The Work of the Father, Done by His Daughters


St. Hilda of Whitby

Originally written for the CTS Kerux, here.

I did not go to seminary expecting to inherit a cause. No, I went to add some letters behind my name, learn a little Hebrew, and return to editing, a quiet job where I spend most of my time introducing and eliminating commas. I will not speak here of the fact that what I intended to return to may or may not be what God intended; rather, let me speak of the cause.

I came from a very traditional college, a place where they would have had us turn our papers in on scrolls, had that been possible. It is the kind of place where Latin composition is still taught and where you can assume that any passerby has read at least a little Aristotle. It is the kind of place where everyone quietly longed to be back in the Middle Ages. At parties on cold winter nights, we would read G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse aloud and drink someone’s homemade cider. We would adjourn in the middle so that the innocent could enjoy live fiddle music and the devious could smoke, and the truly devious and the truly pious alike would leave to pray the Rosary in the chapel. It was a strange and magical school, tucked miles and centuries away from the furthest reaches of post-modernism.

And yet, gender was simply a non-issue.  In a place where required reading included the church father Tertullian—a man whose words on the fairer sex have provoked powerful physiological reactions in me—women were respected and treated as equals. No one talked about gender because no one thought much about it. David Foster Wallace tells a story of two young fish swimming along who encounter an older fish who says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim along for a while longer, and then one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?” Wallace’s point is that sometimes realities are so obvious as to be invisible. This was the case at my college; women were respected peers in the classroom and cherished friends on the quad; nothing more needed to be said.

In such a place, a place where every moment testified to women as honored creations, it was not easy to understand that my experience was not everyone’s experience. Since leaving that place—now five years ago—I have slowly become aware that respect and equality for women are not always the norm in the wider world. It is not the case in the United States, much less India or the Middle East. And, perhaps most sadly, it is not always the case in the church. Though I have no intention of seeking ordination, being at the seminary has brought the issues surrounding women in ministry especially to the fore.

Although it sounds as if I am about to diagnose exactly what is wrong with the state of the world and the church and Calvin Theological Seminary, in fact I am writing not to condemn the world, but to encourage the church through history. Although many of the struggles facing women in ministry are distinctly a thing of the twenty-first century, I want to offer up a picture of another time and place, tucked miles and centuries away, when women of the church were unstoppable forces for God.

And that time is the seventh century, in England.

In Anglo Saxon England, women of the church were indomitable. They were known for their wisdom, learning, and counsel, and they were known to look kings and bishops in the eye and not back down. The abbesses in England at that time were often more powerful than queens, who were increasingly subject to rigid expectations about gender. Abbess Hilda of Whitby, the Venerable Bede tells us, was so known for her prudence that kings and princes sought her counsel and many men whose spiritual direction she oversaw (yes, she oversaw men spiritually) became priests. It was the abbess Ælfflæd, not a bishop, who was present at King Aldfrith’s deathbed to hear his last words and his wishes for succession. Eddius Stephanus called her the consoler of the whole kingdom and the best counsellor. Æbbe, a princess-turned-abbess, threatened her nephew Ecgfrith with the very wrath of God if he would not free a captive bishop, return his relics to him, and allow him free passage to leave the realm. Ecgfrith obeyed. And although by the twelfth century nuns were largely considered “brides of Christ,” in the seventh they were often seen as soldiers of Christ. This was no utopia, and the historians of the day sometimes seem uncomfortable linking women and authority, but the work of God seems to have been regarded as so powerful that no one was to stand in its way, even if, heaven forbid, the work was being conducted by women.

My husband and I both grew up in the same large, well-known evangelical denomination, and I recently asked him how many famous women from the denomination’s 150-year history he could name. He couldn’t name any, and I could name only one. What a difference that makes, not only for young women who grow up without role models, but for men in leadership positions who see a woman with a calling and have no mental precedent for such a thing.

The importance of having strong, courageous, missional women in the historical church was reinforced recently when I talked to a friend of mine who is cradle Eastern Orthodox. This woman often wears a head-covering to worship but self-identifies as a feminist. She told me of St. Nino, whom the Orthodox call “Equal to the Apostles” (a somewhat formalized title) because she more or less single-handedly converted the nation of Georgia. She told me of St. Mariamne, the sister of the Apostle Philip, who we are told went as a missionary with her brother and St. Bartholomew. After St. Philip was martyred, Mariamne and Bartholomew went on preaching until they themselves were martyred. In the twentieth century, there was St. Maria Skobtsova, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and died in Ravensbruck.

When my friend looks at the church, she has been taught to see women who were empowered by their faith to transcend cultural and societal norms. “I’m not trying to claim that [Eastern] Orthodoxy is perfect when it comes to gender relations because, well, it’s not,” she wrote to me. “But it has been heartening to me, in my feminist journey, to feel like it’s possible to advocate for women and care about women’s journeys without going against what my faith actually teaches.”

And that is what I wish to say. Of course the past was not perfect, and the present work will not be easy, nor is it to be accomplished by recreating seventh-century England. But our faith teaches us—through Scripture and through holy example—that we are not departing from our faith when we say that the Holy Spirit calls women to kingdom work. We are not departing from our faith when we say that women can convert, counsel, and console entire nations in the name of God. The women of the historical church have done such things, and we are their daughters, and we do the work of their Father.


Thoughts on Paris


Boulevard Haussmann, Paris

Good Americans when they die go to Paris.
– Thomas Appleton

The magic of Paris lies in the religious quality of its architecture, the juxtaposition of that which is greater than man, beyond him in every way, with that which is exactly his size and precisely meant for him. The imperial monolith of the Haussmannian boulevards—the vast wings of cut stone, the uniformity of the limestone facades against the slate of the mansard roofs, the precise alignment of every balcony, floor, and window on the block—all of these communicate that one is part of something larger than oneself. But the uniform grandeur of the boulevards hides smaller, quieter attractions. It hides cafes and arcade corners and little markets of every sort. It hides charm.


Parisian charm

The city—like other continental cities, especially the Latinate ones—is very public. People spend more time outdoors, and public spaces are much more frequently used. Young people are almost always picnicking on the banks of canals, more old men read newspapers on park benches, and almost every restaurant has a terrace on which dark, brooding Frenchmen and waifish ingénues with disheveled hair smoke with great abandon and with no apparent concern that they are perpetuating stereotypes. I’ve always loved this about Paris. The city feels so alive and vibrant; there is energy and, finally, a great esprit de corps.


Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

But, as the fox says to the Little Prince in France’s most beloved story, nothing’s perfect. There’s a code of conduct for public space that is as peculiar as it is complex. You can stay as long as you like on a restaurant’s terrace with no fear of lurking, disapproving servers, but there are certain times of day when only food, not beverage, will buy that right. There are public monuments at which you can do any activity whatsoever—no matter how amorous—but at which you absolutely cannot eat. Feet are filthy, shameful things and ought not to be propped up on empty benches. Anywhere. Ever. Ever. This particular rule is enforced not just by the disapproving public but by security guards who emerge from the shadows to scold. Being a young woman in France buys you a good number of favors and discounts and a great deal of immunity—but not that much.

So though I love Paris, I wasn’t always à l’aise there. Privacy is elusive, a fact particularly unsettling for homebodies like myself. I had corners of public gardens that became mine in a way, but they weren’t invulnerable. Sometimes it rained, and sometimes the amorous couples arrived before I did. In these cases there was nowhere to retreat. Letting my mind wander in the anonymity of the metro was the closest to privacy that I could come.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Magdalen College, Oxford

It was this acutely urban life that I left when I went to visit in Philip in Oxford for the first time. Oxford, a city that is the opposite of Paris in every way, was the perfect place to catch my breath. Old, medieval, idiosyncratic, and above all cozy—that is Oxford in the fall. Everyone called me “love,” and the guestroom in Philip’s university housing had exposed timber beams. We and a friend had champagne and strawberries at ten o’clock in the morning, surrounded by the extravagant autumnal splendor of Addison’s Walk, because we assumed from having read Brideshead Revisited that that is what one does at Oxford. We put our feet on benches. It was the antidote in every way to the parts of Parisian life that had become exhausting, as great pleasures can.

There was just one thing I didn’t love in England—London. I had gotten hopelessly lost while looking for a bus stop and the very last bus of the night, and what should have been simple was incomprehensibly difficult. My exhaustion gave way to a kind of feverish terror, and it became clear no one in the whole damn city spoke English.  I can see now how that might be wonderful in its own right, but my strait was blinding me to charm, as straits will do. When I arrived back in Paris, tired and lonely, I was oddly relieved to hear someone say, “Pardon, mademoiselle.” “Thank God they speak my language here,” was my thought, a brief and lovely thought.

Of course I saw the irony immediately; French is not my language, and in fact my French is only middling. But I was sure not to be lost or terrified in Paris. If you are a young woman in France and you stand still for more than a few seconds, men of all ages emerge to offer you directions in the clear, uniform French of the Académie so that you, a pretty but undoubtedly stupid foreigner, will be sure to understand.

I told my host mother about my relief that night, told her against my better judgment, for she was an eccentric Parisienne of the most vehement sort, and a tirade was never far from her lips. I was certain she was about to launch into a lecture about how very française I was not, but instead she said the only truly kind thing she ever said to me, something motivated at least in part, I am sure, by her undying hatred of the English, but also in part, I like to think, by something else. “Of course,” she said, in French. “You felt yourself at home here.”

Writings Elsewhere

Lest you think we haven’t been writing lately, a few posts from elsewhere . . .

Killing Perfectionism

After the planning and measuring and careful digging and tender planting, after you enclose a seed in its dark little chamber, there is almost nothing you can do. What’s happening is happening where you can’t see it, and all you can do is wait, keeping the faith.

What They Don’t Tell You About Buying a House

. . .  problems caused by love are problems worth having.

Lessons from My Grandmother

Never complained. I believe this of my grandmother, who complained shockingly little even when she was dying of cancer. But that none of the women complained—that still surprises me. What a different era from our own. And how strong these women were, how very unlike myself.

Perhaps, if we are very, very fortunate, Philip will link to some of his posts over at EerdWord as well; they are much finer stuff. And, if I can pull myself out of the Aeneid for long enough, I think I have another post for this blog coming.

Poets’ Corner: The Right Book at the Right Time

Here’s the first post from a regular column I’ll be writing for Eerdmans. If there’s one regret I have about high school, it’s that I didn’t skip class more often.


Philip Zoutendam Philip Zoutendam

About Poets’ Corner, a new column from Philip Zoutendam.

The South Transept at Westminster Abbey is called “Poets’ Corner.” It’s a place where the luminaries of British literature, beginning with Chaucer and extending through Dryden and Dickens to Eliot and Auden, are buried and memorialized. For those who, like me, can’t quite remember their art history lessons, the transept is the shorter arm of a cruciform church. Thus the placement of Poets’ Corner becomes a symbol, a simple and beautiful reminder of the place that poetry has in faith. Not all our belief is theology, or perhaps more precisely, not all our theology is syllogism and argument. Some of it is wonder. Some of it is beauty.

I myself am no poet, and this column will not be my corner. It will be a place to celebrate the poetic within Eerdmans books, a place to remember…

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