Women too act ‘in persona Christi’

jensenIn theological debate in centuries past the concept of the representation of Christ played a decisive part in legitimising power, as expressed in the sharpening of the theological formula “in persona Christi capitis” – the representation of Christ as head of the Church. But here not the priests/presbyters were the focal points, but the bishops, and finally the Pope with his claim to be ‘vicarius Christi’.

So here much more was involved than merely presiding over the Eucharistic celebration. In this way an inversion had already taken place. It is one thing to say: ‘When an individual (male or female) presides over the Eucharistic celebration, he or she represents Christ at the Last Supper’. quite another thing is to hold that only the bishops (and the presbyters/priests as their delegates) can represent Christ and that this is the reason why only they may preside over the Eucharist. Finally, in the third place, should be added the contention that the representation of Christ in this episcopal-presbyterial office presupposes the male gender.

Now the answers we get from old texts depend to quite an extent on the questions we ask them. Thus Othmar Perter reaches this conclusion. “The bishop is in the eyes of the early Church the prolongation of Christ throughout the centuries. He participates in the kingship and priesthood of the Messiah in another sense than the baptised or even the simple priests.”(Note 14) This is a false conclusion according to the testimony of the sources which he himself quotes, especially regarding the second part of the statement according to which the representation of Christ by a bishop differs in quality from other representations of Christ. If one asks “Is Christ represented by the bishop?”, texts can indeed be produced which allow the question to be answered with a clear affirmative. But if one then asks the same texts “Who represents Christ?”, one comes, as we shall see, to the conclusion that it is by no means only the bishop.

Already a preliminary finding is surprising. The texts which really mention representation are not all numerous;(Note 15) far more often, the bishops’ authority is credited to their being the successors of the Apostles. To quote an example. The letter of Clement states that God sent Christ and Christ, the Apostles. These “appointed their first-born bishops and deacons for the future believers” (42,4). The author of the letter is concerned with something quite precise: so as to avoid power struggles like those which had happened in Corinth, ecclesiastical office-bearers should be non-disposable, and he bases that, inter alia, on the simple conviction known to us from the Letter to the Romans: authority whether in State or Church, comes from God (Rom.XIII). Elsewhere the “bishops and deacons” are held equivalent with the “presbyters”. Quite correctly, Joseph A.Fischer’s commentary states that  “….from the text of the letter no clue indicating a monarchical episcopate can be drawn.” (Note 16) Anyone wishing to base a special representative status of the bishop on such a text is setting out from a certain preconceived idea of episcopacy and reading it into the text. (Note 17)

However, the idea that the bishop represents Christ,  or even directly God, is indeed to be found, and in powerful words, in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (early 2nd cent.) and in the Didascatia (early 3rd cent.). For example, in the letter to the Ephesians (V,1) to quote only one of the numerous sources, we find “So we must really look upon the bishop as the Lord himself”. But then, too, “Similarly, all must revere the deacons as (if they were) Jesus Christ…..” (To the Trallians, V.1 (Note 18) ). The martyr bishop is rightly seen as the early great champion of “monarchical episcopate”, rightly in that he wishes the running of the community to be headed by a single person as a guarantee of unity. But what in all this gets cheerfully overlooked is that Ignatius’s concept was that two collegiate bodies should relate to this person: the presbyterium and the diaconate, which relativises the “monarchical” character of this episcopacy at least to some extent. It is also significant that a distinction is drawn in the representation of Christ between the episcopal and the diaconate function. It is the latter which represents the “service” of Jesus. However, in Ignatius we are dealing with an extreme exaltation of all the functionaries, not merely of the bishop.

Nevertheless, when judging this text one thing should be borne in mind. Ignatius is writing in a spirit of extreme enthusiasm for martyrdom, and his language is generally exalted. And it is precisely the beseeching tone of his letters that shows that in the communities real life looked different, so that his voice should not simply be confused with the views of office held by Christians on the threshold of the second century. Here one may point to the contrasting text from early Christianity, the Didache (early 2nd c) in which the prophets enjoy the highest regard, whereas bishops and deacons are mentioned only once (and probably that was a later addition). (Note 19).

It becomes clear that the ideal picture painted by Ignatius does not match reality when one examines the role of the female and male martyrs in the 2nd and 3rd centuries where these appear in conflict with the episcopate. And if one takes only the martyred bishops, for instance in the report on the trial and eventual massacre of Christians in Lyons and Vienne in AD 177, only two quotes concerning the elderly Bishop Pothimus stand out: “In him Christ triumphed” and “the masses raged against him ‘as if he were Christ’ ” (V,1,29 on) But such are typical statements about male and female martyrs, independent of their function, as can easily be confirmed by the dossiers on martyrdom. So they cannot be seized upon to illustrate a specific representation of Christ by the bishop. Indeed, in the report about the Lyons massacre it is noticeable that the nonagenarian bishop merits only a very brief mention. The central figure here is however the slave Blandina, who is described, as none other in the arena of Lyons, as she in whom her fellow tortured experienced the presence of the resurrected Saviour. Here is merely the most important citation:

“Blandina was hung from a stake so as to be the prey of the beasts let loose. She gave the combatants, who saw her hanging in the form of a cross and heard her unceasing prayers, great courage, for seeing their sister in this struggle they saw with their own eyes him who was crucified for them, — so that she gave to those who believe in him the certainty that all who suffer for the honour of Christ are eternally united with the living God.” (V,1,41)

The declaration about Blandina, who conveys to her fellow Christians, the certainty of the Resurrection, is so astounding that from time to time it is wrongly related to Christ by the translators.(Note 22) If one is seeking only references to bishops, such texts, as already said, are completely disregarded. Through coupling “martyr” and “bishop”, the authority of the early Christian martyrs or confessors simply transferred to the bishop, thus veiling a possible conflict between the two authorities. But if we are to deal properly with the testimony on the representational function of the bishop, recognising this conflict, well documented in the correspondence of Cyprian of Carthage (et al), is important.

As to the terminology: we are used to differing between martyrs and confessors; the first have given their lives for the faith, the others not so. But in the era of persecutions, these terms were interchangeable and were used for people who had acknowledged their belief, to a court of justice, at risk to their lives. This was so even if they survived the persecution. They were held in the highest esteem in their community. On the other hand, there were in the community the “lapsi”, who had denied their faith under persecution. Argument raged about whether they might be readmitted to communion. So here the still extant martyrs, male and female, were called upon. They might well intercede for the repentant backsliders or, rather, they themselves undertook the forgiveness, usually by writing so-called ‘peace letters’. In Cyprian’s correspondence this is frequently mentioned, and one of these letters is textually known.

“All confessors greet Father Cyprian. We inform you that we have granted peace to all those who must answer to you for their behaviour after their offence, and we wish that through you this attestation be made known to the other bishops too. We wish you to be at peace with the holy martyrs. Lucianus has written this in the presence of two clerics, an exorcist and a lector.” (Note 23)

Another letter shows that such attestations were also signed by female martyrs. (Note 22) The interesting thing is that whereas Cyprian grumbles about this procedure, he does not in principle deprive the female and male martyrs of the right to reinstate the apostates by virtue of his episcopal authority, but merely because he considers it unfitting to forgive them so quickly.

In another place Cyprian apologises to the community for having bestowed church functions on confessors without the usual prior consultation and communal resolution – this he writes, was unnecessary because God, himself, had favoured them with the grace of confessorship.(38.1) The important point of this is that the authority of the female and male martyrs in the church, similarly to that of the female and male prophets, is of an exclusively charismatic nature, as distinct from the other clerics, male and female, whose charisms required additional legitimacy as conferred by ecclesiastical ordination or appointment.(Note 23)

Once one knows these facts, which indicate a clear rivalry between episcopal and confessor-grounded authority, the rules in the Apostolic Tradition as also the expositions on martyrdom and the instructions regarding the bishop in the Didascalaia (Note 24) appear in a rather different light than if read independently from this conflict. Hippolytus holds that the confessors (no mention of female ones) need not be ordained to the function of the diaconate or presbyterate, because “through their confessorship they already rank as presbyters.”(Note 9) Only if they are to be a bishop must they be ordained. At first glance this seems to betoken a particular position of honour for the confessors. Not so, it precludes them from any possible competition with the episcopal office, because they are deemed equal not with that, but only with the presbyters.(Note 15)

There is a similar phenomenon in the Didascalia which, together with Ignatius, is the chief source of statements on the bishop as God’s representative. Indeed, here can be found plenty of utterances such as “ He reigns in place of the Almighty, yea, he should be revered by you like God” (chap 9). But again this is said of Martyrs too:

“He is to be seen by you as an angel of God or God on earth, he who in a spiritual sense is clothed with the Holy Spirit of God. For as he has become worthy of the imperishable crown and has again renewed the martyrdom of suffering, you see through him the Lord Our Saviour.” (Chap.19)

However, the author of the Didascalia fails to draw any consequences for “canonical law” from this remarkably powerful assertion, and avoids addressing the relationship between episcopal and confessor-based authority. But the general tone of this devotional text leaves no doubt that the position of the bishop was to be strengthened rather than the status of the martyrs. All the odder then, that precisely in this thoroughly hierarchically-tending document which inter alia, uses the strongest polemics to restrict the activities of church widows, we find a representational model for the baptismal liturgy unique in early Christian literature:

“The bishop presides in the place of God: the deacon stands in the place of Christ and must be loved by you. But the deaconess must be revered by you in the place of the Holy Spirit.” (Chap 9)

The presbyters and the widows and orphans are also named. The first-named represent the Apostles, the latter the altar. So here the whole liturgical scenario is expounded in various forms of representation. And there is another important point if one wants to quote the Didascalia on representation: the assertions granting the bishop so much authority stand in a particular context. It concerns the question of those who ‘gave in’ under persecution. The bishop should initially exercise severity in their regard and exclude them from the Church, but then, most of all, represent divine clemency and take them back. Evidently, the function of forgiveness, which had been a bone of contention between martyrs and bishops, should here be reserved to the latter without this being expressly stated.

From: “The Representation of Christ, Ecclesiastical Office, and Presiding at the Eucharist ”
by Professor Dr. Anne Jensen, Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 40 (1993) pp. 282-297. Full text here.