For more than five centuries ordained women with the power of bishops ruled large areas of Britain and the Continent. PETER NOLAN meets JOAN MORRIS, whose latest book traces their history and gradual decline of power.
Miss Joan Morris has personally presented her hook to the Pope and to members of the Vatican commission which is studying women's role in the Church.
Her book, "Against Nature and God", the result of over five years' research throughout Europe, was published recently by Mowbrays. Fluent in Italian, French and German, as well as Latin, Miss Morris sifted through the archives of monasteries and convents to authenticate the picture of a flourishing medieval Church where women played a much greater role than they do today. Abbesses were ordained by bishops and crowned with a mitre, often clothed in alb and stole with epsicopal insignia, including a crozier, ring and pectoral cross. They were often called sacerdos, meaning priest, and heard the confessions of members of their community. Exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishop, a position confirmed by innumerable Papal Bulls, they were answerable only to Rome. They appointed the clergy within areas they controlled, often very extensive indeed, and received and administered the tithes due to the Church, just as a bishop did.
The Canoncsses of Clerkenwell, London, for instance, had property spread over II counties and 64 parish territories within the City.
Whenever they were granted a church with parochial rights, the deed was witnessed by a bishop, showing they were in favour of the system. Miss Morris found the Canonesses preserved their exemption and rights until Henry VIII.
The loss of many documents and prejudiced recording of facts made by people hostile to religious orders at the time of the confiscation of the monasteries has made research difficult.
Miss Morris writes that ex-, cavations have shown that St' Hilda's community of both monks and women, which flourished at Whitby, Yorkshire, around AD 800, was very large indeed.
St Hilda certainly took part in a council of the church held there to decide whether to change from the Celtic to the new Roman liturgy. At another church council in 694, the Council of Beccanceld, five abbesses from foundations in Thanet, Folkestone, Lyming and Sheppey signed decrees immediately after the archbishops and before all the other clergy present, underlining the importance of their position.
The Mozarbic ordination service for abbesses, described by Miss Morris, states explicitly that there was no discrimination in sex before God and that men and women arc equally called to help one another in the spiritual struggle.
The Liber Ordinum states: "Omnipotens Domine Deus, apud quem non est discretio sexuum, nec ulla sanctarum disparilitas animarum, qui ita viro ad spiritalia certamina corrobas." This liturgy was used from the fifth to the I Ith century.
The Rule of St Columban, adopted in many places throughout Europe, required confession to be heard three times a day and the Rule of St Donatus exhorted nuns to confess every day. Miss Morris shows such confessions, heard by the abbess, were meant to he sacramental. Up to the 13th century deacons were allowed to hear confession and there is no doubt that abbesses ordained deacons.
Women were ordained to an administrative position within the Church from the earliest times and sonic received the title Episcopa, as well as sacerdota maxima. But Miss Morris said: "It cannot he concluded, although they were called'sacerdos, that they were consecrated for the celebration of the Eucharist, at least not until past 50 or 60 years of age."
The taboo against women offering the Eucharist dates from the widespread preChristian idea that menstruation made women impure. It is recorded in the Hebrew Code in Leviticus and Miss Morris argues that "this .factor, more than any other, has been the cause of the ostracizing of womenkind—impeding them from participating in social, political and religious meetings."
The right of women to rule over men was not really questioned until the Renaissance, when there was a return to Greco-Roman culture, in which woman had an inferior status. Bishops were also eager to take control of vast territories held by several women's orders. The last session of the Council of Trent in 1563, which discussed the reformation of religious orders, was rushed through, says Miss Morris, because Pope Pius IV was ill and wanted to finish the council quickly. The decrees of this council undermined the position of women religious, although Miss Morris said they were rushed through without proper discussion or unanimity of opinion.
The outcome of the council was further confused by the Pope's decision to abandon the publication of the acts of the council, because he feared controversy between theolgians.
AbbesSes based their argument for continued independence as arising from a tradition from "time immemorial." But as soon as the original Christian teaching of sexual equality was ignored in favour of the Greek cultural idea that women were inferior, Miss Morris believes an international "cover-up" operation was begun to wipe out all trace of the high positions women held in the early and medieval Church. Some male chauvinist pig, active in the late Renaissance, carefully removed the feminine gender from a mozaic inscribed "Theodora Episcopa" in a fifthcentury Roman church. A group of women depicted in a catacomb in Rome concelebrating the Eucharist has also been tampered with, the head of the chief celebrant, dressed as a woman, sandpapered down to make it appear a man. Other documents have been similarly interpolated or reinterpreted. Miss Morris's book makes fascinating reading and sheds much light on the tremendously important part women played in the early Church, with one chapter surprisingly devoted to
a defence of St Paul, long labelled as a woman-hater. Its 150 pages first began as a fourvolume work, however, and while a mine of little-known facts, their brief presentation suffers from the contraction of the original.
Miss Morris's book was first published in the United States and she has just returned from a mammoth lecture tour of universities and seminaries there.
One seminary, St Mary's, Cleveland, runs a course for its students on the role of women and her book has been included in the syllabus. She said her book, under its American title "The Lady was a Bishop" was generally well-received. . "My book asserts that Christianity is pro-feminist," she said. She saw her work as supporting the Church, showing the position women held before the ideas of Greek culture permeated it, reducing the status of women.
"The Holy Father and the Curia are still sustaining the position that women cannot hold positions of authority," she said.
She commented on the Vatican commission on the role of women, which is meeting again this month, as "being allowed to talk, but nothing happens." But she admitted there had been an improvement in the position of women in the Church over the last five years. Miss Morris is herself :a member of the executive com mittee of St Joan's Alliance, the spearhead of Catholic "Women's Lib," which favours the ordination of women priests.
The thesis of her book — that Christianity from the earliest times gave women a place vir tually equal to that of men as religious leaders and teachers and that this position was gradually lost through nonChristian cultural influences is convincingly presented.
Before any man rushes to put "the weaker sex" in their place again, he will have to read it to decide where that place really is.
Against Nature and God, by Joan Morris (Mowbrays, £2.50).