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Women Clergy at the Altar; Women Silenced

In this Post 7 of 7 we discuss both women and men officiating or presiding at the Last Supper and summarize how past women's involvement has been silenced. The discussion is based on chapters 7/8 of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Dr. Ally Kateusz.

In post 1 of 7, I introduce Mary as more than a Mother of Jesus.

In post 2 of 7, I review how ancient art preserves the memory of Mary as a liturgical leader.

In post 3 of 7, we look at how ancient manuscripts have edited out the markers of Mary's liturgical leadership.

In post 4 of 7, we looked at stories of four early women liturgical leaders and saw disputes between communities for and against gender equality in church leadership.

In this post 5 of 7, we saw Mary portrayed as a high priest, a bishop, and a Eucharist officiant.

In post 6 of 7, we saw how Mary and Jesus were paired in art, women and men co-led worship, and Mary in leadership after the resurrection.


Many women in the New Testament are named as overseers of churches that met in their homes: Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Priscilla, Lydia, and Mary the mother of Mark. These women house church leaders were likely ministering to their people and officiating at Eucharist/Holy Communion.

The practice of having either men or women officiating at Eucharist/Holy Communion was widely known, and described in both noncanonical gospels and in historical reports. These officiants were also said to preside over the meal, or called ministers, deacons, presbyters (elders), priests, or bishops.

In some of the communities with gender-parallel clergy, the man would do ministry and baptize men while the woman would do ministry and baptize women. In some, the male officiant represented Jesus in the ritual meal, and the female represented the Holy Spirit. In smaller communities, where there was just one officiant, it could be either a male or female. The long manuscripts of Thecla, Irene, and Nino describe them ministering alone and baptizing both men and women.

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyon wrote to oppose another community of Christ followers because they had men and women presiding together, sexually slandering the female officiants, accusing them of debauchery and adultery. In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius also complained of communities where women ministered the sacraments and other liturgical tasks.

In the fourth century, Bishop Epiphanius criticized other communities for ordaining women as presbyters, deacons, and priests. We know there were women bishops in the early church because Epiphanius complained that women bishops were not under the authority of their husbands. The male overseer was called 'episcopus' and the female "episcopa' and they both had similar responsibilities. When a manuscript addressed the wife of a bishop, she is called a 'coniux', not an 'episcopa'.

Female bishop in the 5th century

Manuscripts or titles on tombs or paintings that indicated women as bishops may have been destroyed or covered up. Portraits of two women church leaders, Cerula and Bitalia, survived because they were frescos painted on the plaster wall of an underground catacomb and covered by a marble slab. The banner along the top no longer has words showing on it. These fifth or sixth century portraits suggest the women were bishops. Cerula has her arms raised in benediction, direct gaze, the Chi-Rho painted above her head and the four open Gospels beside her head. Portraits of men holding a book generally indicated they were a bishop. Also, it is only bishops who are ordained with the open gospel book held over their head. The red tendrils dripping down are reminiscent of the Holy Spirit coming in tongues of fire upon believers at Pentecost.

Two fifth-century artifacts depict men and women in parallel roles at a church altar; there are no known artifacts from that era that depict a man alone at the altar table in a church.

The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

A large stone panel on the front of a coffin was found in Istanbul in 1988, showing a man and a woman standing in mirrored poses on each side of the altar. A young boy beside the woman holds an open book, as a bishop. The pillars match those of the second Hagia Sophia, built in 415 AD, and the scene appears to portray a reported conflict at the door of the Holy of Holies in the second Hagia Sophia.

Ancient caraving shows woman approaching altar

Augusta Pulcheria was a regent for her young brother and often took communion inside the Holy of Holies with him. The new patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, opposed the practice and in 428 AD, he blocked her from entering the Holy of Holies. She argued that a woman gave birth to God and women have the right to lead in prayer as a priest. Nestorius rejected the title 'mother of God' for Mary and the model of Mary for other women priests, and the Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorius for heresy.

The Old Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome

A small ivory relic box was discovered in 1906, buried under a church. It has a carving of a liturgical scene with spiral columns holding up a canopy, the columns indicating the scene takes place at the Old Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. It shows two men and two women, with arms raised, standing on either side of the canopy with mouths open as if singing. Under the canopy, a woman and a man face each over an altar. The woman appears to be lifting a bowl or chalice with both hands as if for serving the Eucharist. The sculptor had carved stairs and doors under the stone altar. The canopy is a half-hexagon chape mirroring the alcove in which it sits, with a large lamp hanging over the altar.

Male/Female lead eucharist at the altar

The Vatican excavated and found that under the modern altar there was a rounded alcove in the wall and in front of it a slab with stone legs that appeared to be an altar. Below the stone table, they found an underground grave. Gregory of Tours had reported that Peter's tomb was located beneath the altar. The Vatican reported that the stone table was not the altar, illustrated the canopy as a square and the lamp lighting a vacant floor, and that the altar was portable and moved into place for services.

Male/Female lead Holy Communion

When a viewer does not notice that the two figures opposite each other at the altar are a man and a woman, it is assumed that both are male priests. It appears that admitting that the altar was under the canopy would mean the ancient ivory carving gave evidence that both men and women led ancient worship services at the altar over Peter's grave.

In his 2006 book, Davide Longhi identifies the couple on this ivory box as Augusta Galla Placidia and her son Valentinian III, based on other carvings on the box, the location the box was found, and matching the fifth-century date of the box with the life of Galla Placidia.

Male and female leaders lead worship processions

Justinian and Theodora

Justinian, the first Byzantine emperor, and his wife Theodora are portrayed in sixth-century mosaics in a liturgical procession inside the church in Ravenna, Italy. He is on one side of the altar holding the bread, and she is on the other side holding the chalice of wine. This image models the gender-parallel liturgy in the Hagia Sophia, where the male and female officiants represent Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Closeup of the painting on the right showing woman leading worship procession

On Justinian's left is Bishop Maximianus, wearing the episcopal pallium. Other male clergy hold a jewelled book and a censer of incense and the shield with a painted Chi-Rho symbol of Christ. On Theodora's left are women holding Eucharistic cloths.

Ancient art and manuscripts give many examples of gender-parallel officiants at the altars in the early church. This theology appears to be based on "God created humanity in God’s own image... male and female' (Genesis 1:27) and 'There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28). Gender parallelism was widely practiced in Christian liturgy modelling God's divine pairing of opposites connected to form one united being.

Silencing the Past

Strategies deliberately changed historical records, changed our picture of the past, and hide the memory of powerful women who exercised religious authority.

  • Books were burned after the Gelasian Decree

  • Manuscripts were redacted and shortened to cut out records of female authority

  • Longer manuscripts were discredited as unreliable

  • Writing was condemned as heresy

  • Records of the title apostle and priest for women were destroyed

  • Art was covered or hidden

  • Narratives were spread to explain gender pairs and deny that women were preachers, baptizers, Eucharistic leaders, ministers, clergy, priests, bishops, and overseers

  • Translations have used words like disciple and apostle for men, words like wife and servant for women

book cover
book cover

The false history of all-male apostles and priests supports the argument for all-male clergy. I appreciate the research by Dr. Allison Kateusz in breaking our 'false imagination' of the past. Looking behind whitewashed walls and large wooden furniture, in underground crypts, and hidden palimpsest, she has shown us the historical record of women and men leading in equal partnership in early communities of Jesus followers.

Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, by Dr. Ally Kateusz. Licensed under Creative Commons Open Access:

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor

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