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date: 06 December 2023

Christian Worship and Gender Practicesfree

Christian Worship and Gender Practicesfree

  • Teresa BergerTeresa BergerYale Divinity School, Yale University


The foundational materiality in Christian worship is the bodily presence of worshippers. Gender differences—and the manifold ways in which they are embodied and performed in different cultural contexts—are therefore inscribed into the very fabric of liturgical practices, past and present. In Christian worship today, the workings of gender are evident across a broad spectrum of ecclesial traditions. Some churches have authorized rituals for the blessing of same-sex unions; some are ordaining openly transgender priests. Other churches continue to struggle with the ordination of women, while a few aim for explicitly “masculine” worship experiences. Feminist concerns over liturgical language mark some communities, while churches rooted in more traditional contexts maintain seating arrangements that separate women and men. Clearly, the workings of gender in Christian worship today span a broad spectrum of quite dissimilar concerns. At the root of all these concerns, however, lies the same vital reality, namely that worship is an embodied practice and therefore never gender-free.

What often goes unnoticed in contemporary discussions is the fact that gender differences have marked liturgical practices in Christian communities since earliest times. The workings of gender, in other words, have a genealogy in Christian worship. Scholars have only recently begun to map this terrain, by bringing the interpretive tools of gender theory to bear on liturgical historiography. Paramount among these interpretive tools is an understanding of gender as attending to all gendered particularities and sexualities (e.g., eunuchs in Byzantium, ascetic virgins in Merovingian Gaul, transgender people in contemporary North America, etc.). Gender, in other words, is understood to encompass much more than the traditional binary of “women” and “men.”

The emerging gender-attentive insights into liturgical history have been intriguing and at times quite surprising. These insights span the whole of liturgy’s past, from ways in which gender shaped early baptismal practices (e.g., in the choreography of the rite, in questions surrounding the minister of baptism, in the bodily proprieties considered appropriate at the font) to the workings of gender in the 20th-century Liturgical Movement (e.g., its first important text, Tra le Sollecitudine (1903)—usually hailed for its evocation of an “active participation” of the faithful in worship—also sought to discontinue the presence of castrati singers in the Sistine Chapel choir while ensuring that women would not take their place).

In between earliest glimpses of the workings of gender in Christian worship and our own times lie approximately a thousand years of a complex history. Tracing this history of the interplay between gender differences and Christian worship not only constitutes an important task for historians of liturgy, but also provides rich resources for addressing contemporary issues.


  • Christianity

The search for how gender differences shape Christian worship is a contemporary and quite novel scholarly approach. Most publications in the field of liturgical studies (if attentive to gender at all) still describe the subject matter as “women and worship” or more limited still, as “women’s ordination.” Such narrowing of gender differences to “women” occludes the liturgical lives of eunuchs, castrati, transgender and gender-non-conforming worshippers; it also leaves unmarked all men and the many notions of masculinity that have shaped and continue to shape Christian worship. Theorizing the study of gender in Christian worship appropriately thus constitutes a critical need in the field of liturgical studies. Some of the field’s cognate disciplines (e.g., early Christian studies, medieval history) and their expertise in gender history are vitally important for this task.

To attend appropriately to gender differences and the manifold ways in which they shape Christian worship, one first has to acknowledge gender as an elemental marker of all liturgical practice. Gender is such an elemental marker because the basic materiality of Christian worship is the bodily presence of worshippers. This bodily presence of worshippers is the primary “text” of liturgical studies. Yet, to date, this text of the worshippers’ bodily presence has been insufficiently explored as gendered, even in works explicitly dedicated to the body at worship or to human beings as liturgical subjects.

Contrary to the conventional scholarly narrative, gender differences are deeply inscribed into the very fabric of liturgical practices, past and present. In terms of Christian worship today, this point is easily substantiated. The workings of gender after all are evident across a broad spectrum of ecclesial traditions. This fact is related, at least in part, to the crumbling of traditional gender systems in most cultures over the last century. The development has deeply affected all cultural practices, those of Christian worship included. Some churches, for example, have now authorized rituals for the blessing of same-sex unions, largely following the growing cultural acceptance of same-sex marriages in Europe and North America. Other churches are ordaining openly transgender priests, also following in the footsteps of a widening cultural visibility of transgender lives. The largest Christian churches worldwide (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, as well as the Oriental churches) continue to maintain the nonordination of women, yet they find this position increasingly hard to render intelligible in today’s world. A few faith communities aim for more “masculine” worship experiences so as to counter a perceived feminization of worship that they see expressed, for example, in the preponderance of “girly” worship songs. At the same time, feminist concerns over liturgical language continue to mark some communities, while others are now working on making their worship services accessible for those with nonbinary gender identities. Even where gender is not a visible troublemaker in Christian worship, its power continues to hide in plain sight. Some churches rooted in more traditional contexts retain spatial arrangements in the sanctuary that separate women and men. On the other side of the ecclesial spectrum are contemporary high-tech evangelical worship services that are buoyed by a phenomenon aptly described as “boys and their worship toys.”1 Clearly, the workings of gender in Christian worship today span a broad spectrum of quite dissimilar features. These dissimilarities are mostly rooted in widely divergent temporalities of ecclesial life and cultural context. At the core of these dissimilar features, however, lies one reality, namely that worship as an embodied and therefore gendered practice takes place within specific cultural contexts and their particular gender systems, codes, and hierarchies.

The reality of gender practices shaping liturgical life has a rich and complex genealogy in the history of Christian worship. Scholars have only recently begun to delineate this genealogy by bringing the interpretive tools of gender theory to bear on liturgical historiography.2 The basic interpretive tool of gender theory is critical attention to gender, that is, the organization of sexual difference as unstable, socially constructed, ordered by power differentials, and inflected by other markers of difference, for example, ethnicity or class.3 A historiography that inquires into gender thus understood is usually not focused on a single named status (“women”) but on historically ever-shifting processes of gendering. Accordingly, this historiography is interested in all processes of gendering, not only the traditionally dominant binary of men and women. Last but not least, gender theory is always in conversation with its sibling fields, especially masculinity studies, the history of sexuality, and queer theory.

Gendering Liturgical History

In the field of liturgical studies, emerging gender-attentive insights have reshaped conventional perceptions of Christian worship, in regard to both its historical development as well as basic coordinates of liturgical life. Among these basic coordinates are the entry into the Christian community of faith, presence and participation in worship, and liturgical leadership. In all these liturgical basics, gender mattered, as a look back into liturgical history confirms.

Bodies at Baptism

Entry into the church was never gender-selective, as far as we know. From earliest times, Christian communities welcomed and baptized not only men and women, but also whole households, presumably including children and eunuchs—that is, castrated males and those considered “eunuchs by nature.” However, this foundational gender inclusion did not mean that gender played no role in baptism. Gender differences mattered not only for the spatial practice and choreography of the rite, but also in temporary constraints on access to the baptismal font as well as questions of ministerial leadership.

With regard to the spatial practice of worship, gender as an ordering principle was in view by the early 3rd century. For the Didascalia Apostolorum, a Syrian church order, the spatial separation of men and women in worship was of basic importance. The Didascalia envisioned the liturgical assembly oriented eastward, toward the altar and the bishop’s seat. Lay men were first in the nave; behind these men, toward the west and away from the altar and the bishop’s seat, women had their place. The women were grouped according to marital status: young girls, married women with children, elderly women, and widows. There was no equivalent separation among the lay men (i.e., into groups of young, married, and elderly or widowed men). Given that men and women were so clearly separated in worship, it is likely that gender separation also marked baptismal practices in this particular community. The text itself renders gender visible only in the question of the minister of baptism, insisting that a man and not a woman baptize. In the so-called Apostolic Tradition, gender separation clearly governed the approach to the baptismal font. This composite church order envisioned that prepubescent catechumens—among whom one has to envision not only boys and girls, but also “eunuchs by nature” and prepubescent eunuchs made “by force”—received baptism first. Adult male catechumens approached the baptismal font next. Women were baptized last. Clearly, gender here was a dominant principle for ritual ordering, in this case the procession to the baptismal font and entry into the Christian community through baptism.

In ensuing centuries, the separation of women and men in worship became a basic feature of the spatial practice of liturgy,4 although the shift to infant baptisms made gender-separate access to the baptismal font mostly a moot point. The spatial practice of gender separation in the sanctuary included both a basic separation by binary gender—men separated from women—as well as intricate arrangements in which gender, ecclesial status, and specific liturgical actions intersected. Last but not least, individual bodily flows (e.g., menstruation or sexual relations) affected access to baptism as well as other liturgical practices. It was not until the 20th century that the widespread practice of gender separation in worship dissolved, and that quite quickly. Today, such separation continues only in some smaller ecclesial communities especially among the Eastern churches.

Even if entry into the Christian faith community was never gender selective, temporary gender-specific exclusions from baptism did exist. The most prominent such exclusion was the result of liturgical taboos surrounding menstruation. Early Christian communities had not simply broken with Jewish notions of ritual purity.5 Broader cultural notions about the negative powers of menstruation would have contributed to this. Third-century evidence for liturgical anxieties around menstruation in Christian communities is therefore not surprising. These anxieties affected a number of liturgical rites, including a woman’s access to the sanctuary, reception of the Eucharist, and—most fundamentally—a woman’s baptism. Given that baptism took place with the candidate undressed, the prohibition against a menstruant entering the baptismal font could have simply been driven by a desire to keep baptismal waters free of menstrual blood. Whatever the reason, the issue was resolved by a postponement of the menstruating woman’s baptism. Liturgical sources suggest that such a postponement was a matter of days, with the baptism taking place once menstruation had ended. However, no uniformity of practice is visible across Christian communities at such an early time in liturgical history. Some texts do not, in fact, exhibit any particular liturgical anxieties related to menstruation. And the Didascalia even argues forcefully against practices of menstrual separation, because the nonobservance of ritual purity laws was a marker of ecclesial identity in this particular Christian community. In its forceful argument, the text offers an intriguing glimpse of baptized Christian women who observed menstrual separation in their lives, just like their Jewish neighbors.

In addition to menstruating women, a specific kind of eunuch caused trouble for early Christian communities, and he might in fact have found himself excluded from baptism. This eunuch was a man who had self-castrated. The reason for such castration by choice was ascetic zeal, fueled by a literal interpretation of Jesus’s reference to “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12). The practice is documented mostly among rigorous ascetics. The number of Christian authors writing against the practice indicates that it was not that uncommon. In terms of liturgical sources, the Apostolic Tradition in its Sahidic version names self-castration in a catalogue of practices prohibited for those seeking baptism (16.12). Even if the presence of self-castrated men among catechumens may have been marginal, eunuchs as such were not a negligible presence in early Christian worship. This presence must be acknowledged not least because the gendering of liturgical history cannot proceed by mapping only the traditionally dominant binary of men and women. Other genders were clearly present at Christian worship.

The historically important forms of embodiment described under the umbrella term “eunuchs” are a case in point. The number of eunuchs in early Christian assemblies was more significant and their liturgical presence more complex than standard liturgical histories reveal. To attend to the liturgical lives of eunuchs, one first has to acknowledge that the descriptor “eunuch” covered a number of dissimilar and unrelated embodiments. These embodiments were linked to quite different lives and social status.6 A eunuch “by nature”—that is, someone with gender-indefinite genitalia—was different from an adult man who had chosen castration for health reasons (such an operation, typically done by a physician, was an accepted remedy for a range of common ailments). Different again was the status of a eunuch by involuntary, forced castration, either for the purposes of creating a eunuch slave or as a form of punishment. Such castrations were forced mostly on foreigners and enemies in the Roman Empire.

The actual presence and participation in early Christian communities of these various worshippers considered to be eunuchs is hard to ascertain beyond some basic glimpses. The biblical account of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) demonstrates that eunuchs were received into the community of faith. The narrative in fact stresses the Ethiopian’s gender identity, mentioning no fewer than five times that he was a eunuch. Furthermore, there is no evidence in early Christian texts that “eunuchs from birth” and adult men castrated for medical reasons were excluded from worship. And by the time the Roman aristocracy and the imperial court turned to the Christian faith, eunuch servants would have entered churches in growing numbers, not least as chaperons of high-status women. The one kind of eunuch early Christianity found troublesome was the self-castrated man; the Council of Nicaea excluded such eunuchs from ministerial office.

Gender-specific tensions around ministerial officeholders are visible with regard to baptism, especially for the ministry of women. Although women did baptize in early Christian communities, some texts strongly forbid women to do so (these texts, in fact, witness to the practice by attempting to prevent it). The Didascalia, for example, argues that if it were permissible for women to baptize, Jesus would have received baptism from his mother rather than from John the Baptist. Although women played a role in the ritual of baptism in the community of the Didascalia, the act of water baptism itself was administered by a man. Women were to anoint the bodies of female catechumens. The reason given for this role was bodily propriety; a man should not anoint the body of a woman. In later centuries, when the conferral of baptism was severed from priestly ministry (mostly to safeguard the availability of baptism in cases of emergency), one group of women did routinely baptize and these women, namely midwives, were often explicitly instructed in how to perform a baptism. They acted as sacramental and ritual specialists in the domestic realm of the birthing place.

As far as eunuchs were concerned, “eunuchs by nature” were always part of ecclesial communities, even if surgically forced into a binary gender model in modern times. With contemporary advocacy for a different response to intersex human beings, we may well see more openly intersex worshippers in Christian churches in the future. And with regard to the ancient category of “eunuchs by force,” such language has vanished, but chemically and surgically castrated men exist in many contemporary worshipping communities, mostly among prostate cancer survivors.

Bodies in Church: Liturgical Presence and Participation

The power of gender in shaping liturgical practice extended far beyond baptismal initiation and touched the basics of liturgical presence and participation. Anxieties surrounding bodily flows experienced by worshippers in their everyday lives and brought with them to church constituted one expression of this fact. For women, bodily flows with profound consequences for liturgical participation were those of menstruation and of birthing. For men, nocturnal emissions were of particular concern. For both women and men, sexual relations were disciplined in a number of ways in relation to attendance at worship. Although the liturgical consequences of these gender-specific bodily discharges varied across different times and places, such consequences appear in texts from the 3rd century onward. Not only do anxieties surrounding the participation of menstruants in worship become visible, apprehensions about men’s nocturnal emissions of semen arose soon after. In the following centuries, these anxieties increased, especially with regard to ascetic and priestly bodies at prayer. The anxieties regarding men’s bodily flows were heightened, compared to those regarding menstruation, by the fact that while menstruation could be understood as an involuntary, natural part of a woman’s life, nocturnal emissions of semen were more easily linked to sexual desire and willful acquiescence. Especially in monastic circles, the interpretation of a monk’s nocturnal emissions and the consequences for his liturgical participation received sustained attention.7

If anxieties over both men’s and women’s bodily discharges accompanied much of liturgical history, so did questions about attendance at worship after sexual intercourse (in view here is spousal intercourse; all other forms of intercourse were taken to be defiling in any case). Some early Christian voices expressed suspicion over the commensurability of sexual relations and liturgical participation (e.g., Tertullian, the Montanist leader Prisca, Pope Gregory the Great), and with the Middle Ages, the rite of marriage itself came to be marked by such ambivalence. One result was specific liturgical prohibitions, for example, of sexual relations on the night following the wedding or of attendance at worship for thirty days following the marriage ceremony. Medieval texts for a mass on the thirtieth day after a wedding also had a decidedly penitential and purificatory tone.8 Moreover, medieval penitentials witnessed to requirements of marital sexual abstention for the night preceding Sunday, feast days, and days of the Lenten period.9 For women, the act of birth-giving (with the subsequent lochial flow) not only resulted in a prolonged period of abstention from worship, but also generated an official rite, known as the “Churching of Women,” to mark ritually the end of this postpartum period of abstention from church.

Anxieties over bodily flows not only affected both women and men, but also cut across dividing lines among lay, monastic, and priestly bodies. Given the wide range of liturgical prohibitions based on bodily flows, these prohibitions must have regularly affected the form of an assembly gathered for worship in a number of different ways. One of them was liturgical absences, namely of worshippers who had experienced discharges, be they nocturnal emission, menstruation, or childbirth. In addition, liturgical prohibitions also shaped the kind of attendance at worship, for example by prohibiting worshippers from receiving Communion if they had engaged in marital intercourse. Finally, liturgical prohibitions around bodily discharges engendered their own rites, as was the case with the churching of women and masses on the thirtieth day after a wedding. Individual worshippers confronted bodily discharges as impediments to worship in accordance with their own gender identities, status, and individual convictions. If monastic women had to negotiate menstrual taboos in their liturgical lives, monks and priests were faced with liturgical consequences of nocturnal emissions. Married men and women lived with liturgical prohibitions surrounding sexual relations, and a woman who had given birth confronted liturgical impediments surrounding childbirth.

It would be all too easy to argue that such anxieties about bodily flows lie in the (cultural and liturgical) past. Such an argument would at best be a half-truth. Ecclesial communities exist in the early 21st century that continue to practice liturgical taboos surrounding bodily flows. In addition, broader cultural anxieties surrounding bodily flows are by no means a thing of the past, as advertising campaigns for menstrual products or the multibillion dollar industry surrounding men’s much-prized readiness to emit semen demonstrate. However, except for the occasional feminist liturgy that celebrates menarche or menopause and discussions surrounding the practice of breast-feeding in church, bodily flows are treated with silence in worship today. Contemporary worshippers seem to have come a long way from early Christian anxieties—except that the bodies they bring to worship continue to be shaped (and mis-shaped) by gender-specific anxieties regarding bodily flows.

Bodies That Stand Out: Liturgical Leadership

In terms of liturgical leadership, gender is written large into the history of Christian worship from earliest times. This is evident especially with regard to women’s roles of leadership. The inconsistent witness of the New Testament writings to Mary of Magdala is a case in point. The Gospel according to John depicts Mary as a leader among the followers of Jesus, one to whom the risen Christ appeared, authorizing her to proclaim his resurrection. Luke, on the other hand, passes over any apostolic charge given to Mary by the risen Christ. The apostle Paul does not list her among the first witnesses to the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5f), and her name is conspicuously absent from the Acts of the Apostles and from all epistles.

The diversity of New Testament voices regarding the role of Mary of Magdala is mirrored in the diversity of patterns of ministerial leadership that seem to have coexisted among the earliest communities of faith. A number of patterns are visible in the sources: charismatic leadership by those with the authority of Spirit-inspired gifts, leadership by the patron of a household where the community gathered or by respected senior converts, and some loosely structured ways of selecting and authorizing appropriate leadership for the community. Among these different patterns, the first, or charismatic, prophetic leadership, was clearly not limited by gender. The Spirit was poured out on all; both “sons and daughters” prophesied (Joel 3:1; Acts 2:17). If anything, prophetic inspiration and the Spirit’s freedom to empower leaders were particularly open to women’s claims to leadership.10

The second pattern, namely ecclesial leadership by the head of a household or a respected elder, also was not gender constrained per se. Men as well as women presided over households and were senior, elder members of the faith community. As such, they exercised liturgical leadership in the gathered assembly. This pattern of ecclesial leadership, however, did not last. By the time ecclesial communities moved into the public sphere with its rising basilicas, the threefold order of bishop, presbyters, and deacons had come to dominate ecclesial life. Within the corporate frame of this threefold order, women as well as men initially exercised liturgical ministries at least in some communities.11 Epigraphical evidence exists for women with the title episcopa, although its interpretation remains debated. A group of female officeholders also existed in the canonical widows (this office had no male counterpart). However, the threefold order of bishop, presbyters, and deacons was increasingly seen to require a gender-specific body, namely that of a man. The male body, when priested, also had to be distinguished from other male bodies. What emerged through these processes was a distinct priestly masculinity, one that excluded not only all women, but also a host of nonpriestly men.

Maleness, it is worth noting, was never seen as an impediment to liturgical leadership. Christianity emerged in a cultural context that understood gender differences hierarchically, with men as superior, women as inferior, and no woman equal to a man of her status. The assumption of a “natural” connection between masculinity and leadership thus is not surprising. The assumption does, however, point to the power of a particular, hierarchical, culture-bound gender construction in the life of the church. Furthermore, if masculinity and leadership were seemingly natural fits, questions about what kind of man should preside over the gathered assembly arose early on (see the detailed list of qualifications in 1 Tim. 3:2–7). And as Christian communities moved from an initial diversity of patterns and genders in ecclesial leadership to a stringent emphasis on maleness as a requirement, the disciplining of sexuality emerged as a crucial marker of priestly masculinity.

Women’s liturgical leadership, in contradistinction, was contested from the beginnings of Christian communities gathering for worship. It is doubtful that there ever was an original “egalitarian” moment in the life of the church. Traces of such a moment are dwarfed by texts that reveal troubles surrounding women’s ministerial leadership in the earliest communities. These texts clearly understand being female as an impediment to ecclesial leadership. One particularly harsh example is the Apostolic Church Order. Most likely dating from the 3rd century (but including earlier sources), this church order forcefully rejects women’s liturgical leadership, especially at the celebration of the Eucharist. The text construes this rejection as an apostolic demand, putting it in the mouth of Andrew, Peter, and John. These apostles in turn attribute the rejection of women’s liturgical leadership to Christ; Christ himself insisted that women gain access to the Eucharistic table through men. That this position was not the only argument in circulation at the time is clear from the apocryphal Questions of Bartholomew, also usually dated to the 3rd century. This text supported women’s liturgical leadership, at least that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Questions of Bartholomew the apostles argue for Mary’s authority to lead them in prayer, while Mary claims that Peter, as a man, should have priority. The apostles prevail by grounding Mary’s liturgical authority in her womb, so to speak; that is, in the fact that God had made her God’s dwelling place in the Incarnation. Mary accepts this argument and proceeds to lead the apostles in prayer.

With regard to eunuchs, the extant textual evidence is too limited to speculate whether being a eunuch was considered an impediment to leadership in the earliest communities of faith. If one considers the identifiable patterns of ecclesial leadership, being a eunuch in all likelihood did not mean exclusion from charismatic gifts, and thus from leadership authorized through these gifts. Galatians 3:28, when read with eunuch slaves in mind, suggests that none of their particular markers of difference—their gender identity as castrated males, their social status as servants, their ethnicity as foreigners—was an impediment to liturgical leadership. As to the other patterns of leadership, much would have depended on what type of eunuch a Christian believer was, that is, how he had come to be a eunuch. A male head of a household who had undergone a medical castration might well have functioned as an ecclesial leader in the assembly that gathered in his home; a prepubertal foreign eunuch slave in the same household may not have had that opportunity.

The main concern here would have been social status rather than gendered embodiment, although the two cannot neatly be separated (eunuch slaves are a prime example of what gender theory means by intersectionality, i.e. the way in which gender and other markers of difference intersect). As to the last main pattern of organizing liturgical leadership in earliest Christian communities, namely through some structured way of authorizing leaders, sporadic evidence exists of presbyters who were eunuchs. However, one has to take into account that with the growth of the ascetic movement, connotations of the term eunuch modulated. Rather than meaning a castrated or defective male (whether through nature, force, or choice), eunuch became a descriptor of an ideal Christian masculinity, namely of a man who had mastered his sexual desires and lived in continence. Short of a physical exam, it would have been hard to ascertain what kind of eunuch a presbyter was or claimed to be.

Embodying Priestly Masculinity

By the 3rd century, the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyters, and deacons emerged as the authoritative pattern of leadership. Priestly language accrued to that pattern at roughly the same time, and contours of a Christian model of masculinity also became visible. This development was aided by the contemporaneous weakening of traditional markers of Roman masculinity, such as political power, military prowess, and the authority of the pater familias.12 When joined with the pattern of a threefold priestly ministry, a particular construal of ecclesial authority emerged in the form of a distinct priestly masculinity. Particulars of liturgical authority and leadership here were shaped within larger cultural shifts in understandings of masculinity. Two of these particulars are noteworthy: one has to do with sexuality and various modes of its renunciation; the other has to do with the kind of castrated man admitted to ordination. These two issues might appear unrelated; however, both of them have to do with male (genital) embodiment and its proper relation to liturgical leadership.

A crucial marker of masculinity, not least in relation to the exercise of authority and leadership, has been the appropriate ordering of sexuality. With regard to liturgical leadership, both marital sex and nocturnal emissions gave rise to anxieties and became problematic especially for those authorized to preside at the Eucharist.13 As for sexual relations, anxieties over their bearing on liturgical leadership developed from an early insistence of marriage to one wife only through the encouragement of sexual abstinence before participation in worship to a growing insistence on marital continence. Eventually this insistence lead the way to mandatory celibacy (at least in the Latin West) as the one proper ordering of priestly masculinity and sexuality. The appreciation of male continence was not invented by Christians but circulated in the wider culture. Such continence was understood as a source of masculine power. Virility was expressed not in sexual prowess but in control over one’s sexual appetites. Furthermore, loss of semen meant not only a loss of control but also a loss of male bodily vitality.14 Crucial for the emerging notion of a specific priestly masculinity is the association of sexual renunciation with potent authority instead of with an emasculated way of life.

The earliest evidence for the requirement of marital continence for the ordained comes from an early-4th-century council held in Spain, later known as the Council of Elvira. This council stands at the beginning of ecclesial legislation that increasingly tightened the rules of sexual propriety associated with priestly masculinity, until clerical celibacy becomes normative in the Latin West. In the East, developments followed a somewhat different line. At the Council of Nicaea, for example, the regulations on priestly sexuality displayed other anxieties from those in the West, for example, with regard to self-castrated eunuchs and to presbyters who cohabited with ascetic virgins. To this day, priests in the Eastern churches (including Eastern Catholic churches) are free to marry before their ordination; only episcopal ordination is reserved for priests who are monks or unmarried. The Western church, on the other hand, linked priestly authority itself to sexual renunciation. Priestly masculinity thus came to be circumscribed as a particular kind of masculinity, pure and powerful, especially in Eucharistic presiding.

This notion of a pure and powerful priestly masculinity did not mean, of course, that women never exercised priestly functions,15 or that all priests lived lives of sexual renunciation. What it did mean was that the normative face of liturgical leadership in the Latin church became that of a male, celibate priest. Such a priest (“Father”) was anything but gender-less. Priestly masculinity carried its own gender particularity, clearly distinguished from other, especially “worldly” masculinities. Here, gender is writ very large indeed into liturgical life. Yet priestly masculinity was also quite gender-fluid in its imaginary constructions. Priests, especially in monastic contexts, might well be called upon to embody alternate, even resistant forms of masculinity. With regard to their divine Master and Bridegroom, for example, religious men were encouraged to be receptive and submissive brides, or—in a non-heteronormative reading—homoerotic lovers who embrace, kiss, and unite.

How deeply cultural gender codes were written into the understanding of priestly masculinity becomes visible not least in historical arguments against the ordination of women. The medieval monastic leader, writer, preacher, and composer Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), for example, authorized her insistence on women’s exclusion from ordained ministry with reference to a specific understanding of what takes place in sexual intercourse. Drawing on traditional convictions, Hildegard asserts that men are active agents and women passive recipients in sexual relations. Since Hildegard understood Eucharistic consecration to be active and generative work, she concluded that this had to be the work of men, akin to insemination. Hildegard’s interpretation is driven by a particular understanding of priestly bodies as assertively male, in the sense of being liturgically active and generative. This understanding of priestly masculinity had been in place for centuries, especially in monastic exegesis.16 In this exegesis, the spiritually reproductive powers of priestly men were linked especially to sacred words, whose speaking was interpreted as a generative discharge of the mouth, analogous to the discharge of semen. This image of priestly, generative masculinity underlay Hildegard’s argument against the ordination of women. As passive receivers by nature, women were in no position to discharge the seminal, generative words of consecration at the altar.

Constraints on women’s liturgical leadership continued through the Reformation and beyond. It was not until the 20th century that women began to be ordained in larger numbers in various churches of the Reformation, a development that owes much to larger cultural trends.

Across the multiple, intricate, and complex ways in which gender inflected liturgical life, a basic point remained stable, namely that practices of worship were also practices of gender. If conventional liturgical historiography largely occluded such a fundamental marker of Christian worship, this was owing to its own particular interpretive strategies. The traditional scholarly focus on liturgical texts and authoritative ecclesial institutions precluded sustained insights into lived practices; however, these are precisely the sites where worship is most clearly shaped by gender. Whenever they come into view, gender too is in view. This holds true not only for the history of Christian worship, but also for worship in the early 21st century.

Practices of Worship and Gender in the Early 21st Century

Gender continues to shape worship in the early 21st century, even—maybe especially?—as traditional gender systems have decisively weakened. To some degree, the ways in which gender shaped past worship practices look so passé today because the traditional gender codes that underlay this interplay are no more, or they have become one option among many ways of doing gender. This development is exemplified in the fundamental shifts that have taken place in women’s lives over the last century through vastly expanding educational opportunities, the sustained entry of women into work beyond the domestic realm, the rise of sophisticated reproductive technologies with a consequent drop in birth rates, diversifying family patterns, and the decline of gender-specific inequalities. With these shifts, the traditional narrative of “woman” broke off in the 20th century, a break that also impacted men’s lives in profound ways. In tandem with these developments, women also became more visible, active, and outspoken participants in liturgical life. In many churches, women officially entered positions of pastoral leadership. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, women now work as hospital and prison chaplains, campus ministers, and directors of liturgy. In Roman Catholic parishes in the United States today, women make up 80 percent of lay ministries. Alongside the noticeable increase in women’s pastoral leadership came the rise of feminist voices in the church, with worship becoming a particularly contested terrain. Feminist liturgies and entire feminist liturgical communities emerged, paralleling the rise of feminist activism as a broad social movement. As women gained ecclesial power and influence, especially in churches that began to ordain women, they worked for changes in traditionally androcentric liturgical language and liturgical books. By now, some of the women-specific gains in liturgical language have been overtaken by newer gender-specific concerns, an indication of the fast-paced change in today’s gender codes and their linguistic and liturgical impact. An example for such women-specific gains in liturgical language that now are becoming dated is the addition of “sisters” to the traditional “brothers.” This hard-won linguistic change has been supplanted in some communities for the sake of a liturgical language that does not reproduce the traditional gender binary but instead signals openness to all genders. Other communities may not go that far but still strive actively to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians in worship. These communities bless same-gender unions and ordain ministers regardless of their specific gender and partnering preference. The theological arguments advanced for such practices of welcome generally harken back to biblical imperatives, especially Jesus’ radical table fellowship. At the same time, these practices are obviously supported by broader cultural trends such as the growing social acceptance of gay rights, LGBTQIA concerns, and gender-non-conforming lives. New rituals continue to accompany these trends, both inside and beyond Christian communities, from coming-out rituals to the observance of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20.

With regard to theological reflections and liturgical materials related to Christian worship and gender, a wave of publications began in the early 1970s dedicated to “women and worship” and feminist liturgies.17 LGBT concerns gained greater visibility in the 1990s. In recent years, reflections on LBTQIA and specifically on queer worship have emerged.18 Critical interrogations of masculinity and liturgy continue to be rare.19 However, a growing insistence has emerged among some conservative Protestant and evangelical groups that Christian ministry needs to regain a “masculine” feel.

Contemporaneously, Christian communities exist around the globe in which gender plays out in very different ways. The more than two billion Christians worldwide live in startlingly different cultural and ecclesial temporalities (globalizing trends not withstanding). For example, while the Old Catholic Church in North America ordained its first openly transgender priest in 2014, some Christian communities in parts of Africa continue to struggle against female genital cutting. Overall, however, recognition is growing that gender matters in Christian assemblies gathered for worship, and that worshippers come to church—whether in Africa or Europe, Oceania or Latin America—already shaped by (and performing, tweaking, and contesting) broader cultural gender codes.

If one looked at Christian assemblies gathered for worship today and did a liturgical body count, the church would clearly be overwhelmingly female. At the same time, this church is gendered in more than binary ways. Even if women are typically the majority of those present at worship, there may also be an intersex person in the assembly or possibly a transgender person, and maybe someone who identifies as queer or gender-non-conforming. In this multigendered even if dominantly female Christian community, gender is performed in quite instable ways. Such gender instability is deeply inscribed into the liturgical tradition itself, but may be most visible today in online liturgical practices. In cyberspace, worshippers can choose quite gender-ambiguous presences and often do. Gender instability, in other words, emerges not only in an occasional Naming Rite for a transgender Christian, but also is more widespread. All this goes to suggest that the Christian church may never have been and certainly is not now overwhelmingly male, its conventional male leadership notwithstanding.

There is no way of knowing how gender differences will inflect Christian practices of worship in the future, but three points can safely be made in conclusion. First, an irreducible diversity exists and will in all likelihood continue to exist in how different churches and their worship practices are shaped by gender. Second, at least in the North Atlantic world and its globalizing sphere of influence, gender has become an open-ended project more so than a fixed and stable marker of identity. This is noticeable not least in the gender performances of online worshippers who not infrequently embody a self that is gender-ambiguous or transgender (virtual transvestites are widespread in cyberspace). Culturally, gender ambiguity and fluidity are on the rise and this will shape Christian worship in a variety of ways in the future. Third, and related to the previous point, it may well be that gender will not remain the hyper-marker it is in contemporary culture. Such a shift may allow Christian communities to rediscover that their worship of God can be an invitation to resist the absolutizing of sexed identities.

Primary Sources

Since research at the intersection of Christian worship and gender practices is a novel approach, no major collections of primary sources are available to date. Such a collection is a critical need at this point in time.

Berger, Teresa, ed. Dissident Daughters: Feminist Liturgies in Global Context. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Episcopal Church USA. “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant: Liturgical Resources for Blessing Same-Sex Relationships.” 2012.

Krondorfer, Björn, ed. Men and Masculinities in Christianity and Judaism: A Critical Reader. London, England: SCM Press, 2009.

MacHaffie, Barbara J., ed. Readings in Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. 2d ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

Madigan, Kevin, and Carolyn Osiek, eds. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Non-Textual and Digital Materials

Berger, Teresa, and Carol Thomson. Worship in Women’s Hands: A Video Documentary. Durham, NC: FireStream Media, 2007.

Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, Italy: Virtual tour of early Christian catacombs, with cubiculum of the veiled women in prayer and the oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary with child.

Further Reading

  • Bradshaw, Paul F. “Women and Baptism in the Didascalia Apostolorum.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20 (2012): 641–645.
  • Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
  • Cullum, P. H. “Feasting Not Fasting: Men’s Devotion to the Eucharist in the Later Middle Ages.” In Religious Men and Masculine Identity in the Middle Ages. Edited by P. H. Cullum and Katherine J. Lewis, 184–200. Gender in the Middle Ages 9. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013.
  • Jordan, Mark D. “Arguing Liturgical Genealogies, or the Ghost of Weddings Past.” In Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions. Edited by Mark D. Jordan et al., 102–120. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Mayer, Wendy. “Female Participation and the Late Fourth-Century Preacher’s Audience.” Augustinianum 39 (1999): 139–147.
  • Økland, Jorunn. Women in Their Place: Paul and the Corinthian Discourse of Gender and Sanctuary Space. JSNTSup 269. New York: T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Orsi, Robert A. Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
  • Pierce, Joanne M. “‘Green Women’ and Blood Pollution: Some Medieval Rituals for the Churching of Women after Childbirth.” Studia Liturgica 29 (1999): 191–215.
  • Taft, Robert F. “Women at Church in Byzantium: Glimpses of a Lost World.” Bollettino della Badia Greca di Grottaferrata Series 3.6 (2009): 255–286.
  • Tougher, Shaun. The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society. New York: Routledge, 2008.


  • 1. James Fenimore, “Boys and Their Worship Toys: Christian Worship Technology and Gender Politics,” Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture 1.1 (2012).

  • 2. Teresa Berger, Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical Tradition: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past, Ashgate Liturgy, Worship and Society Series (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).

  • 3. Catharine R. Stimpson and Gilbert Herdt, eds., Critical Terms for the Study of Gender (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

  • 4. Corine Schleif, “Men on the Right—Women on the Left: (A)Symmetrical Spaces and Gendered Places,” in Women’s Space: Patronage, Place, and Gender in the Medieval Church, edited by Virginia Chieffo Raguin and Sarah Stanbury, 207–249, SUNY Series in Medieval Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).

  • 5. Charlotte E. Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender, Contraversions: Jews and Other Differences (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

  • 6. Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity, Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

  • 7. David Brakke, “The Problematization of Nocturnal Emissions in Early Christian Syria, Egypt, and Gaul,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (1995): 419–460.

  • 8. Hubertus Lutterbach, Sexualität im Mittelalter. eine Kulturstudie anhand von Bußbüchern des 6. bis 12. Jahrhunderts, Beihefte zum Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 43 (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 1999).

  • 9. Gisela Muschiol, “Men, Women and Liturgical Practice in the Early Medieval West,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300–900, edited by Leslie Brubaker and Julia M. H. Smith, 198–216 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  • 10. Karen King, “Prophetic Power and Women’s Authority,” in Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker, 21–41 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

  • 11. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

  • 12. Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch.

  • 13. Berger, Gender Differences.

  • 14. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Columbia Classics in Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

  • 15. Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 16. Lynda Coon, “‘What Is the Word if Not Semen?’ Priestly Bodies in Carolingian Exegesis,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300–900, edited by Leslie Brubaker and Julia M. H. Smith, 278–300 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  • 17. Marjorie Procter-Smith and Janet Walton, eds., Women at Worship: Interpretations of North American Diversity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).

  • 18. Siobhán Garrigan, “Queer Worship,” Theology and Sexuality 15 (2009): 211–230; Elizabeth Stuart, “Making No Sense: Liturgy as Queer Space,” in Dancing Theology in Fetish Boots: Essays in Honour of Marcella Althaus-Reid, edited by Lisa Isherwood and Mark D. Jordan, 113–123 (London: SCM Press, 2010).

  • 19. But see Johannes Pock, “Der Priester als ‘Mann Gottes.’ Die Bedeutung des Geschlechts für das katholische Priesterverständnis,” in Geschlecht quer gedacht. Widerstandspotentiale und Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten in kirchlicher Praxis, edited by M. E. Aigner and J. Pock, 227–240, Werkstatt Theologie 13 (Vienna: LIT Verlag, 2009).