This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA, the 40th anniversary of women of color, and the 10th anniversary of LGBTQ+ siblings. It’s an incredibly important marker for the ELCA, though it is only the beginning for the Church, as women are still denied ordination across the denominations and hold less than 15% of the leadership positions in the worldwide church! Therefore, in 2020, we in the Oregon Synod will highlight one woman from Christian history every week. Some you may know, others you may not, but all worthy of our respect and gratitude. The women will be posted each Sunday afternoon on our Facebook page.
December 28, 2019: Unnamed Women
Before we begin celebrating the contributions of the named women in Christian history, we want to take a moment to acknowledge all the unnamed, unknown women who have testified, preached, healed, labored, taught, guided and loved Christ and the Christian mission from the very beginning. Women followed Jesus during his life, the gospels tell us that women stayed through the agony of the crucifixion and that women were the first to witness the resurrection and therefore, the first to speak about it. The earliest Christian worship services and sacraments were celebrated in the home, the domain of women. The earliest form of communion was the agape feast, cooked by women. There are non-canonical gospels and texts that recognize the role of women, as well as ancient works of art. Ordaining women is not a modern practice placed on an ancient religion, but rather a return to the roots of Christianity and the powerful female leadership which has shaped Christianity from its birth. So from these first female Christian leaders, to the women whose unacknowledged leadership and labor holds up the church today, we offer our gratitude. Though often forgotten, discounted, and overlooked, they too are part of the foundation of the faith upon whose shoulders we stand, and for the depth of their spirituality, courage and perseverance we are forever grateful.
January 5: Mary Magdalene
This week we honor Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, whose importance to the burgeoning sect of Judaism that became Christianity is hard to overstate. How do we know this? Well, number one, simply because she’s mentioned. Scripture was written in the context of such baked-in and rigid patriarchy that we know this truth to be self-evident: if a woman was mentioned, and named, she was very, very important. Not only do all four of our canonical gospels mention Mary Magdalene, they each mention her more than once. She also has a gospel (non-canonical) all her own.
Secondly, when women are listed, Mary of Magdala is listed first. This clues us into the fact that must have been a leader.
Thirdly, that such a tremendous rap sheet has developed about her through the years which indicates that there’s more there. Why, when nothing in scripture indicates that she was anything other than a woman from a small down healed from demons, who chose to risk everything to follow Jesus? Why, other than posing a threat of some kind to existing authority, would these other traditions develop labeling her a prostitute? Scholars tell us it’s likely that her leadership threatened some existing Christian powers and principalities. The age-old rumor mill that has dismissed and discounted multitudes of women. The four gospel resurrection narratives vary in details, but they all agree on this point: Mary Magdalene was among the women who stayed through the crucifixion. She was the first to witness the risen Christ, and most importantly, she was the first to dare TELL about it. That is the very definition of “apostle” – one sent to share good and often disruptive news. The gospels were written by men, and yet they all base their stories of the risen Christ on the experience, the word, of a woman! Mary Magdalene truly was the Apostle to the Apostles.
January 12: Thecla
You may or may not know of Thecla today, but she was a well-known leader from Iconium in the earliest years of the Christian movement. Her lively and somewhat fabulous story is recorded in the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Acts of Thecla, both of which were widely disseminated and used in worship throughout the Ancient Near East, but later deemed heretical and destroyed, though clearly, copies remained. In the apocryphal text, we are told of Thecla, a virgin-martyr converted by Paul, who refused marriage, cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and took up the duties of a missionary apostle. Threatened with rape, prostitution, and twice put in the ring as a martyr, she persevered in her ministry, courage, healing and faithfulness to God. Unsurprisingly, some ancient church leaders found themselves inspired by the fact of a woman preaching and baptizing, and others like Tertullian found it challenging or disturbing. Her legacy is an incredible reminder of all the audacious women of faith who have gone before us.
January 19: Perpetua & Felicity
Not only were women prominent leaders in the early church, some of the most widely known and respected were very young women, like Perpetua and Felicity. The story of their martyrdom, “The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions,” mostly written by Perpetua’s own hand, was so popular in the early centuries that it was read during liturgies. The story is tragic: two young women killed by Rome for their religious beliefs. It is a story that played out far too many times and took far too many lives. But a few things make this story noteworthy. Like Thecla, Perpetua stood up to the patriarchy, first by defying her father, then by defying Rome. She claimed her own identity in a time when women were not allowed their own identities. Perpetua made her own choices and she had the privilege (through literacy), of writing her own story. What does it tell us about the earliest Christian communities that it was the spiritual example of these young women that they valued so highly and lifted up?
January 26: Desert Mothers
At the same time that Constantine was gathering male leaders for the Council of Nicea in 325CE, (where women were decreed unable to hold leadership roles – no matter that many of the leading Christian leaders of the time were female), many of the inspiring religious leaders refused to let their spirituality be constrained and chose to head into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Persia and Asia Minor. These Desert Mothers and Fathers lived lives of asceticism and founded the first Christian monastic orders. Unsurprisingly, the lives of the Desert Fathers are more well known, our information about the Desert Mothers comes from the Desert Fathers and their biographers. So today, we honor these women who defied Rome and patriarchy to follow Christ. Many of their names and stories have been lost to history, but the fruits of their devotion live on in the monastic orders of today.
February 2: Phyllis Wheatley
In honor of Black History Month, we are going to jump our series forward in time to spotlight the Christian leadership of African-American women, starting with Phyllis Wheatley. Her story is one among many revealing the gruesome nature of human slavery in our history. Captured and taken violently from her home in West Africa at age seven, Phyllis was transported in the bowels of a slave ship across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in Boston. Educated by the family that bought her -the Wheatley’s -by the age of 18 she became a poet renowned at home and abroad. So well known and loved was she that she corresponded with, and eventually met, leaders like President George Washington. Her achievements became an inspiration to, and catalyst for, the fledgling antislavery movement. Wheatley intentionally used her art to condemn the practice of slavery and remind her Christian audience of the universal and liberating nature of God’s love. For instance, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” the best-known Wheatley poem, chides the audience to remember that Africans must be included in the Christ’s promises: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” She strategically linked her nation’s struggle for freedom to the need for freedom amongst it’s slaves: “for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us.”
February 9: Jarena Lee
In 1819, Jarena Lee was the first woman authorized to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. She was also the first African American woman to have an autobiography published in the United States, “The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.” She was not raised in a religious household, but rather came to her Christian beliefs through her own mental health struggles and the solace she found after many hours of prayer. After her own conversion experience she began to hear the call to go and preach the Gospel. The only problem being–at this time–women did not preach the Gospel. Having joined the AME church, Jarena went to it’s founder, Richard Allen, and told him of her call. He rebuffed her for her gender. Jarena married another AME pastor, Joseph Lee, who also dissuaded her from preaching the Gospel and for eight years these two men kept her from her call (Joseph until his death). But one Sunday in 1817, Jarena stood up during a worship service and began to preach. On hearing her, Bishop Allen had a change of heart and publicly affirmed her call to preach the Gospel – making her the first African American woman to preach the Gospel publicly. Jarena became an itinerant preacher, traveling thousands of miles on foot. She preached to racially mixed Protestant audiences across the United States and Canada, all at a time when slavery was still legal and neither African Americans nor women could own property or vote. She was part of the peak of the movement we call the Second Great Awakening, which included the idea that African Americans and women could preach.