the ethnic and social distinctions, Paul defines christianity as a universal and egalitarian religion.
As noted in the text, this egalitarian principle applies to both men and women. However, it is very likely that on this issue Paul was especially referring to the Jews. Indeed, in Judaism the difference between men and women is very acute. According to the Biblical texts (see Genesis: 17; 1-12), only men are given “the sign of alliance” with God: the circumcision which takes place 8 days after birth. Traditionally, only boys were allowed to learn Hebrew, the language of the sacred texts (on female access to these texts, see C. Fabre-Vassas, 1995). When aged 13, the boys perform the ritual of the bar mitsvah, which allows them to publicly read the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The Torah is hand written and pressed in rolls which are kept in the Holy Arch at the synagogue. These texts are the most sacred objects in the Jewish community. Finally, only men (until recently, see R. Azria, 1996) were allowed to become Rabbis, Doctors of the Law; this position being reserved to those who knew the Holy texts and the relating glosses.
Islam retained, in practice if not in law, the basic discrimination of access to the Koran, the only sacred book in the Muslim community, and in its access to the position of spiritual leader granted to those who know the Koran and its glosses. In theory, a woman can become Imam; in practice however, this position is only granted to men.
Christianity, however, makes a partial rupture on this issue. Men and women are equally allowed to read the religious texts. Moreover, it is accepted that in primitive Christianity, women would do some of the sacraments (notably Christening) and prophesy (M. Alexandre, 1991: 453-461). As early as the 1st century, however, Paul vehemently asserted that women could not preach:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (I Corinthians, 14; 34-35)
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, it they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” (I Timothy 2, 12-15)
Christian tradition has retained its lesson: predication is reserved
for men. Women were only granted the right and duty to pass on the Faith
to their children, which, as in the civil society, confines them to the
personal sphere (see J. Delumeau, 1992). Until the middle of the century,
they were also excluded from pastorate. An American woman, member of the
Church of Congregationalist, became pastor in 1852, the French Reformed
Church, however, waited until 1965 to finally grant this role to women.
The Church of England only granted women access to priesthood in 1992 (see
J. Mercier, 1994 and G. Davie, 1996, chapter 9). Finally, the Catholic
and Orthodox Churches still deny women access to these positions. How can
we explain this diversity of positions of the different faiths on this
The acceptance of female ordination in the Anglican Church raised the issue and rekindled the debate within the Catholic Church. This led the Papacy to reiterate in 1994 in a “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” letter its position on the issue - a categorical refusal without appeal to opening the priesthood to women - and its arguments. The latter rest mainly on the extract of the Gospel which describes the last supper Christ is said to have shared with the Apostles before being arrested and sentenced to death: “it's during the Last Supper that Christ is said to have institutionalised priesthood by these words: "you will do this in the memory of me“ (L. Voye, 1996:13).
The supporters of female ordination, including feminist theologians, replied to this argument by reminding us that, among other things, women had played a primary role in the life of Christ and especially in his Passion:
“Whereas all the male disciples fled, betrayed or disowned Jesus, women were there at the feet of the cross, were there for Jesus” death. It’s them who are said to have gone along to the entombment, and who, returning to the spot the day after, are meant to have found an empty tomb. It was then down to women to have been the first to “receive the announcement of the Resurrection and to hear being asked to spread the News to Peter’s disciples”, as written by Marc the Evangelist (16, 6-7)” (L. Voye,op. cit. 13).
Thus Christ is said to have given women the important task of spreading the message of the Resurrection, “a role far from minor and which could justify allowing greater responsibility for women due to the “Announcement of the Good News”. (L. Voye, ibid, and see also F. Lautman, 1998 and E. Schussler-Fiorenza, 1983).
These evangelist texts can also legitimise female access to priesthood. One of the reason why the Catholic Church continues to deny them this right might be that it shares the strongly embedded and common idea that God is a male entity. God is the Father and had a Son, not a daughter. Consequently, how can one accept a woman as a priest when in orthodox theology priests are “Icons of God”? It is also widely considered in most societies that women, because of menstruation, are considered unclean and are therefore should be kept away from things sacred. This idea of women is clearly expressed in Leviticus and has been officially embraced by Islam, while Christianity, in law at least, has rejected it. On the other hand the idea of women being unclean and causing uncleanness has apparently not disappeared from Christian culture.
The Leviticus is a normative text, which, among other things, lays out
the interdicts (especially those dealing with food) which Jews must respect
in order to avoid becoming impure and the rituals to conduct when one is
in a state of impurity. Along with the forbidden food and contact with
the dead, the text points out three origins of uncleanness: the leper,
the natural sexual bodily fluids (natural or a consequence of a venereal
infection), and female bloody flux (menstruation and blood resulting from
childbirth). The following extract deals with this issue:
It is interesting to note here that the time where a woman is deemed unclean after child birth is twice as long when she gives birth to a girl. This would suggest that women are unclean even when they don’t bleed.
“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood,
she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be
unclean until the even. And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation
shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.
And whosoever toucheth any thing that she sat upon shall wash his clothes,
and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. And if any
man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean
seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean.”
These extracts are used to justify the exclusion of women from the rabbate (see R. Azria, 1996). Officially, as aforementioned, Christianity rejects these assertions, although it is not as clear cut as it would seem. Until recently, for example, women had to wait forty days after childbirth to be allowed in church. In order to be allowed back into church they had to follow the ritual called “the churching”. This custom obviously Leviticus’ prescriptions.
No similar interdict, however, exists for menstruating women. Nevertheless, it seems that people - just like the clergy - have kept the belief that women are unclean. Some medieval legends tell the story of the basalm-tree (small trees which sap is used in the making of the Holy chrism, a consecrated oil used in Christening and the confirmation and the ordination of the priests) which dies when in contact with menstruation blood or with a Jew - it was said that Jews bleed like women (J.-P. Albert, 1990, chapter V). In the 13th century, the Dominicain Jacques de Voragine explained in his Mariale Aureum, that the Holy Spirit “purified” the blood of the Virgin when Christ was incarnated. This becomes clearer when it is noted that men in the Middle Ages shared the Aristotelic theory of conception. In this theory, the foetus is the result of coagulating menstruation blood (periods stop, as can be observed, during pregnancy) activated by sperm. Christ could not have been incarnated in this unclean substance, but rather in “purified” blood. In the 17th century, a Spanish mystic, Marie D”Agreda, suggested that the Virgin Mary never menstruated having thus been exempted from the consequences of the original sin (M. Albert-Llorca, 1995).
It is therefore more understandable, considering this belief in the uncleanness of women, that priesthood has been reserved for men, in both Latin and Orthodox Christianity. The priest is not only the recognised interpreter of the religious Laws, a spiritual guide. Unlike a Rabbi, an Imam, or a Pastor, the ordination consecrates a priest who has in turn the power to consecrate. This means, among other things, that he is the one who turns bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood during the mass, a repetition of his Passion. Sanctified bread and wine are the most holy objects for the Christian community. It is therefore out of the question that an unclean being should have the right to perform this transubstantiation, not even, as stated in the liturgical texts, the right to touch objects (chalice and Altar linen) which have been in contact with the Christ’s body and blood. Women are forbade (this also includes nuns) to wash objects or linen used during a mass.
The exclusion of women from priesthood is thus rooted in the feeling of the antinomy between blood and things sacred. At least this supposed uncleanness has justified their exclusion from the most important of powers: the right to “make” sacred. A society dominated by men in both the economic and political field, could not afford to grant them this right.
The fact that the protestant Churches waited until the 20th century
to grant women priesthood when nothing in protestant theology prevented
women from acceding to the ministry shows the strength of these representations.
Unlike Catholic and Orthodox priesthood, the pastorate is not a ministry. Indeed, a pastor is not consecrated. He is a layman (which is why he is allowed to marry) who has a theological knowledge and who therefore can preach the Word.
This idea is closely linked to the first principle of Protestantism: Sola Scriptura, the Written Word alone. This means that the Bible is the only authority and that therefore the Church can no longer claim to be the “supreme principle of religious legitimacy”. In contrast to Roman and Orthodox Christianity, in Protestantism every member of the congregation is allowed to read and interpret the Bible. This principle led Martin Luther to talk about a “universal Christian ministry”:
“we are all priests, he wrote in 1520, all of us Christians (...), as for the priests that we call ministers, they are chosen from among us to do all in our name and their priesthood, is nothing more than a ministry” [that is to say a service] (quoted by J.-P. Willaime, 1997:123)
This concept is more easily understandable if one is aware of the fact that, as Max Weber (1967) emphasized, Protestantism is “demystifying” the religious. For a Catholic, a sacrament has the power to confer divine grace: a priest only has to say to the faithful who came to confess that his sins are forgiven to make it so; the most sinful of sinners only needs to have confession before his death to escape hell. Protestants refuse to grant such power to the sacraments (a power which, undoubtedly has a “mystified” dimension to it) or to the Ministers. They also reject the catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief according to which the priest turns bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood during the mass): “by conducting the Holy Communion, the pastor does not have sacred power to transform the elements, he gathers his congregation around a table of communion (and not an Altar)” (J.-P. Willaime, 1997:122).
The theology of the Sola Scriptura and that of the universal ministry should logically have allowed women into the pastorate. However, women had to wait this century to see this possibility open to them. This is in part due to the fact that protestants, like Catholics, subscribed to the idea of women expressed in the aforementioned texts of Paul: a being necessarily subordinated to men and consequently unable to hold positions of authority. Sociologists Jean-Paul Willaime suggests that the exclusion of women from pastorate could be the result of the “sacral conception...of the Pastoral ministry”, contrary to the desacralisation (or secularisation) of priesthood which the founders of Protestantism wanted to achieve:
“women were first allowed to give sermons and not to perform sacraments (apart from two in Protestantism: christening and the last supper). In our survey of French pastors in 1978-1979, we noted that if many pastors were in favour of laymen performing sermons, they were much less in favour when it came down to presiding over the Last Supper (...). However, preaching requires much more skill than to administer a sacrament which only requires reading the liturgical texts” (1996:35).
To let women administer sacraments is to give them sacred powers. The fact it took so long for Protestants to allow women to administer sacraments, even if women could give sermons, may reflect their belief that, similar to Catholic doctrine, women’s unclean nature disqualified them from performing sacred acts. Martine Millet, pastor of the Reformed Church of Versailles, interprets the text of the national synod of the Reformed Church of France, which allowed Elizabeth Smidt in 1949 to become a pastor in this light. The text stipulated that: “this authorisation can be accorded and remain valid only as long as the individual does not marry”. M. Millet comments on this statement as follow:
“Why impose celibacy on women when it is not custom in the reformed theology to impose celibacy? To forbid marriage is to deny sexuality and motherhood. It is, it seems, to avoid dealing with the deeply rooted taboo of the uncleanness of women” (M. Millet, 1992:349).
To impose celibacy on female preachers is indeed to suggest that sexuality and motherhood soil them. The fact that male preachers are allowed to marry shows that men’s purity however is not questioned and is not affected by sexual intercourse. Thus, the first female preachers had to sacrifice their femininity. Very determined, badly dressed, usually wearing dark colours, they had to constantly repress their female sensibility in order to be respected” (ibid.).
Today female Pastors are no longer under the obligation not to marry - the Norwegian Church has recently even confirmed as a Pastor a female homosexual married to another female. This development is due in part to feminist theologians who have been working ever since the end of the last century on defying the andro-centric vision of Christianity and offering a feminist reading of the Holy Scriptures (see M. Millet, op. cit.: 352-354; f. Lautman, 1998; J. Bauberot, 1991).
We still need to look at the way these women perform their pastorate. Is there a female specificity in their role, and if so, does it change the traditional view of the role of the Pastor? On the issue, J.-P. Willaime offered an exciting hypothesis (1996): the opening of pastorate to women was a “second secularisation” of priesthood. It seems indeed that in their function women insist on the fact that they are a “Minister” and not in a position of authority, which would put them above the other members of the congregation, to demonstrate thus that they do not perform a “sacred power” but a service.
The same issue is raised with regards to female priesthood in the Anglican Church. On this issue, the position of the Anglican Church oscillates between the Protestant and Catholic stance (see. J. Mercier, 1994 and G. Davie, 1996 chapter 9). The deep emotion which resulted from the Church of England’s decision to ordinate women suggests that - and this is indeed the case - it was felt like a profound symbolic transformation. It would be interesting to investigate the way it has been experienced by both the faithful and the female priests.
In order to assess the power of women within Christianity the issue of the ordination of women as priests is very significant, although not sufficient to fully understand the situation. The ecclesiastical institutions are not the only social institution to grant religious power. Thus, in order to correctly assess the role women play in Christianity (and this also goes for Judaism and Islam), we need to investigate their traditional role. Y. Verdier showed the importance granted in rural European societies to the so-called “woman helper”, in charge of bathing the new-born and the dead. In both cases this practice is aimed at cleaning the body of those who are either coming from the next-world or who are preparing themselves for the return journey. This is an essential task in a society which believes in immortality and has a blurred distinction between the purity of the soul and body (1979, Chapter III).
In a totally different field, it was possible to establish that the Marian cult allowed women to have a right on the sacred. It is the case today in Spanish towns which are placed under the patronage of a statue called the Miraculous Virgin. These are considered by the inhabitants as the most holy object in their community and are always dressed in luxurious material - the luxurious signifying holiness of the statue. It is always the women who dress the Virgin up, having made sure that no men - not even the priest – are present. Moreover, the Virgin, for the Spanish, is “The” Virgin only once dressed up and ornamented. The clergy condemned these customs and qualified them as “superstitions”. However, one can wonder if the difficulty of the clergy to accept this, is not due to the fact that by doing so, women arrogate the power (until then, exclusively reserved, in principle, to the priests) to manipulate things sacred. (M. Albert-Llorca, 1995).
We therefore need to nuance the idea that men have total power in the religious field. It is closer to reality to think that the female role in religion is both indispensable and discredited by the religious institutions and patriarchal society in general. It is this value judgement which is translated into opposing magic, superstition or “popular religion” which are all attributed to women, against “true” religion, which is performed by men. However, can one really separate magic and religion, popular religion and scholarly religion? All the studies in the anthropology of religions conducted in the last 10 years question such oppositions.
Finally, the belief according to which women are impure and cause impurity implies that the power of women is acknowledged - although obviously feared. This has contributed to encourage most societies - including Christian societies - to see in women as magicians and witches. In Europe, as already mentioned, women paid heavily for this during the 16th and 17th century. In this perspective, a final issue deserves to be investigated: the question of female holiness. Indeed many female saints have been suspected of being witches.
According to Max Weber, in every religion it is possible to identify three types of power: the power of priests, which is the result of an institution, that of the magicians (which is sometimes difficult to differentiate from that of the priests) and the power of the prophets.
“By prophet, we mean a messenger of purely personal charisms who in the name of his mission proclaim a religious doctrine or a holy commandment....a priest serves a sacred tradition whereas a prophet justifies his authority by invoking a personal revelation or claiming kinship with a charism” (M. Weber, 1995, Volume II:190).
According to J. Maitre (1997) and J.-P. Albert (1997), the role of the mystics in Catholicism is as follows: men or women are in direct contact with the Divine from whom they receive revelations which are then more or less publicized. It is important to note that Catholic mystics are almost all women. This specialisation can be explained, if we agree with M. Weber's work, by their exclusion from priesthood. As they can not be priests, women can only take the role of the prophet, in the sense that German sociologists give to this term. We shall now look at these mystics and the constraints they had to endure in order to be recognized as saints.
Female Saints: Martyred Virgins
Who were the female Saints? The Church has almost never canonized a married woman who at the time of her death was still living with her spouse. Widows, who very often went into convents after their husband’s death, are much more numerous, widowing and monastic life being considered as a guarantee of chastity. However, this group remains limited in comparison to that of virgins which makes up around 75% of the saints and the blest. The class of the virgins, moreover, is an recognised category and as such is classified in the official classification of saints (just like that of the apostles, martyrs, etc....). It is made up exclusively of women, as if the obligation of virginity did not apply to male saints (J.-P. Albert, 1997:20-21). This suggests sexuality soiled only women and not men. This is also suggested by the valorisation of the “whiteness” of the girls as discussed earlier during their First Communion and the celibacy imposed on the first female pastors.
Moreover, recent studies on female saintliness have shown the importance of suffering in the lives of the saints. The “virgin martyrs” of the first centuries are said to have suffered, according to the legend, unbelievable tortures. They are said to have been successively thrashed, skinned, and burnt alive before being finally let to die. The self-inflicted sufferings of female saints in more recent periods are much better documented. These include floggings, the refusal of medical care in the case of illness, and excessive fasts which led historians and psychoanalysts to talk about mental anorexia (see on the subject, C. Bynum, 1987).
Without entering etiologies of psychoanalytic types, it is possible to understand the valorisation of suffering by looking at the Christian concept of woman. As previously mentioned, theologians associate women with the flesh: they are the subject of sexual desire (men being merely the victims); they are more “carnal” than men, being the ones who carry, give birth to and feed children. In order to become a saint, however, one has to free oneself from the impure world of the body and to dedicate oneself to the values of the spirit. Women can reach this only by showing in an extreme way their contempt for the body. They can become saints only by self-inflicting extreme suffering.
The valorisation of pain can also be explained by the idea that a woman
is a passive being, while men perform active functions (in sexuality for
example). In the religious field, this means that women are bound to play
the role of the sacrificial victim: she is, like the Christ whom C. Bynum
(1982) and J. Maitre (1997) showed as feminine, the one who gives herself
to God in order to expiate men’s sins (J.-P. Albert, 1997). Finally, this
position of the victim explains the valorisation of the virginity of the
female saints and the fact that their beauty is always praised. Leviticus
stipulates that animals to be sacrificed have to be “without defects” (1,
3, and 11); Christ, the only sacrificial victim of the new Law, was obviously
so. Just like Christ, female saints must be virgins and beautiful in order
to offer themselves to God.
The Return of Blood
Female saints have bloody stigmata but their wounds (which imitate that
of the Christ) do not bleed continuously. A doctor, J. Lhermitte, determined
that most women (saints or not saints) are stigmatised only between the
age of 15 and 50, during which period women menstruate. Stigmata, like
periods, are also cyclical.
In this perspective, it is interesting to note that the hagiographers point out that often the stigmatic's blood is perfumed and that the Saints no longer have menstruations (C. Bynum, 1987:291-294). Therefore one might conclude that stigmatisation is in fact a “conversion” of menstrual blood, i.e. an impure blood, with its strong and offensive smell, turns into a blood whose scent signals purity.
Female saintliness is thus one of the privileged revelations of female imagery in Christianity. Being the subject of desire and carnal, woman has to negate her femininity in order to achieve saintliness. She has to renounce all that could make her attractive and to refuse maternity.
Thus, women had to pay a very high price indeed to have access to the
prophetic powers. One has to point out, however, that the Church has tried,
to different extent according to the period, to fight or at least control
this power which was obviously seen as a threat (see J. Maitre, 1997:92-93;
109). Some female mystics have been canonised; others have been declared
witches and hunted for this reason.