Reforming Women Away

I’m sure Eamon Duffy or someone has pointed this out somewhere, and I’m sure it’s been argued against, but it seems like the reformation removed nearly all positive female images from the life of the visible church.

Because of various abuses, the churches removed

  • all images and statues which would have included saints like Mary and Elizabeth. This means that beyond the people in the nave (an image itself, of course) there was nothing to see beyond the pastor or elders who were all male.
  • all Marian devotion (though the Church of England did still celebrate a couple of Marian feasts as “red letter days”) and all prayers to saints in general. This means that all prayer and devotion were directed toward a very male Father and a very male Son through a presumably male Holy Spirit (?).
  • monasteries and convents, which took away the presence of nuns in the church. Whereas the old catholic religious orders had produce female doctors of the church like Catherine of Sienna and eventually Teresa of Avila, the reformed church moved all doctrinal life to the male presbyterate and the male university.

Maybe there are other places, I don’t know. But I can imagine the effect this had on little girls growing up in the church. It seems that before the reformation, a little girl could walk into a church, see statues of the Blessed Virgin or icons of the Theotokos and that was a model for her. She could hear the Salve Regina or some other hymn to Mary and she could see women like Julian of Norwich giving themselves to the study of scripture and prayer. Surely this all shaped her imagination.

After the reformation, the church had removed all of that. Other things came like teaching sunday school and caring for the needy or whatever, but something of the strong female images was definitely gone.

I’m sure it could be argued that there were other expectations and roles to fill. Maybe as the reformers brought more scripture back into the life of the church they took time to focus on more female characters in the Bible.  Nevertheless, I’m certain that as protestantism grew, this became more and more of a feature that women had only backroom roles to play in the life of the church because we know that they only had back room roles to play in society in general. Feminism didn’t just come out of nowhere.

As women rightly began to gain access to universities and halls of power in the state, it’s no surprise to me that women in protestant churches would eventually begin arguing for ordination which had become the only major official role of the church. In the protestant churches that I grew up in (and all I attended until I was 30), women were not even allowed to publicly read Scripture in the church.

This is not arguing for or against women’s ordination. It’s just an observation that the reformations’s reductionism of images left some major holes that would clearly have to be filled in some way, some day, and that there weren’t many ways beyond ordination for those holes to be filled.