I’ve just watched (rather belatedly) the second episode of Dr Bettany Hughes’ BBC series, ‘Divine Women,’ where she talks about the role of women in the early Church. I can only say – don’t be taken in by it! Especially if you are an advocate of women’s ordination to the priesthood, because the patina of half-truths, omissions and outright fabrications that Dr Hughes presents will only discredit your position. It all sounds so credible, and I’d love to believe it – but sadly, it simply is not.
Even before we get to the detail, the very presentation of the programme shows that Dr Hughes is on a PR exercise designed to pull the wool over viewers’ eyes. Once in a while, I’m sure, the Beeb does still manage to present unbiased, critically balanced documentaries, but this is not one of them. Leaving aside the doom-laden music used whenever anything Hughes deems ‘anti-women’ comes up, or the looks of smug condescension she gives to interviewees she disagrees with, there is a clear bias in the editing of her interviews. She interviews a straw woman of a Roman Catholic academic whose arguments are tossed away with the raise of Dr Hughes’ well-plucked eyebrow; and when the Roman Catholic priest she interviews tells her no more than that women enjoyed prestige and influence in the early Church, Dr Hughes implies that he is suggesting that women were ordained to the priesthood and episcopate. Fr Scott may think such things, but he never said or even implied them – yet this did not stop Dr Hughes from misrepresenting him to her own ends.
It is not only people, but simply matters of fact that Hughes misrepresents, all the while declaring herself an ‘historian.’ In some cases, she even contradicts herself. She bewails the fact that there are no images of women in vestments after the first couple of centuries of the Church, and then shows us the famous image of ‘Episcopa Theodora’ to suggest that women were ordained bishop. She neglects to mention, however, that the image dates to the ninth century, by which time there is absolutely no evidence that women were ordained to any order. Nor does she mention that it was common in those days for a bishop’s wife or even mother to be known as ‘Episcopa.’
On one occasion, she finds an early mosaic of a woman wearing a vestment which she claims is an alb, saying that this vestment was worn only by priests. First, this is not true: other orders also wore albs (and lay servers wear them to this day). Second, the ‘alb’ looks more like a dalmatic, the vestment of a deacon, anyway. The history of these garments is notoriously vague. Certainly, in this and other images, women are clearly adopting positions of influence in the Church, and often seem to be preaching. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever of a woman celebrating the Eucharist. Why do you suppose Dr Hughes fails to mention this?
Her treatment of the apocryphal ‘Acts of Paul and Thecla’ is particularly frustrating. She makes out that this book was left out of the canon of scripture because of later bishops’ misogyny. In fact, it was left out because it was written considerably later than the canonical scriptures and relates to a presbyter called Paul, active around the mid second-century, who had nothing to do with the Apostle Paul. In this case Dr Hughes is dishonest by omission. As far as the viewer is left aware, her (minority) view is the only one.
There are plenty of good arguments for women to be ordained priest and bishop, but Dr Hughes’ montage of half-truths, seductively draped with emotive music and conspiratorial sub-Dan Brown cliffhangers only detracts from them. Dr Hughes presents convenient fringe views as the scholarly consensus, and the joint imprimatur of the BBC and the letters after her name will lead viewers to assume that her view is authoritative. Both she and the BBC owe it to their viewers to exercise far more balance and discretion. History should not be a tool of propaganda, even for a position one agrees with.
As one (no doubt heavily edited) interviewee said, ‘the Church knows her history.’ It is a shame that Dr Hughes either does not, or chooses for convenience to ignore it – and a greater shame on the BBC for airing such blatant propaganda.