The Anglican Church General Synod voted on Monday 7 July to remove the regulations that prevent women being ordained as bishops. Prior to this, by way of a narrowly won vote, the Church of England (in contrast to the Church of Rome) has allowed the priestly ordination of women since 1992, causing an ongoing backlash from traditionalists. And now the current decision to improve the female position threatens a major clerical rift, even a schism within the establishment.

A primary reason to oppose the decision, as stated by the dissenters, is: 'Our Master and Lord, Jesus himself, when he sent us the twelve to make disciples of the people and of the nations, did nowhere send out women to preach'. This statement is taken directly, word for word, from the Apostolic Constitutions of the Catholic Church and should perhaps have no bearing on reformed Anglican procedures. But, notwithstanding this, it is in direct contradiction of the historical facts of early Christianity.

A New Testament epistle of Saint Paul discusses his own female helpers: Phebe, Julia and Pricilla (Romans 16:1-2, 15; 3-4). Phebe is specifically stated in the text to have been 'a diakonos (deaconess)', although the English translation mistranslates this as 'servant of the church'. We are also told that, from the outset of his ministry, Jesus had female helpers apart from his mother and sisters. There were Mary Magdalene and Martha of course, but Luke 8:3 also mentions 'Joanna, Susanna and many others'. Putting these gospel entries into perspective within an early Christian context, Bishop Clement of Alexandria wrote in the 2nd century: 'The apostles worked in the company of women, who were sisters and co-ministers'.

In the same era, the Church Father Origen of Alexandria recorded that 'Women were instituted as deacons in the church'. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits as much concerning the female ministry. It maintains, 'There can be no question that women were permitted to exercise certain definite functions in the Church and were known by the special name of diakonoi or diakonissai'. Attention is then drawn to a 4th-century manuscript entitled the Testament of Our Lord which renders it 'certain that a ritual was in use for the ordination of women by the laying on of hands'.

The Roman senator, Pliny the younger, had written in AD 112 about female ministers within the Christian movement. A later Council of Nicaea transcript of the newly-formed Roman Church from AD 325 discusses the one-time ecclesiastical role of a deaconess, as did Epiphanius of Salamis (AD 365), St Basil of Caesarea (AD 372) and various others. Among the most famed of ordained Christian women in the 4th century was the wealthy Olympias of Constantinople. She was consecrated as a deaconess by High Bishop Nectarius at the city's principal church, the Hagia Sophia.

The earliest strategy for male-only ecclesiastical dominance was implemented by way of the Apostolic Constitutions when the emergent Church of Rome cited that Jesus had himself been practising the wrong religion. It was decreed that the Nazarene community of Jesus, 'like Jesus himself, expound upon the prophetic books of the Old Testament. They reject the Pauline epistles, and they reject the apostle Paul'. In retaliation, the Nazarenes of the era denounced Paul as 'a renegade and a false apostle', claiming that the idolatrous interpretation of his writings by the Vatican should be rejected altogether.

What Paul had written in his first epistle to Timothy (2:11-12) that seemingly contradicted his previously mentioned working relationships with females, was: 'Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence'. In the light of this convenient statement, the Apostolic Constitutions resultantly maintained that the teachings of St Paul were superior to those of Jesus.

And so the seed was sown; there were to be no more women in the Church and a rule of celibacy was implemented to avoid the possibility of family-inherited office via any female source. As for the Popes, they were deemed to be figurative apostolic successors of St Peter, even though Peter had never been a bishop of anywhere and was certainly not recorded as ever being in Rome. There is no document that attests to anything in Peter's life beyond AD 44 (1 Timothy 2:11-12), some 16 years before St Paul made his famous sea voyage to Rome (Acts 21-28).

If Peter did go to Rome, then Paul never saw fit to mention the fact; neither did any Roman chronicler, nor any other Christian or Jewish writer of the era. The Vatican Archive states: 'We possess no precise information regarding the details of Peter's Roman sojourn. It is widely held that Peter paid a visit to Rome after he had been liberated from the prison in Jerusalem [AD 44], but such a journey cannot be established with certainty'. And yet, despite this admission, the whole premise of Vatican male dominion relies on a principle that St Paul denounced women, whilst the Catholic Church is not classified as the Church of Jesus, but as the Church of St Peter.

Whatever arguments the present Anglican clergy who oppose this week's Synod decision might care to put forward against the consecration of women bishops, one fact is eminently clear: They cannot claim against all historical record that ordained women were not part of the original pre-Roman Christian ministry from the gospel era. Such a declaration is indicative of a very poor level of theological knowledge.

Laurence Gardner - Exeter, 9 July 2008.
Author of The Grail Enigma, HarperCollins, 2008.