The search for historical examples of women bishops has involved some implausible stories, but overlooks real evidence of the importance of women in the early Church, writes Geoffrey Kirk

I have heard many arguments in favour of women priests and not yet a good one’. So Graham Leonard back in the Eighties. True it was and true it remains. As proof that no speculation is too absurd and nor legend too hoary to be grist to the mill in the campaign for women’s ordination, we turn this month to Pope Joan and Theodora Episcopa.

The facts of the case in the matter of ‘Pope Joan’ are neatly set out in an appendix to J.N.D. Kelly’s Oxford Dictionary of Popes. The legend is a piece of monastic pornography recycled as Protestant propaganda. Why, in any case (even if it were true), an ancient imposture should be evidence for a modern innovation is a question to be asked.

It is a question which Peter Stanford (former editor of The Tablet) heroically failed to ask in his book The She-Pope. The publisher’s blurb gives the essential flavour:

‘The extraordinary story of the English woman who fooled the Vatican. The legend of Pope Joan – the woman who, dressed as a man, headed the Catholic Church in the early ninth century – has always been a subject of fascinated speculation but rarely, until now, the subject of serious research. As the future (sic!) over women in the catholic priesthood continues, and the Church, which once took her story as gospel, now tries to play down the rumours, it is time for a reappraisal.

Here Peter Stanford, author of The Devil: A Biography, reveals what can, and cannot, be known of this incredible story, and of the extraordinary woman behind it.

In this fascinating account, ranging from secret histories to conspiracy theories, medieval carvings to tarot cards, women priests to cross-dressing clerics, and from romantic fiction to hard facts, he delivers a major study of historical detective work.’

The book (for what could else?) became a television programme (the last refuge of the sub- theological scoundrel). In it we were treated to the spectacle of Stanford exhibiting a Byzantine imperial birthing chair – now in the Vatican collections – claiming it as a throne specially designed so that a designated deacon could with greater facility finger the genitals of a recently elected Pope… in order, no doubt, to preclude any further discrepancies. No more need be said.

The notion that the mother of Pope Pascal I (817–24) was a bishop of the Catholic Church does not, so far as I can tell, have an ancient or legendary origin. It first surfaced in a book by Roman Catholic proto-feminist Joan Morris (The Lady was a Bishop, 1972) and was taken up by Lavinia Byrne, the celebrity ex-nun, in her book Woman at the Altar (1994).

Theodora Episcopa (thus the superscription of a mosaic portrait in the Chapel of S. Zeno in the Church of Santa Prassede in Rome) became so popular that a cocktail served at a MOW social was named after her – champagne and pomegranate juice, as I recall, based on the more familiar Bellini.

Whether the drink has taken off subsequently in the smarter bars of the Via Vittorio Veneto, I could not say. But alas, cocktails notwithstanding, the assertion about her has a higher degree of improbability than most, even in the wacky world of women’s ordination.

Paschal I was deeply involved in the second iconoclast crisis (precipitated by the Emperor Leo V, ‘the Armenian’, 813–20). He corresponded with Theodore the Studite, and welcomed refugee iconodules to Rome. His extensive patronage of mosaicists (at Sta Prassede, Sta Cecilia in Trastevere, and Sta Maria in Dominica) probably gave employment to craftsmen who had been exiled from Constantinople. It is unimaginable that his episcopal mother (had she existed) would not have featured in the vigorous polemic of the time. But all is silence – apart from the now notorious inscription, which in the Greek of the period, certainly, would have meant not ‘bishopess’ but ‘wife or mother of a bishop’.

The irony is that the search for an elusive (because non-existent) woman bishop has allowed contemporary feminists to neglect a moving and very real testament to the importance of women in early Roman Christianity. Paschal’s magnificent apse mosaic in the same church shows the sisters Prassede and Pudenziana (daughters of St Pudens, traditionally Paul’s first convert in Rome) being presented to Christ by Peter and Paul.

The sisters were buried in the church after a martyrdom which resulted from their piously according Christian burial to victims of religious persecution. Worship on the site goes back long before the present building – certainly to the third century. Probably the first church was built directly upon the titulus (or family property) where the sisters had welcomed and nurtured the infant church.

These women are up there in the apse with the Princes of the Church (episemoi en tois apostolois, as Paul himself might have put it) because they, and others like them, played an indispensable role. They were neither bishops nor priests; but that is no reason to ignore or belittle them or their achievement.

Here, where Browning’s bishop ordered his tomb, they are celebrated and remembered; and so should we with gratitude remember the countless women of every generation whose piety and self-sacrifice has given the Church growth. ND