Women as Leaders

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

There were no ordinations in the first 300 years of the history of the church. Eucharists were validly celebrated by the community leaders.

The Need for Reform

There is a saying the church is always in need of reform, ecclesia semper reformanda.

Perhaps the best-known reforms are the Council of Trent in the 16thcentury and Vatican II in the 1960s. Such reforms are necessary because wrong practices and beliefs creep in, distorting our faith. Both councils went back into the past in so far as they could, to discover our traditions.

The further we go back into our history the more genuine are our traditions.

I suggest we need to look again at the first 300 years of our church history.

Priesthood of the Faithful

The apostle Peter writes, ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2:9). See also Revelation 1:6.

Every baptised person belongs to this royal priesthood known as the priesthood of the faithful.

Immediately after a person is baptised with water, he/she is anointed with the oil of chrism when the celebrant says, ‘God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth water and the Holy Spirit. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.’

When I point out to people that if you are baptised, you are a priest, they find it hard to believe as this is rarely taught.

Break from Jewish Practices

The early Christians broke away from the Judaism they had inherited:

Consequently, what we find in the pages of the NT is a complete discontinuity, a complete break, between the Israelite priesthood as it had evolved by the time of Jesus, and the Christian leaders, workers, co-workers and ministers, spoken of in the NT. (Brian Gleeson CP, Ordained Persons and their Ministries: New Testament Foundations and Variations, Australian ejournal of Theology 7)

Leadership in Early Church

Three kinds of leadership evolved in the early church. Firstly, the ‘overseer’ with the Greek name ‘episcopos’. He was assisted by ‘presbyters’ and ‘deacons’.

None of these leaders were called priests — there were no ordinations.

The leaders baptised newcomers and presided at the Eucharist without being ‘ordained’.

Raymond Brown, renowned scripture scholar reinforces the idea that the early church did not ordain priests:

Nowhere in the New Testament are church presbyters or bishops called priests; that development came for bishops in the second century, and later for presbyters. It is interesting that 1 Peter speaks of a general ‘royal priesthood’ (2:9) and of ‘presbyters’ (5:1) but makes no connection between them. (Raymond Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, Paulist Press New York, 1984, p. 80 footnote.)

Timothy was a leader in apostolic times.

Paul called Timothy ‘. . . my loyal child in the faith.’ (1 Timothy 1:2)

He then instructs him, ‘Do not neglect the gift which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.’ (1 Timothy 4:14)

Paul tells Timothy the qualities needed for leaders. They must be ‘above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectful, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well . . . not a recent convert . .  . well thought of by outsiders.’ (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

The overseer was the principal leader of the community:

The overseer and deacon are the main functional roles within the community, complimented by those of teacher, presbyter, deaconess and widow. As time passes, however, the role of overseer comes to absorb the roles of teacher and prophet. (Michael L. Papesh, Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation : The Culture of the Diocesan Priests of the United States Catholic Church, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004, p. 23)

The deacon is the overseer’s social minister, responsible for the administration, financial support, and practical care of the needy. (Papesh, p. 23)

How did Ordination Creep in?

Ordination evolved under certain pressures. It does not seem to have been a decision by a council or the pope.

‘Ordained ministry in the Church, in fact, is the outcome of an evolution and a development of patterns of ministry in the NT.’ (Gleeson, June 2006, p. 1)

One of the pressures came from converts from Judaism who found it hard to forget the idea of having priests to offer sacrifice.

By the third century the overseer’s role is starting to be cast in priestterms because the community wishes to have priests like other Roman religions do. The Old Testament priesthood gradually becomes the model of what the overseer role ought to be, which is exactly opposite to the first and second generation’s understanding. (Papesh, p. 23)

To provide priests, the overseers were ordained to offer sacrifice in a special ritual which in time became very elaborate.

As the number of Christians grew, the overseer needed help to administer to the communities, so the presbyters were also ordained.

What I am emphasising is that the Eucharists presided over by the community leaders in the first 300 years were valid, even though these leaders were not ‘ordained’.

Therefore, we can conclude that ordination is not necessary for a valid Eucharist.

The implications of this conclusion are profound.

Women as Leaders

In those times all the leaders were men. I suspect that was a cultural matter. Women were not considered to be suitable as leaders or were too busy caring for their households.

Today the situation is very different. We have women as prime ministers, premiers, managers, CEOs. Women have shown they can be effective leaders.

The first 300 years of the church show clearly that if women can be good leaders, they could preside at the Eucharist without being ordained.

Admittedly this would be extremely difficult as the present system of male clerics has been in place for 1700 years and has become solidly entrenched. It would be like trying to move a mountain.

Yet Jesus said we can move mountains. ‘Truly, I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.’ (Mark 11:23) It will take an enormous amount of prayer and faith to move this mountain of prejudice against women.

We could at least take the early church as a model and reform the church according to that model adapted to the twenty first century.

We cannot do better than take the first 300 years of the early church as our Tradition with ‘T’ in upper case.


Today there is a lot of discussion about equality of the sexes. St Paul pre-empted this 2000 years ago. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28) Let’s take Paul seriously.

There were women deacons in the early church. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae’. (Romans 1:1) We had women deacons in the church for hundreds of years. It’s tragic this practice was discontinued.

By pursuing this way of women being able to preside at the Eucharist we avoid the problem caused by Pope St John Paul II who said, ‘I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.’ (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994)

What I am saying is that women can be leaders who do not have to be ordained to celebrate the Eucharist.

Women Leaders in the Middle Ages

Gary Macy, in his book, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination, Female Clergy in the Medieval West (Oxford University Press, 2008) has some very pertinent comments on this matter.

The varied meanings of ‘ordained’ can be confusing:

Ordination comprised a much larger group of ministries in the early Middle Ages, including ministries reserved for women . . . Women were frequently also referred to as ordained and occasionally as clerics.” (Macy, p. 35)

Macy says a tenth-century letter of Atto, bishop of Vercelli, described the initiation of deaconesses as an ordination: ‘Therefore for the aid of men, devout women were ordained leaders of worship in the holy Church.’ (Macy, p. 36) Note the word ‘leaders’.

Several interesting implications follow from the definition of ordination current in the first millennium of Christianity. First and foremost, the power to perform the rituals of the church was not the essential purpose of ordination. The question of who had the power to perform rituals was less important than whom the community had chosen as their ministers. (Macy, p. 41)

This is in line with the understanding of the very early church.

Macy quotes Schillebeeckx:

. . . in the ancient church it is said that he (or she) is “appointed”  as minister in order to be able to appear as leader to build up the community, and for this reason he (or she) was also the obvious person to preside at the Eucharist. (Macy, p. 42)

A graffito found near Poitiers commemorates that ‘Martia, the presbytera made the offering together with Olybrius and Nepos.’ Scholars who have studied it agree that this inscription refers to Martia as a minister who celebrated the Eucharist along with two men, Olybrius and Nepos. (Macy, p. 60)

Macy is emphatic:

First and most important, women were ordained in the early Middle Ages. According to the understanding of ordination held by themselves and their contemporaries, they were just as truly ordained as any bishop, priest or deacon . . .  There are rites for the ordination of women; there are canonical requirements for the ordination of women; there are particular women depicted as ordained; and a number of roles limited to women are included in the list of ordained ministries. The evidence is simply overwhelming. (Macy p. 86)

However, ‘In the early decades of the twelfth century a theology was developing that would completely remove women from any ordained ministry . . . Within a fifty-year period, the centuries-old tradition of the ordination of women had been reversed and denied.’ (Macy pp. 92, 93)

Macy quotes Guido de Baysio as saying: ‘A woman however is not a perfect member of the church but a male is.’ (Macy p. 101)

The Second Lateran Council in 1139 decreed that any marriages contracted by clergy, monks or religious were invalid. Celibacy thus became compulsory.

A so-called reform began.

The ‘reformers’ used the tactic of denigrating women. Peter Damian was particularly loathsome: ‘I speak to you, O charmers of the clergy, appetizing flesh of the devil, that castaway from paradise, you poison of the minds, death of souls, venom of wine and eating, companions of the very stuff of sin, the cause of our ruin. You, I say, I exhort you women of the ancient enemy, you bitches, sows, screech-owls, night owls, she-wolves, blood suckers, [who] cry “Give without ceasing” (Proverbs 30: 15-16). Come now hear me, harlots, prostitutes, with your lascivious kisses, you wallowing places for fat pigs, couches for unclean spirits, demi-goddesses, sirens, witches, devotees of Diana . . . From you the devil is fattened by the abundance of your lust, is fed by your alluring feasts.” (Macy p. 113)

Rufinus of Bologna taught that women who were menstruating should not be allowed to enter churches and cardinal Sicard of Cremona said a woman after childbirth should not enter a church for the same reason. ‘If a woman should bear a male, she should abstain from entering the church for forty days as one unclean since an infant conceived  in uncleanliness  is said to be unformed for forty days; and if [a woman]  bears a female, the period of time is doubled . . . women remain unformed in conception twice as long as men.’ (Macy, p. 114)

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a dominant influence. He taught that women were naturally inferior to men, they were deformed males, a female results from an imperfect reception of the male seed.

Aristotle strongly influenced Aquinas:

Thomas was equally blunt about women’s nature: In respect to her particular nature, woman is something defective and accidental. (Macy, p. 120)

There are still traces of this bias today. Last year a woman correspondent of The Tablet happened to meet a nun in St Peter’s Square, Rome. The sister worked in the Vatican. The correspondent asked what it was like to work with all those male priests, bishops and cardinals. Her reply: ‘I feel like shit on their shoes.’

Macy continues his review of the Middle Ages: ‘Once women were reduced to lay status, and most sacramental functions were concentrated in the hands of the presbyterate, there was no official room left for women in the church.’ (Macy, p. 125)

This situation continued for centuries. I remember clearly when I was young the priest did everything at mass and made all the decisions relating to the parish.

We could say the issue was power.

Women Celebrants in other Churches

Some years ago, I made a point of attending Eucharists celebrated by women in the Anglican and Uniting churches. My finding is that these Eucharists were exactly the same as those celebrated by men, except for the difference in gender.

The Anglican church had to move a mountain of prejudice before this could happen, but persistence prevailed and now the Anglican church has many women priests and bishops, and it seems they have been generally accepted by the people though some did object strongly.

This has been accomplished within the current structure of priesthood, but my point is that women can celebrate the Eucharist with devotion.

Why is our church so far behind other churches?

The current shortage of priests could be alleviated by having women able to celebrate mass.

Some years ago, I was in the waiting area of an airport when I noticed a woman in the pilot’s seat of a jumbo jet. I thought ‘There’s a woman flying a huge aircraft with hundreds of people aboard, but a woman cannot celebrate the Eucharist.’ Something wrong here.

It’s time to have a robust discussion on this very serious matter.