Mothers Of The Church

Laura Keynes praises Kate Cooper’s Band of Angels, a new book that details “the largely unknown role of women in shaping the early Church”:

dish_thecla Cooper understands that women’s power doesn’t always come through formal institutional roles. Rather, it’s the “informal happenings of daily life” — sharing a meal, caring for the vulnerable, offering hospitality — that provide a framework for the transmission of culture. Christianity lacked a formal structure in its earliest years: meetings took place in courtyards or households, communities formed around converted families. Women were often at the centre of things, providing hospitality and shelter for new converts and creating what Cooper calls a “tide of female networking.”

If all that sounds rather boring, think again:

Band of Angels is not a dry work but a pacy tale of heroines, martyrs, virgins, mothers and sisters. … Early Christianity from a woman’s point of view is not a tale of domestic drudgery. These are women of spirit who “discover a blazing fierceness of purpose when faced with the impossible”. Women like Thecla, for example, who turned away from her expected role as wife and mother, leaving fiancé, home and family to follow Paul and preach the gospel. This kind of thinking didn’t go down too well with the imperial authorities and many early Christian women met sticky ends in Roman arenas, thrown to the lions in gladiatorial games.

Commenting on the book in August, Lucy Winkett wrote:

That women figured so prominently as Christianity was being formed makes their institutional silence in later centuries more poignant and casts new light on today’s debates about women and religious authority. … Reading about these first 500 years with the following thousand in mind makes the words of these early women all the more powerful, because we know that their successors were shut out of public office, banned from teaching and martyred for suggesting that their voices should be heard. Cooper’s rediscovery of these women rescues them from a fate as silent pastelled saints and virgins in the frescoes of many churches. The members of the “band of angels” in this book are not perfect, but they are witty, flawed, compassionate, loving and brave – as those of us who are women know we can be.

(Image of fresco of Saint Thecla via Wikimedia Commons)