Skip to content

Why female religious leaders are so NOW

March 13, 2015
Wandering female sage, India, c.1906 (Image in public domain, including in the U.S.)

Wandering female sage, India, c.1906 (Image in the public domain, including in the U.S.)

The theme of 2015’s International Women’s Day on 8 March was ‘Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!’

Now although I’m not religious, I don’t have anything against anyone who is, just so long as they try to do good with it, not harm (which is rather what I thought religion was for, after all). And I’m emphatically pro female empowerment, ergo female leaders; at least, female ‘leaders’ in their own way (see my recent post ‘Women leaders: PC puzzles, if women “lead from behind”, how can we be seen?’:

Recently Libby Lane became the Church of England’s first female bishop ( In the midst of the celebrations there was an outburst from some old fogey in the congregation; and still, only some 20 or so Anglican women bishops do their work around the world. Why the slow progress, the opposition? Some say that women can’t even be priests: that for them, even priesthood seems an ‘authority’ that Scripture doesn’t reflect. As for bishops, the reactionary camp believes that it’s theologically impossible for women bishops to ordain priests, and that in any case Scripture requires male headship in the Church; more, that women’s ordination puts a brake on any hopes of unity with Roman Catholics.

But, surprise surprise (not), the non-canonical Christian texts, apocryphal or gnostic gospels, so-called, i.e. the ones rejected by the male-dominated ancient Church, give women greater prominence. In one narrative, actually titled the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), Christ says,

‘Mary Magdalene and John… will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries in the Ineffable. And they will be on my right and on my left. And I am they, and they are I.’

In another, Christ asks his mother Mary, Martha, Salome and Mary Magdalene to answer his questions about scripture; when Peter objects to the female participation, Jesus corrects him and urges Martha to continue. In the so-called ‘First Apocalypse of James’, James asks,’Who are the seven women who have been your disciples?’; Jesus reveals four to be ‘Salome and Mariam and Martha and Arsinoe’.

Mary Magdalene was actually titled ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ by Hippolytus, bishop of Rome c. 170-235, according to Thimmes.

Even within the Biblical canon, female disciples feature widely, as in this account in James of Christ’s wide-roaming ministry:

‘And the twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.’

In my last post I argued that history, the long tradition, across a whole gamut of cultures, of female high priesthood, was too pervasive to be ignored. The female presence in the non-canonical scriptures – texts sidelined by a largely patriarchal Church – often is.

But if Christianity is trying to repress us even in present times, in other religions today we women won’t so easily be kept down. In the Americas, the religious tradition of Santeria (a derogatory term suggesting ‘deviancy’ from Roman Catholicism), originated in the Caribbean, and recognises priests and priestesses equally. Some of its rituals revolve around three thrones that represent respectively the seats of the religion’s kings, warrior gods and (my italics) queens.

On 4 March 2007, a humble 21-year-old village girl was ordained as the only, not to mention youngest, female High Priestess of Hindu Dharma, the traditional belief system on the island of Bali. This, because despite a previous total lack of interest in things spiritual she suddenly began to have out-of-body and near-death experiences, claimed to have received divine instruction, and was able to speak the mantras in Sanskrit and other ancient languages, perform the sacred hand movements known as mudras and to undertake other sophisticated religious rites – almost overnight.

In the neo-pagan religion of Wicca, there’s a long legacy of female oracles, enchantresses and prophets, led by a high priestess. Some Wiccan high priestesses initiate secondary high priestesses for regional covens; the iconography occasionally illustrates them with symbols or artefacts specifically representing, separately, male and female energy. However, in a move towards democracy, many covens today reject the concept of one high priestess in favour of seeing each woman member as the priestess of her own religious development.

A 2010 online piece reported that in Pune, India, more than 20 women from all Hindu castes were currently enrolled in a one-year priesthood course, most of them ‘housewives’, aged 40-65.(Needless to say, many Indian men have strongly resisted this move.) (

Perhaps most surprising and heartening of all given the extremist/conservative religious stereotypes of Islam currently prevailing in much western culture, in Los Angeles M. Hasna Maznavi, a Muslim woman, recently started the first all-female mosque as part of a

‘modest, multi-faith center, where Muslim women and women of other faiths joined together for a Jumu’ah, a congregational prayer Muslims hold every Friday, and a Khutbah, a public sermon….

‘And unlike most U.S. mosques that have a male imam, or leader, a woman led the traditional prayer and gave the sermon.’ (

How shaming if Christianity were to lag behind all these other religious strands.

Online and off, claims are multiplying that the 21st century should and/or will be the Female Century: see for instance UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet’s address in 2011 at the Lincoln Center, New York (, and men too: Tom Brokaw in Lean In in 2013 (

As far as female religious leaders go, it would be good to agree with them that a new feminine era is, or should be, almost here. I can’t do better than quote Priestesses, Power, and Politics again:

‘All over the world women are mounting powerful challenges to masculine domination of religious institutions. Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist women are campaigning for full female ordination in their traditions. Muslim feminists are asserting their right to interpret the Quran and hadiths. The daughters of Sarah are demanding to be counted as Jews (literally) in the minyan and rabbinate, and for women’s right to lead services at the Western Wall of the ancient temple of Jerusalem….

‘The burgeoning pagan and feminist spirituality movements are laying new foundations of Goddess veneration and female spiritual leadership. American Indian women are reclaiming the right to sit at the powwow drum, and sistahs of the African diaspora have retaken the conga and djembe for their own. Lucumi priestesses are reinvigorating female power in the orisa traditions of west Africa, and breaking down gender barriers to initiation as prestigious diviners….’ (

Wouldn’t it be great – not to mention interesting – if the time for female leadership, religious and otherwise, really was almost here?

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: