One of the legendary practitioners of Celtic Christianity I have encountered in my class with the Oates Institute is St. Brigid of Kildare. An early leader of the church in Ireland, much of her history is based on hagiography (writing that testifies to the saintly lives and actions of its subjects) and her accomplishments have been embellished by bringing into some of the attributes of the pagan goddess with that name. Beneath all of that, however, is the story of a strong and intelligent woman who ranks beside St. Patrick as a symbol of Irish culture and faithfulness (and, unlike Patrick, she was born there). She was an abbess in the fifth century C.E. who performed some of the functions of a bishop, the founder of several abbeys in Ireland, a patron of the arts, and a person of common sense and wisdom.
As the influence of the Roman church became preeminent in Ireland over the following centuries, the role of women in such leadership roles was no longer tolerated. Women took on subservient or, at least, background roles. At the same time, the Irish clung to the stories and traditions of Brigid, and she is highly regarded even today.
Reading about Brigid caused me to think about the role of women in the church. What would have happened to the Christian faith if women had not been excluded from positions that shaped the faith—clergy, theologian, teachers?
Where women have been allowed to serve, they have made significant contributions. They have been at the vanguard of care for the sick, the poor, and the orphaned. Women have been willing to undertake the caring tasks that men often rejected. They have taught the youth, prepared the meals, and cleaned up after the infirm. Often, women took on other roles in remote areas where men were not available as leaders (think about Baptist “saint” Lottie Moon). From time to time, the contributions of women to spirituality and worship practices were recognized, but these were the exceptions to their accepted roles.
If women had been ecclesiastical leaders, would monarchs have been less inclined to use force to convert people to the faith? If women had been trained and encouraged as theologians, would we have a richer heritage in areas such as creation theology, the theology of children, and the theology of the Spirit? Would more resources have been put into the service of the poor and needy rather than ecclesiastical monuments?
There are no answers to these hypothetical questions. We do know where we are today, however. In our contemporary context, are we providing adequate opportunities for women to lead, to think, and to teach? Women make up much more that half of our congregational membership. The women in our churches are trained as educators, caring professionals, artists, and administrators. Our seminaries are forming gifted, intelligent women for ministry. Called and skilled women are ready to assume more responsibility in the life of the church. If we do not encourage and provide places for women in leadership roles, we will be a poorer church with a limited mission. This would be a tragic continuation of our historical error.