In my previous blog post, I showed that Chrysostom (Bishop of Constantinople from 398 to 405) recognised that some women were leaders, teachers, apostles, and deacons in New Testament churches. In this post, I quote from a letter written by Atto of Vercelli (885–961) who had similar views.
Atto was Bishop of Vercelli (in northern Italy) from 924 until his death in 961. He also served as Grand Chancellor to two kings of Italy. Like Chrysostom, Atto was not an obscure priest ministering in a backwater. Rather, these two men were influential bishops, responsible for large churches. As well as mixing with the highest echelons of society, both bishops genuinely cared for the welfare of poorer people and they spoke out against corruption among the wealthy and the clergy. These were, overall, good men.
Several of Atto’s written works survive, including several letters. One surviving letter was written to a priest named Ambrose who had asked about the terms presbytera (female presbyter/ priest/ elder) and diacona (female deacon) that appear in early church canons (rules).
Ambrose wanted to know if these women with titles were wives of presbyters and of deacons, or if they were presbyters and deacons themselves. Atto believed that these women were ministers in their own right. He believed that women, as well as men, supervised churches in the first few centuries of the common era.
The following excerpt from Atto’s letter is about female presbyters. It is translated from the Latin by Mary Ann Rossi. (I’ve made a few minor edits for clarity and added the Latin of keywords and key phrases.)
Therefore since your discretion has prompted you to ask how we ought to understand the terms presbytera or diacona in the canons, it seems to me that in the primitive church [i.e. the first-century church], according to the Lord’s word: “many are the crops and few the laborers” [Luke 10:2], even religious women were ordained caretakers in the holy church (etiam religiosae mulieres in sancta ecclesia cultrices ordinabantur) for the helping of men. This is something that blessed Paul points out in his epistle to the Romans when he says, “I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church that is in Cenchraea.”
One understands this because then, not only men, but also women were in charge of churches (praeerant ecclesiis), to be sure, for the sake of great efficiency. For women, long accustomed to the rites of pagans, instructed as well in philosophical doctrines, were converted more readily for these reasons, and were more easily instructed thoroughly in the worship of religion. Canon 11 of the Laodicean Council later prohibits this practice when it says that it is not allowed for those women who are called “priests‚” or “those presiding,” to be ordained in the Churches. (PL 134.114)
In these paragraphs, Atto refers to Canon 11 of the Laodicean Council (circa 360). This canon states,
It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘presbyters/ priests/ elders’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be appointed (kathistasthai) in the churches.
Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea
This canon acknowledges that in the fourth century there were women called presbyters and that some presided in congregations. Other councils and canons, as well as a telling letter written by Pope Gelasius I, also banned women presbyters or limited their ministry. Several surviving church documents mentioned women presbyters/ elders. See here.
Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek comment on Atto’s letter.
Atto clearly believes that before the fourth century, women had been ordained leaders of the churches, had presided over, preached in and led them. They were ordained, he thinks, because of their fitness for ministry and also because of the paucity of other male presbyters; only the Council of Laodicea in the second half of the fourth century put an end to this practice. [Atto’s] letter is a rare witness from the early Middle Ages to belief among some male clergy (including, in this case, a bishop) that women once exercised the presbyteral office in the ancient church. Partly because the document was written some six centuries after the events it purports to describe, it does not, however, constitute unambiguous witness to the existence of female presbyters in the early church. Yet it does certainly demolish the notion that “the tradition” is unanimous in denying the existence of female priests. 
Neither Chrysostom in the early 400s or Atto in the 900s were feminists swayed by an egalitarian culture, and neither were known for being politically correct. Yet Chrysostom saw in the New Testament that women were church leaders, and Atto saw in church tradition that women had been church leaders, and both seemed to have thought women leaders were a good thing even though women were rarely caretakers or leaders of churches in their own times.
Sadly, the church lost much of its efficiency when it increasingly discouraged gifted women from various ministries and then formally banned them from being leaders. Many churches are still missing out on the gifts, talents, perspectives, and empathy that women bring to leadership and decision-making.
 “Presbyter” is derived from the Greek word presbyteros (“older person/ elder”), a term used in the New Testament for both Jewish and church elders. The Greek word for “priest” (hiereus) is not used in the New Testament for church leaders.
The Christian title presbyter (elder), meaning an older person entitled to respect, was borrowed from the synagogue, which was governed by a group of elders. … Catholic historians translate presbyter as “priest.” Protestant scholars simply retain the word presbyter. In either case, a fully ordained clergyperson is meant.
Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women were Priests (New York: HarperOne, 1995), 5.
 A later rendering of the canon by Dionysius Exiguus (497–545) makes the idea of ordination more explicit: Quod non oporteat eas, quae dicuntur presbyterae vel praesidentes, in Ecclesiis ordinari: “That those who are presbyteras or presidents ought not to be ordained in the churches.”
I have more on these and other writings that mention women elders here.
 Gelasius I was supreme pontiff from 492 to 496. In his Epistle 14, dated March 11, 494, he addressed “all episcopates established in Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicilia” (episcopates in southern Italy and Sicily). Gelasius gives 27 decrees in his letter and he speaks disapprovingly about women performing liturgical functions at the altar. He does not indicate whether these women were presbyters or deacons, and he does not give scriptural reasons for his disapproval. Rather, he expresses his annoyance that some bishops were allowing women to minister in areas that he believed are reserved for men:
… we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars (ministrare sacris altaribus), and to take part in all matters (cunctaque) imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they [the women] do not belong.
 Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (eds), Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 192.
© June 2020, Margaret Mowczko
All Rights Reserved
Were there women elders in the New Testament churches?
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea
Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers
Shepherds and Harvesters, Men and Women, in the Harvest Field
Paul’s Theology of Ministry
Ally Kateusz, “Women Leaders at the Table in Early Churches,” Priscilla Papers 34.2 (Spring 2020):14–22. (Online at cbeinternational.org)