This week the Church of England named the Reverend Libby Lane as its first female bishop. The announcement comes twenty years after the—at the time—controversial move to admit women to the clergy and nearly 40 years after the general Synod of the Church of England passed the motion that, “There are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood.”
Rev. Lane, who will be consecrated as the Bishop of Stockport on Jan. 26, and whose appointment was approved by the Queen, said that this is a “remarkable day for me and an historic day for the Church.” It’s true that Lane will become the first female bishop in the Church of England, but many people consider women’s leadership to be a return to the Church’s foundations, rather than a new epoch in religious history.
In the New Testament women like Mary Magdalene finance Jesus’ mission. Paul’s letter to the Romans describes a woman named Junia as “prominent among the apostles,” a phrase that grammatically suggests that she was an apostle, and Paul calls another woman, named Phoebe, a deacon.
The early Church has more than its fair share of powerful women. A second century apocryphal text called the Acts of Paul and Thecla tells the story of a young aristocratic woman named Thecla who abandons her fiancé in order to follow Paul. In the course of her remarkable travels Thecla baptizes herself by diving into a pool of “man-eating seals.” This story was used by some third-century North African Christians to justify the practice of women performing baptisms.
One of the early Church’s most famous martyrs, St. Perpetua, seems to have occupied a position of authority. Her experiences are recorded in a prison diary in which she has visions that have significance for the whole community. Female prophetesses and visionaries were common in the ancient world and at least one popular group of unorthodox Christians—known as Montanists—continued the tradition.
Of course not everyone was happy with women holding leadership positions: 1 Timothy, a letter purportedly by Paul but which many scholars think is a second century work written in his name, presents a very conservative picture of women in the Church. “I permit no woman,” it reads, “to teach or have authority over a man. This is bad news for female educators and politicians, and 1 Timothy is witness to the struggle in early Christian communities over the roles of women in the church.
Although when it comes to ordination and official leadership 1 Timothy ultimately won, behind the scenes women continued to exert their influence. As late as the fifth century, powerful aristocratic women took charge of the commemoration of the dead in Rome. These women interred the bodies of saints on their own properties and occasionally managed to influence papal politics.
Women’s leadership in the early Church was certainly controversial, but there is plenty of evidence that women held positions of authority starting already in the time of leadership. They may have even have been bishops. In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan refers to inscriptions in which women are referred to as “episcopa” (the word for a bishop). The meaning of this title may have been honorific, but it is also striking.
The significance of the history of women in the early Church is not lost on Episcopalian. McGowan, who also serves as Dean of Berkeley Divinity School, the Episcopal Seminary at Yale, told me, “This important innovation is not merely that; it recalls the Church to a neglected past in is own tradition.” Kate Cooper, Professor of Classics at the University of Manchester and author of Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women, agrees, “Women have always been central to the Church’s work, so this step is both welcome and overdue.”
In the end, for members of the Anglican Communion, the selection of the first female Church of England Bishop is less the inauguration of a new epoch and more a return to their roots.