Arthur Middleton on Montanist and feminist innovations

The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus of Rome (c.215) expounds his opposition to current official innovations in discipline and practice, so he wrote a pamphlet to correct this by a public appeal to older custom. This work greatly influenced the East, in Syria and Egypt, and was known as The Egyptian Church Orde. Its inclusion in this ‘Church Order’ literature saved it from extinction and the invaluable information it contains. This work, Fr Frere points out in The Early History of the Church and Ministry, contains two closely connected works, Concerning Ordinations, and On Charismata. In the latter, Hippolytus does not depreciate those with special spiritual gifts. He cautions them against boasting superiority over those who have the ordinary spiritual gifts of the Christian and those who have the special gifts of the ministry. His context is the Church’s struggle with Montanism.

Claiming biblical support

Montanism gave to the prophet the power to absolve and allowed women to celebrate the Eucharist. Not until Epiphanius (fourth century) were there reports of female clergy in an offshoot of the sect. Today’s movement for female bishops and priests reads like an action replay. These women were active as presbyters, and their ordination was justified by Galatians 3.28. The difference between the sexes was held to play no role, for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female. This same argument is a password in feminist writings about the ordination of women.

Epiphanius and Firmilian describe a milieu that has its roots in Phrygian Montanism and Epiphanius elaborates the sources. He counters their Pauline justification with relevant statements by the Apostle combining 1 Corinthians 14.34 with 1 Timothy 2.12 and makes reference to the Pauline statements on the order of creation in 1 Corinthians 11.8. The Montanists ‘ignore the word of the apostle’:

Since the Montanists claimed support – in addition to citing the example of Old and New Testament prophetesses – from Eve, who had eaten from the tree of knowledge, Epiphanius, using Paul, counters with: ‘Adam was not deceived, but first Eve was deceived and became a transgressor.’ Like other early Church authors, Epiphanius also cites the Yahwist’s account of the Fall, ‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ Thus, the deciding argument for the refusal of female priesthood is the appeal to Pauline directives, supplemented with an important consideration, that if women were to have priesthood conferred on them then why not Mary, who would have been more eminently suited than any woman? Furthermore it was John, not Mary, who baptized Jesus.

An androgynous Christ

The female priesthood of the ‘Quintillians’ is connected with a theology that – perhaps linked in turn to Galatians 3.28 – regards Christ as androgynous. Epiphanius records the following vision Priscilla the prophetess had at the time of the founding of Montanism: ‘In the form of a woman – so she said – Christ came to me in radiant garb, inspired me with wisdom and pronounced this place [the Phrygian village Pepuza] holy; it was there that the Heavenly Jerusalem would descend. ‘

The socio-cultural context of Montanism was an influential factor in this movement. Phrygia, is in Asia Minor, where participation by women in public activities was well developed. In Phrygian paganism, the god-mother Cybele was central to its worship, which may have had a subconscious effect on Priscilla’s vision. If Jerome is right, Montanus – the founder of the sect – had earlier been a priest of Cybele.

This created a new hierarchy with new claims, a prophetic succession over against the Episcopal succession, and derived from what was seen as a new revelation to bring new gifts lacking in the Church’s ministry that depreciated the apostolic hierarchy and its apostolic tradition. Are there parallels here to the present day?

A new hierarchy

Today’s new revelation emanating from the sociological, political and psychological gnosis of the present wants to re-evaluate that same apostolic tradition with ‘gifts’ that only gender can provide. Feminism will make good the deficiency of gifts it sees necessary to the fullness of apostolic order, creating as it has in Anglicanism a new revelation, a new hierarchy, a new succession derived from the new revelation and rejecting the catholic hierarchy and its apostolic tradition.

In principle this was the problem dealt with in Concerning Spiritual Giifts. The claim to a new revelation and more specifically to a superior kind of ministry emanating from prophets and wonder-workers is treated as novelty by this catholic author and apologist for apostolic order. He argues that the whole apostolic tradition negates such novel claims. Those who have the right belief will also, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, have the right tradition, and will know how it is to be carried on by the rulers of the Church. Thus the doctrine of the ministry is an ordinance, which is handed on as well as a ministry of divine grace. ND