In light of the Church of England’s upcoming re-condieration of female bishops at its upcoming General Synod, I was delighted to be asked by History Today‘s editor, Paul Lay, to review one of the star articles from his achive, which addresses the historical roots of this issue. ‘From the Many to the Few’ is my attempt to update the discussion started by Brent Shaw, in a marvellous 1994 article, ‘Women and the Early Church‘. Shaw’s article is still well worth reading.
What has changed since then, however, is not only the mounting evidence for women’s leadership, beautifully collected by Carolyn Osiek and Kevin Madigan in their Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary Sourcebook (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
More important is our shifting understanding of ordination itself. While many scholars in 1994 thought of the early Church as a formal organization run by men, we now increasingly understand early Christianity as a ‘viral’ movement of social and household-based nodes connected through kinship and friendship networks. (I’ve discussed my own view of some of these issues at greater length in an earlier post, ‘Bishops, Barons, and Biblical Women‘.)
Bishops as we now understand them, are a phenomenon of the high and late medieval Church, not of the New Testament. So don’t be too worried if you don’t find any female bishops there either.