The Church’s Powerful Women

What does that phrase convey to you? Whom do you think of as the Church’s powerful women? My guess is that the majority of Catholics would be hard put to name any living woman as such. A little scratching of the head might produce a few names from the past: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, say, or Teresa of Avila. The idea of women exercising power in the Church is alien to most, and the names we remember tend to come from a comparatively small group of people who did comparatively similar things, e.g. found an order/congregation/institute of charity or write. The more historically-minded could provide a list of Late Antique empresses and medieval queens who exerted a lot of influence in the Church, not all of it good, but that mythical beast, the (wo)man in the pew, would probably end up with very few names. Among them would almost certainly be that of today’s saint, Hild or Hilda of Whitby, but I wonder whether it would be the Hilda of history or the Hilda of modern myth who would be celebrated?

A close reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us several interesting facts about Hilda and suggests many more. She may once have been married. ‘Everyone called her mother,’ says Bede, a phrase he uses of no other nun. She was certainly of mature age (33) when she abandoned her plan to go to Chelles, the leading monastery for women of the day, and answered Aidan’s call to establish a monastery in Northumbria. The monasteries she founded all followed the Celtic pattern and were double houses for both men and women. Bede emphasizes her gifts as an administrator — and her sensitivity to poetry. She plucked Caedmon from the cow-byre to be a singer of psalms and sacred songs. Her role at the Synod of Whitby has been much discussed, and I think it may explain why Hilda has been mythologized in recent times.

What happened at Whitby must have been quite earth-shattering for many of the participants. Indeed, the monks of Lindisfarne refused to accept the decision to embrace the Roman date for Easter and withdrew first to Iona, then later, to Ireland. For those who did accept the decision, Hilda among them, it meant the loss of much that was dear and familiar. Little by little, or in some cases overnight, the old Celtic practices gave way to the ‘new’ Roman ones. Even the shape of the monks’ tonsure changed. Perhaps only those who have lived monastic life themselves can really appreciate what these changes meant to the individuals concerned. There was continuity but also change, and it is often the little things that cost most.

Hilda undoubtedly played a key role in getting the decision accepted. Such was her reputation for wisdom and prudence that many would have looked to her for guidance. Crucially, what many overlook is that in accepting the Roman date of Easter Hilda was placing the desire for unity in Church practice above any other consideration. As a Celtic Christian, she already acknowledged the primacy of the pope, but here she was, stating that a theoretical acknowledgement had to be translated into actual practice.

People sometimes speak of Hilda as though she were a role model for female bishops. She is undoubtedly a role model for Christian leadership, but I think myself it is more helpful to see her in the monastic context, where leadership is exercised without hierarchical status. Power, in Church terms, is such an odd thing. I think we sometimes mistake the importance of the different elements in building up the Church. Administration is a gift, a charism, not to be undervalued; but it is a gift meant to lead to holiness, and holiness without compassion is an impossibility. Hilda did not set herself up over and against the existing hierarchy of the Church but used her many gifts of heart and mind to bring others to the Christ she knew and loved so well. It is no accident that, holy herself, her monastery became a nursery of saints. May she pray for us all.

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