The Case of the Missing She-Bishop


“The Mother Church. May Valentia Rest in Peace’: Late Roman Mosaic from the Bardo Museum, Tunis

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.


One comment

  1. […] As a historian of early Christianity, I have to say that I find the way these debates are conducted almost unrecognisable. So much of the discussion seems based on a stunning lack of literacy about the nature of Christian communities in the New Testament period – especially debates around the question of ‘whether women bishops are biblical’.  (In a previous post I’ve offered a few of my own thoughts on this topic – The Case of the Missing She-Bishop.) […]

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