Later precedents for women's ministry

In spite of the exclusive male dominance of the later Church, there were always some women who managed to achieve positions of respect and authority within it. In the Middle Ages, the religious life of the nun and the anchorite were one way for women to express a degree of spiritual independence.

One thinks of women like the great 12th-century Benedictine abbess and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen; the 14th-century English contemplative, Julian of Norwich; and that 16th-century powerhouse of mystical devotion and practical reform, Teresa of Avila.

Protestantism cut off those particular paths and adopted a forbidding male countenance that was to endure for centuries. Nevertheless, even in the midst of the Reformation there were exceptions.

I like the story of Katharina Schulz, the wife of leading Strassburg (now Strasbourg) minister, Matthis Zell. Katharina wrote hymns, hosted theological discussions and entertained a number of radical Reformation figures in her home. She was a redoubtable champion of religious liberty, and declared: ‘It is our duty to show love, service, and mercy to everyone; Christ, our teacher taught us that.’

And Katharina didn’t think much of male intolerance and bigotry. On one occasion, late in life, she heard that the Lutheran ministers of the city were refusing Christian burial to two sisters whose radical beliefs were deemed to be heretical. Outraged, Katharina rose from her sick bed and, in defiance of the ministers, both preached and officiated at the sisters’ burials!

In 19th-century East Anglia, at least, the Primitive Methodists did actually have women ministers, probably the first English denomination to do so. In 1836, the departure of one such minister from the North Walsham circuit, and the arrival of a new one, were the occasion for verse:

‘Sister Symonds Jesus’ servant,
We must take our leave of you;
Faithful, useful, zealous, fervent,
Now we say, adieu, adieu…’

Followed by:

‘Welcome, welcome Sister Bultitude,
Come and sound the jubilee;
Tell to all the wond’ring multitude,
Pardon and salvation free…’

Elizabeth Bultitude had entered the ministry in 1832 in Norwich, and finally rose to become a Superintendent Minister. She retired in 1862, but at her death in 1891 she was the last of the Primitive Methodists’ women ministers. Their Conference had decided to call no more, claiming – somewhat implausibly – that the ‘rigours of itinerancy’ were a bit too much for them.

Nevertheless, when Elizabeth died they said that her name had stood on their roll so long ‘as though to remind us that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were without distinction of sex.’ Quite so!

Cliff Reed

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