Bede on the ministry of women

[Extract from a talk being part of the Friends’ & Benefice Pilgrimage to Holy Island September 2016]

The Visit of the Women to the Sepulchre from the 10th-Century Benedictional of St Æthelwold (British Library). The woman on the left carries pots or boxes of spices; the woman on the right swings a liturgical censer. The Angel sits on the fallen slab which had previously sealed the tomb. Behind in a coffin-shaped rectangle lies the cast-off shroud. To the extreme left the Roman soldiers sleep, off guard.


In writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede was creating an identity for the ‘nation’ of the English, based upon the unifying acknowledgement of one Church of the English (the foundation of which was, as Bede aimed to demonstrate, purposed by the Divine Providence). In this work and in his other writings Bede sought to shape the teachings and practice of the Church of the English upon the authority of the acknowledged Fathers of the Universal Church. Among his sources, naturally enough, he featured prominently the writings of Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English (and Patron of the church in Kirkdale!), whom the English called Gregorius noster - our Gregory.

In this example - from Bede’s ‘exposition’ of the Gospel of St Mark, drawing upon Gregory’s homily upon the same Gospel - Bede is intent upon embedding in the awareness and the tradition of the Church of the English the wisdom and insight of Gregory in esteeming the ministry of faithful women who were the followers of Jesus. [1]


When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb  and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’ But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”’

- Mark 16: 1-6 (New International Version UK).

Bede, having quoted some of this narrative, then interrupts his exposition, to exclaim: O felices feminae, quae angelico doctae oraculo, triumphum resurrectionis mundo annuntiare meruerunt! - O blessed women who, informed by the angelic oracle, were held worthy to announce to the world the triumph of the resurrection.

I wouldn’t dare to rank the events of sacred history in any precise order of priority but Bede for his part regarded Easter as the point in the year at which the motions of Earth, Sun and Moon, even Time itself, were divinely configured, year upon year, to mark the triumph of the Resurrection. And these women meruerunt - they merited - to be those who should announce to the world, to all posterity, that triumph of Christ’s victory over Death, in his glorious resurrection from the dead.

Why did these women merit this historically singular distinction? Because, says Bede, in the dawning of the first day of the week following the Passover, they journeyed - perilously and fearfully - to the sepulchre of their executed and hastily entombed Master, determined to minister humanely to him, being dead, whom living they had loved. The men - his disciples - were evidently lying low for the time being, in Jerusalem. But these women knew what their love for Jesus, their Master, required of them, even after his death. And so, mourning and fearful but resolute, they ventured forth at first light, bearing spices, to fulfil the ministry they owed to their Master.

O felices feminae! This is some accolade for the gender which for generations had been conventionally burdened with the blame incurred by Eve at the Fall.

In Bede’s familiar awareness there already was, of course, another woman in the sacred narratives who merited to be called blessed - Mary, mother of Jesus: “All generations shall call me blessed, for He that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is His name.”

Among the great symmetries which Christian scholars have found in the scriptural writings, just as Jesus is perceived as the second Adam - but one who made good the disobedience of the first Adam - so Mary has been perceived as the second Eve - but one who made good the first Eve’s disobedience, when she gave her momentous assent: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.

I haven’t actually tried tracking this idea of the ‘second Eve’ back to Bede, but it is certainly, and distinctively, an idea current through the Anglo-Saxon period in the ambience of the Anglo-Saxon monasteries. Anglo-Saxon poets (successors to Cædmon, composing in the English tongue) picked up the topic. When (in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as Christ & Satan) Christ descends into Hell to liberate all the souls imprisoned there by Satan, Eve successfully pleads pardon for her calamitous disobedience, by virtue of her ‘daughter’ Mary:

… ræhte þa mid handum    to heofencyninge, / bæd meotod miltse    þurh Marian had: / “Hwæt, þu fram minre dohtor,    drihten, onwoce / in middangeard    mannum to helpe.”

Then she stretched out her hands to the Heaven-king and begged grace of the Lord by virtue of Mary’s standing: “Lo, Lord, by my daughter you were born into this world, to men’s succour.” (Christ and Satan435-38). [Transl. SAJB]

Through Mary - so another Anglo-Saxon poet exclaims (The Advent Lyrics, 4) [2] - the formerly lowlier sex has now been exalted.

Christ revealed in David’s dear kinswoman [Mary] that the sin of Eve is entirely set aside and the curse averted and the lowlier sex is glorified. Hope is now conceived that a blessing may now and always rest upon both alike, men and women, henceforth to eternity. [Transl. SAJB]

My Anglo-Saxon studies led me (as they have led various other Anglo-Saxonists) into 19th-century studies. One of the earliest European scholars to tackle the serious study of Anglo-Saxon poetry in the 19th century was the Dane N. F. S. Grundtvig - a very important man in modern Danish history: a protestant pastor brimming with contempt for the papacy in Rome, yet extraordinarily sympathetic to the catholic character of the Anglo-Saxon Church and its poetry. He was a huge admirer of Bede the historian; and he taught himself Anglo-Saxon so that he could read the Anglo-Saxon poets.

Often well out of step with the almost exclusively patriarchal Lutheran Protestantism of his contemporary Denmark, Grundtvig wrote a very lengthy poem he called Kvinde-Evangeliet (1842) - the Women’s Gospel. In this work he declared:  Ye streams of tears, flow freely! / Yea, pour forth over dust / for the Church, devoid of women, / as a grove devoid of leaves! 

This verse of his long lay dormant - but then, a century onwards, it was quoted by the two Danish bishops who, in 1948, ordained the first three women priests in the Danish Church. And furthermore: on that occasion, Bishop Øllgaard, Bishop of the island of Fyn, cited in his ordination sermon, “the Easter Gospel, where the angel at the sepulchre ordained the women [“ordinerede kvinderne”]” and sent them forth with the charge to go and make known the triumph of the resurrection. [3]

This, in the mid-twentieth century ... and yet not so far from Bede’s commendation to the still-stripling Church of the English, back in the early 700s, faithfully following Gregorius noster - our Gregory: O felices feminae, quae meruerunt … O blessed women who merited to be those that should reveal to the world the triumph of the Resurrection!

But it was to be a long time before the Church of the English took onwards Bede’s idea of a ministry of women and resolved to ordain women to the priesthood.

Sid Bradley, co-leader of the pilgrimage with Revd Andrew De Smet

© S A J Bradley 2016


[1] Bede, In Marci Evangelium Expositio, ed. D. Hurst, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 1960, pp. 639-40. Gregory the Great, Homiliae in Evangelia, ed. R. Étaix, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 1999. Note Mark 15, vv. 40-41: Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.  In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

[2] Advent Lyric 4 is one of a series of free renditions in Old English verse of the Church’s Advent ‘O’-antiphons - in this case the Latin antiphon O virgo virginum. Here, Mary responds to the wonderment of the daughters of Jerusalem over the “divine mystery” whereby a virgin could conceive a child. The wondrous symmetry by which Eve’s calamitous disobedience is made good by Mary’s perfection of obedience to the Father’s will has been celebrated in many forms throughout Christian culture since the early Christian centuries - for example, through the concept of the felix culpa, according as that ‘happy/blessed fault’ - the Fall - is hailed in the Church’s Exsultet of Easter Eve. Incidentally, the felices of felices feminae and the felix of felix culpa are the same word in different grammatical contexts.

[3] Cited by Henning Høirup, Så fjern og dog så nær, Poul Kristensens Forlag, Herning, Denmark, 1991, pp. 165-66. [Transl. SAJB].