Protestantism And Women

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In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to rediscover the role played by women in the religious and social life of the later Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.75 There is a clear consensus that the agendas and interests of earlier (largely, it must be admitted, male) historians of these movements may have minimized the significance of these writers, whether unconsciously or deliberately. The retrieval of such forgotten or repressed histories has renewed interest in the new possibilities created for women by the new religious movements of the age.

The emergence of Protestantism was of considerable significance for women, even if the actualization of the promise of the movement proved rather more problematic than some had hoped. Above all, Luther's doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" affirmed that all Christians—whether male or female—possessed the status of priests within the corporate priesthood of the people of God. If pursued consistently, this line of thought led inexorably to women being able to exercise the same ministerial functions as men.

Yet Luther was conservative in both his theology and his practice and appears to have been reluctant to follow through his radical affirmation to its ecclesiological conclusions. Indeed, Protestantism did not even allow women the subsidiary clerical roles that nuns had earlier performed. While Calvin held that the Pauline admonition that women should be silent in church is a matter of time-bound apostolic advice rather than divine law for all time, there is little evidence that he believed the time was right to make changes there and then.

Nevertheless, it is clear that he was open to such major changes in the future.76

Others were more radical—or, as they would see it, more consistent. On February 1, 1532, the Parisian faculty of theology issued its condemnation of a series of subversive doctrines propounded by the Protestant Etienne Le Court, including his radical suggestion that, "now that God has willed that the Bible should be in French, women will take over the office of bishops, and bishops the office of women. Women will preach the gospel, while bishops will gossip with young girls."77

The problem of this failure was accentuated by Protestantism's removal of one (and occasionally both) of the two realms in which women were able to exercise genuine leadership and authority during the medieval period—the monarchy and the convent.78 The early Protestant critique of the monastic life, though not always totally negative, regarded it as isolating Christians from the world. The closure of the convents denied to women the leadership roles evident in Catholic women writers such as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, both of whom were declared to be "doctors of the church" in 1970.

Early Protestantism downplayed the spiritual roles of women in other, more subtle ways. The Protestant rejection of the "cult of the saints" eliminated a series of role models known to have been important to women during the Middle Ages—such as Saint Anne, mother of Mary and the patron saint of pregnant women. Religious processions and other rituals that gave women clear functions of their own were now discontinued, as were female religious confraternities.79

In part, such losses were remedied through the early Protestant relocation of the concept of calling for women within the family. One of the most significant consequences of the Protestant rejection of the idea of clerical celibacy—which was in any case widely flouted—was a new emphasis on the importance of marriage as a covenant relationship. The deliberate decisions of Martin Luther and Martin Bucer to marry former nuns was a clear statement of the transference of vocation from the convent to the home. The family was to be the new unit of religious calling and nurture.80

Protestantism is often held to be responsible for the emergence of the characteristic Western notion of the "nuclear family." In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, individuals belonged to multiple families, including confraternities, guilds, corporations, and religious orders. The "family" was a diffuse and extended notion involving multiple loyalties and associations, and it included the dead as well as the living. Although there was no Protestant "theology of the family," a number of theological and social factors that were clearly of Protestant provenance—such as a disinclination to pray for the dead and the abolition of confraternities—led to the family becoming an increasingly important social unit. The family was now understood to be defined by biological and physical proximity—that is, a group of people closely related by blood and living in the same place.81

This new respect for the family and motherhood marked a significant break with the existing consensus. Medieval Catholicism tended to laud the virtues of celibacy and virginity and regarded the decision of those who chose to marry and bear children as an unfortunate consequence of original sin. The need to procreate and have legitimate heirs was, of course, entirely understandable, not least for monarchs. Yet it was seen as an unfortunate necessity, a means of taming physical lust rather than the fruit of Christian piety. While this public praise of celibacy was often accompanied by clandestine affairs, little attention was paid to those who chose to marry and bear children. By doing so, they had lost their spiritual credibility and degenerated to the spiritually debased category of the ordinary.

It is easy to point to Protestant works emphasizing the importance of women in the family and arguing for an enhanced valuation of their role. Johann Steinbach, in his Household of Women (1561), argued that women should play a much greater role in the running of households. Johann Freder's Dialogue in Honor of Marriage (1543) advocated greater parity between the genders on the grounds that women had the same noble and rational souls as men.82 Yet other forces were at work that would ultimately subvert these developments.83 In the end, sixteenth-century Protestantism altered the perception of women without necessarily effecting the transvaluation and transformation of social roles that this would have seemed to entail.

Individual Protestant women achieved significant prominence in the following centuries. Anne Bradstreet (1612-72) played an important role in the spiritual affairs of Puritan New England, not least through her religious poetry. Phoebe Palmer (1807-74) was at the center of Methodist holiness revivalism in the United States, especially during the 1850s. The Anglican Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95) penned some of the classic hymns of the English language, including There Is a Green Hill, Once in Royal David's City, and All Things Bright and Beautiful. Her American counterpart Fanny J. Cosby (1820-1915) wrote Blessed Assurance and To God Be the Glory.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others produced The Women's Bible (1895), which set out to use the Bible itself to liberate women from the straitjacket that had been placed around them by institutionalized Protestantism. "Paul, in speaking of equality as the very soul and essence of Christianity, said, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.'... [With] this declaration of the equality of the sexes in the New, we may well wonder at the contemptible status woman occupies in the Christian Church of to-day." Cady's well-turned phrases and careful arguments did much to raise concern about Protestantism's traditional attitudes toward women.

In the end, the radical changes in Protestant attitudes toward women in the twentieth century must be judged to be primarily the result of the greater acceptance of women's roles in society as a whole, rather than the outcomes of a theologically driven agenda. In this case, theology showed an intriguing tendency to follow public opinion, not to shape it. Women received the right to vote in many Western nations—including Great Britain and the United States—after the end of the First World War in 1918. Yet it was not until the 1950s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, that Protestantism as a whole began to explore the place of women in ordained ministry with any great seriousness.

Since then, those denominations ordaining women to full leadership positions have seen their numbers mushroom. In the United States between 1977 and 1997, the number of ordained women in the Baptist churches increased from 157 to 712; in the Episcopal church from 94 to 1,394; and in the United Methodist church from 319 to 3,003. In June 2006, the General Convention of the American Episcopal Church elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada as its new presiding bishop. By 2005 more than 50 percent of the students in American Protestant seminaries were women. In the Church of England, which voted to ordain women as priests in 1992, the number of women being ordained is now equal to that of men and is expected to surpass that number in the future. This has alarmed traditionalists, who see this change as the "feminization" of the priesthood. Others suggest that it is the inevitable and welcome outcome of the fundamental doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers."

From the material presented in this chapter thus far, it will be clear that the relationship between Protestantism and its social context cannot be defined in terms of some "universal Protestantism" shaping its social context in an ideologically controlled or predetermined manner. The relationship was mutual, in that social factors shaped Protestantism as much as Protestantism molded its context. The significant differences in styles of Protestantism, when linked with the substantial cultural and political variations between nations and regions, led to a multiplicity of interactions.

Yet in the twentieth century, Protestantism expanded far beyond its original homelands in the West, taking root in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This has generated new concerns and debates, as will become clear from what follows.

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