Church Ladies

By Jamie Hellewell

The role of women within the Christian church is a recent matter of serious controversy. But if Dr. Karen Torjesen is right, this controversy is nothing new–in fact, it’s as old as the church itself.

On Mon., Oct. 25, Torjesen gave a lecture entitled "When women were priests: history at the intersection of gender and religion" in the Nickle Arts Museum. It was the 12th installment of the Craigie Memorial Lecture Series.

Speaking to an audience of over 200, Torjesen offered evidence that in the first three centuries of the Church’s existence women did, in fact, occupy positions of leadership.

"Documentary evidence gives us this very interesting take on the roles of women in early Christianity. When we look at these sources we find women served as priests, bishops and even prophets," said Torjesen.

There are two types of sources available to historians of early Christianity, explained Torjesen. The first, most commonly used type are literary sources such as gospel accounts, letters and sermons. In these, there are often general references to women.

"They are talking about women as a gender or ‘generic woman.’ And in these references, generic woman is always mentioned in the context of a prohibition," said Torjesen.

But, if we focused entirely on the literary sources, we would not get the full picture, she added.

"We can also look at documentary sources [legal documents, contracts, etc.]," Torjesen said. "These give us a different kind of source; they give us information about particular women. And this information paints a very interesting picture of the roles of women in early Christianity."

The picture includes women teaching, baptizing and taking the Eucharist, but it also includes a great deal of tension over them doing so. One clear example of this is in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

"What we see in this very early text is very powerful leadership of a woman, and there is also tension, and that tension is over gender issues," said Torjesen.

Torjesen went on to say that sociological conditions in which the Christian church grew up explain not only the reason women often assumed leadership roles, but also why tension arose when they did.

"Once we begin to understand the sociology of the early Church, we can make sense of how and why women were priests, bishops and prophets," said Torjesen. "For the first three centuries Christians met in homes. During this time, women were the primary household managers."

However, a number of forces acted together to undermine the leadership of women in the post-third century church, including resistance to women usurping public roles in the political realm. In her concluding remarks, Torjesen stressed the contested nature of early Christian gender views.

"I see debate, I see controversy, I don’t see a monolithic oppression or a monolithic acceptance," said Torjesen.
Reaction to the lecture was very positive.

"I enjoyed it a lot," said University of Calgary student Lorrisa Fagan. "I always just assumed that the early Christian church was more patriarchal back then than it is today. I have a totally different perspective of it now."

"I thought it was fascinating the way she not only gave evidence for women being leaders, but also explained why they were and how they were slowly kicked out of those positions," said Malcolm Burt, an interested Calgarian.

Torjesen’s lecture was sponsored by the Faculty of Humanities, the Department of Religious Studies, and the Chaplain’s Centre as part of the Craigie Memorial Lecture Series. Dr. Peter Craigie, in whose memory the annual series is given, was a former U of C vice-president, dean of Humanities and head of the Religious Studies department.

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