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.