John Wijngaards (No Women in Holy Orders? The Ancient Women Deacons, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church: The unmasking of a Cuckoo’s Egg tradition’ etc) is at it again (‘A lesson from history’, Tablet August 14). Why, he asks, do those of us opposed to women’s ordination deny historical fact? The short answer, of course, is that we don’t. There is no clear and incontrovertible evidence for women priests in the first five centuries.
But there is a more pressing question. Why are those in favour of the ordination of women so easily swayed by doubtful evidence?
We have dealt before in these pages with the enthusiasms of Joan Morris, Lavinia Byrne and others for ‘Theodora Episcopa’, for the notorious fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla, and for the Apulian tombstones of Giorgio Otranto. To these far-flung examples, Wijngaards has now added a local flavour: six portable baptismal fonts from various sites in England.
Or rather, one baptismal font, for only one of the six is relevant. It is decorated with figures. They appear to be six men in short cloaks and tunics and three women, one naked and central, the pair flanking her in long robes. They are, claims Wijngaards, a baptismal party. The three women are the candidate and two female deacons who are about to baptize her.
For this claim there is no evidence whatsoever. ‘We know little about the small Christian communities that existed in early Britain’, he admits disarmingly. ‘Many sources have been lost, or re-written to conform with later Roman regulations.’
But Wijngaards is undeterred by paucity of evidence. ‘Was the institution of women deacons known to the Romano- British Church? It must have been’ (Italics mine). He goes on to cite prohibitions of female deacons from sixth century Gaul, and condemnations by the Bishops of Tours, Rennes and Angers of priests who permitted women to administer the chalice.
Why any of this is relevant to the ordination of women in the twenty-first century is a mystery. What other social or ecclesial programme would Wijngaards adopt on the strength of Dark Age precedent? Wergeld? Strip farming? Trial by ordeal?
The truth is that the proponents of women’s ordination have a major problem. They portray themselves, alternately, as fearless pioneers and as the faithful custodians of a hidden tradition. But to try to be both is to make oneself incredible as either.