Page 8, 13th November 1992

13th November 1992
Page 8
Page 8, 13th November 1992 — A hidden tradition of women priests or misleading evidence?

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A hidden tradition of women priests or misleading evidence?

BROADCAST NEWS by Joanna Moorhead

WOMEN in the priesthood was certainly the issue of the week, but how new an issue is it? Sunday's Everyman (Hidden Tradition, BBC1 ). examined evidence that women were priests in the early Christian Church, before a misogynistic and paranoid male hierarchy managed to flush them out and cover up their existence for posterity.

Interestingly, although it is in the Church of England that the issue has been so hotly debated of late, it was to Catholics (largely) that the programme turned in its quest for evidence and in its fairminded search for alternative explanations.

True, there was an Anglican cleric denouncing the possibility of early women priests, and a Methodist minister speaking up for them but featuring most prominently in the film were Catholic feminist Mary Ann Rossi, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Fiorenza, Catholic academic Giorgio Otranto, Fabrizio Bisconti of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology. and Mgr Michael Sharkey of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education.

Although there has as yet been no serious movement within the Catholic Church to press for women priests, Catholic feminists are clearly preparing the ammunition for one, and orthodox thinkers within the Church are certainly keyed up for the attack.

And it is, on both sides, understandable that they should take the issue of women priests in the early Church so seriously. Whether the flowing female-like figures depicted on the catacomb walls really are women celebrating the Eucharist; whether Leta, laid to rest in an Italian tomb, was a presbyter (priest) as the inscription suggests: if these women, and others whom archaeologists have unearthed, actually were priests in the mainstream early Christian Church, which was so much closer in time and spirit to Christ's message, then the accepted wisdom that women cannot represent him in the celebration of the Mass clearly requires a re-think.

But the evidence is, at best, sketchy. The figures in the catacombs could be feminine men with fatter-than-average thighs; or they could be women doing something other than celebrating Mass. Leta may have been merely a priest's wife.

The overriding message of Angela Tilby's film was that the evidence was too close to call, and that we will simply never know the true position of women in the early Church.

A fair statement, but I wonder whether we might have got a bit closer to weighing up the facts on both sides if we had been given more information about the hinted at but little-discussed claims that hierarchies, particularly those of medieval times, were not averse to a bit of doctoring here and there where history was a touch embarrassing or uncomfortable? But then again, perhaps that's another programme.

THE WEEK AHEAD Sunday, 8.05am, BBC2: Telling Tales, the first in a new series of traditional stories with a modern message. The first is the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector set at a car boot sale.

Monday, 10.02am, Radio 4 (long wave only): Daily Service comes from the chapel of Trinity College, Dublin, which this year celebrates the 400th anniversary of its foundation; 10.20pm, BBC1: In Film 92, Barry Norman reviews Sister Act, the surprise hit in America about to open here in which Whoopi Goldberg stars as a night-club singer who reforms a convent after she takes refuge there.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Radio 4, 7.45am: Vicky Cosstick of the Southwark diocese shares her Thought for the Day.

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