Friday, February 17, 2012

A Woman Bishop?

According to the old Irish legend:
From the Book of Lismore: "For humility Brigit stayed so that she might be the last to whom a veil should be given. A fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof-ridge of the church. Then said Bishop Mél: “Come, O holy Brigit, that a veil may be sained on thy head before the other virgins.” It came to pass then, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, that the form of ordaining a bishop was read over Brigit. Mac-caille said, that a bishop’s order should not be conferred on a woman. Said Bishop Mél: “No power have I in this matter. That dignity hath been given by God unto Brigit, beyond every (other) woman.” Wherefore the men of Ireland from that time to this give episcopal honour to Brigit’s successor."

The abbesses of Kildare apparently retained this episcopal honour until a reforming Synod in 1152.

With such curious privileges around one can see why twelfth century Popes both before and after Strongbow and King Henry II were interested in reforming the Irish church.

We are not required to believe everything in an early saint's life. I suspect this story may originate in attempt to explain the particular traditional privileges of the abbess of Kildare, perhaps originating with the Celtic ( a dangerously overused term these days in respect of spiritual matters) tradition of a monastically led church, with the bishop less important than the abbot or abbess, and, I wonder, possibly in local land tenure customs and claims.

Prof. Charles-Edwards (he is the Professor of Celtic Studies here at Oxford) gives a detailed assessment of the life of St Brigid in his life of her in the recent Oxford DNB which can be read here and provides a valuable informed insight into the complexities of the era. This is a topic and period about which I know very little, but I do apprecaite the tangled nature of the sources and admire the skill of those who can disentangle them. (Read entire post.)

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