The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West

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The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. By Gary Macy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, Pp. xiv, 260. $25.00.)

While its tide might suggest a historical conspiracy á la The Da Vinci Code, Gary Macy's slim volume succeeds in being fascinating and timely while refraining from any conspiracy theories. Macy is known for his work on liturgy in the Middle Ages and this text follows in its close approach to textual clues which lead to some surprising findings.

Although the title implies a history of women, much of this book deals with larger issues concerning the meaning of the term ordination and the power struggles between the nobility and the church; the curtailment of women's roles in Christian history are a by-product of these struggles. The question of women's ordination hinges on the complex, yet often ignored, question of the definition of ordination. As Macy shows in chapter one, historians and theologians have long fogged up the question of women's ordination by using a modern definition to the term even while discussing ordination in the church prior to this time. The reason that the practice of women's ordination has been hidden is largely due to a matter of semantics, as the term ordination has been limited to the modern understanding which confines ordination to priests and deacons.

Macy, therefore, begins by showing how the term ordination has changed: "Rather than the bestowal of a particular power and authority connected to the Eucharistic liturgy and limited to those offices that performed that liturgy, ordination referred to the process by which one was chosen for a particular ministry or service in the church" (47). This confusion over definition has allowed theologians to deny the possibility of women's ordination through history. Macy goes on to give detailed examples of ordained women, from bishops and priests to deaconesses and abbesses (who were considered in the order of deaconesses). This section is supplemented by two appendices that give the Latin text for the prayers and rites for the ordination of deaconesses and abbesses. …