Morris Dancing

A fascinating aspect of the campaign to see women ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion has been the attempt to find ancient precedent for the practice. ‘Consonant with scripture and required by the tradition’ was Michael Adie’s over-optimistic formula on 11 November 1992. So it was clearly incumbent on somebody to come up with a sound and ancient provenance for the practice. Otherwise, how could one explain the fact that what was so plainly ‘required’ had never actually been done?

To be fair to the most ardent proponents, they supposed in 1992 that the required evidence was readily to hand.

The ground work was put in place (as one might expect) by a liberal Roman Catholic. The venerable feminist Joan Morris died in 1985, but not before she had woven a veritable web of inconclusive speculation – and set more hares running than the White City Dog Track.

‘Pope Joan’, ‘Theodora Episcopa’, the female ‘concelebrants’ of the catacomb of Priscilla, the revival of interest in ‘Junia Apostolos’: all can be traced back to Morris. Nor has any serious work been done subsequently either to question or verify her assertions. Across the entire spectrum, from the academically prestigious to the journalistically jejune (from Tom Torrance to Lavinia Byrne) people have been content simply to repeat – or occasionally to embellish – what Joan Morris had already written.

So to what does the Morris oeuvre amount?

A bishop and a Pope?

The legend of ‘Pope Joan’ (recently the subject of a book by Peter Stanford and a television programme based on it) has probably, as a result, finally been consigned to the cabinet of curiosities to which it properly belongs. The evidence adduced by Stanford is compromised at every point. Georgina Masson’s Companion Guide to Rome gives one more reliable information on the subject in a paragraph and a half than does Stanford in two hundred pages.

About ‘Theodora Episcopa’, the supposedly prelatical mother of Pope Paschal I, there has been no advance on Morris either. Poor Joan does not even appear in the bibliography of Lavinia Byrne’s Woman at the Altar: The Ordination of Women in the Roman Catholic Church, which is hugely dependent on her work and where Theodora makes the obligatory guest appearance. The idea that, at the height of the iconoclast controversy, no mention is made in Byzantine documents of an iconodule Pope of Rome who had a non-celibate woman bishop for his mother remains audacious in the extreme.


Nor has subsequent scholarship thrown further light on Morris’s assertions about the now notorious fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla. Tom Torrance maintained that this shows Aquila and Priscilla and a few friends concelebrating (‘with attendant deacons’). Mary Ann Rossi (‘from the Women’s Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’ – let the reader understand) opined that it undoubtedly shows seven women concelebrating – with the joyful self-possession which she recognizes from the concelebrations of Mass undertaken by herself and friends.

The facts, alas, are against both. There are no ‘deacons’ in the fresco – Torrance had, quite simply, never seen the picture when he pontificated. And if this fresco is indeed a picture of any kind of ‘concelebration’ it would be not only the earliest surviving representation of a eucharistic rite, but precede any other evidence for concelebration by about a thousand years.

Foremost among the Apostles?

Enthusiasm about the ‘apostle’ Junia appears, at first sight, to have far greater credibility. No less an authority than St John Chrysostom appears to have given her credence. But closer examination renders her status (and even her existence) more than doubtful. Reference to a Junia who was ‘foremost among the apostles’ (Romans 16) has understandably excited the enthusiasts for a female episcopate. But it is all far from plain sailing.

In the first place, the feminine form of the name is not the only reading in the relevant manuscripts. In the second place, the phrase – which has sometimes been translated as ‘foremost among the apostles’ – can as well (some say better) be translated as ‘well-known to the apostles’. Last of all, there is the problem of why Andronicus and Junia, if they really were apostolically ‘foremost’ (were they brother and sister, husband and wife, we wonder?), are mentioned nowhere but here. Whilst Priscilla and Aquilla are the hardy perennials of the Pauline mission, Junia and Andronicus (putatively of higher status than either) get hardly a mention.

The truth is that Junia the Apostle’s reputation rests merely on the absence of a single consonant from some manuscripts, and on an interpretation of an idiom in New Testament Greek which could be construed no more certainly by John Chrysostom than by us. A single letter would condemn the female ‘apostle’ to ignominious masculinity; and a variant interpretation of the idiom would render her gender sublimely irrelevant!

So much for the Morris legacy, which amounts to little if anything. There remains the work of Professor Giorgio Otranto of the Institute of Classical and Christian Studies at the University of Bari.

Down South

Otranto worked for some years on the epigraphy of Christian tombs in Calabria and Basilicata, and published in 1982 an ‘evaluation’ of a letter of Gelasius I (492–496) to the bishops of Southern Italy, which seems to have specifically addressed the problem of women celebrating the eucharist:

‘We have heard to our annoyance,’ writes Gelasius, ‘that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong.’

Otranto’s conclusion from this remarkable letter (the Latin of which is hardly unambiguous) is no less remarkable – and Byrne it need hardly be said is close behind him. With the confident gesture of the trickster who pulls a rabbit out of the hat, Otranto concludes that because a pope condemned priestly acts by women, that there must have been priestly women. And because priestly women are supposed once to have existed, that their priesthood ought now to be valid and accepted. Furthermore, that because the priestly ministry of women is not received and accepted now, that there must be (and have been) a conspiracy to deny their existence then. The proof both of the existence and the legitimacy of women priests rests simply on the condemnation of them!

This interesting argument could obviously prove useful in other circumstances. The condemnation of almost anything might, on these principles, be taken as condoning it. Paul’s stricture against Corinthian adultery, for example, would simply encourage contemporary Christians to commit it; and a solemn anathema by an ecumenical council would infallibly pronounce the orthodoxy of a doctrine.

But the bold claim that the tradition ‘requires’ women’s ordination drowns, we suggest, in the limpid pool of history. That age which should have fostered women priests in profusion, even on the evidence of their most enthusiastic proponents, did not do so. Theirs, sadly, is an argument from something less than silence. None but ‘heretics’ perceived the ‘necessity’.

You will put your quotation marks in that last sentence where you will.