Band of Angels by Kate Cooper: The witty, flawed, brilliant and forgotten women integral to early Christianity

Lucy Winkett, rector of St James's Piccadilly, praises the valuable work done by historian Kate Cooper remembering early Christian women who previously appeared as silent pastelled saints and virgins on church walls.

Band of Angels: the Forgotten World
of Early Christian Women
Kate Cooper
Atlantic Books, 368pp, £25
 
Today, the phrase “Christian women” does not usually excite or inspire. Figures such as Dot Cotton and Ann Widdecombe spring to mind; one thinks of a conservative and bossy (or conversely submissive) character, not someone who will set the world on fire.
 
Kate Cooper brings a freshness to the subject in Band of Angels, her survey of women during the first 500 years of Christianity. Her book is characterised by a scholarly seriousness and the disarmingly unapologetic way she links the personal, the political and the institutional. Avoiding clichés, she excavates the experiences of a wide range of women, letting them speak for themselves. Strikingly, she also refers to her own experiences.
 
At times, the book interweaves close readings of ancient texts, such as the diary of the martyr Perpetua from the 3rd century, with anecdotal reflection – for instance, a chance meeting with a citizen of Tebourba, Tunisia, in the present day – to illustrate the tension between religion and civic leadership. Cooper begins her history with a moving reflection on the death of her mother and the stories of the women in her family. She ends it with an imagined meeting between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the bishops arguing over her status at the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD.
 
In between the personal stories, detailed discussions about the meaning of less-wellknown texts, such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, probe the lazy assumptions of many contemporary Christians with regard to the place and role of women.
 
Cooper’s central argument is that it is possible, by tracing the development of the faith of Jesus’s followers over the first five centuries, to discover how women’s perspectives and voices in the growing institution were increasingly edited out. As structures were formalised and leadership roles became entrenched, women’s milieu – the informal, fluid, family-based network of relationships – became more confined to the domestic sphere and vanished from the public realm.
 
In the beginning of Christianity, the recruitment of followers was personal: one disciple at a time. Independent women such as Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, and Martha, the head of her household, were clearly influential among the contemporaries of Jesus. The chief source for these conversations and descriptions of women is the writer of the third Gospel and the book of Acts: Luke, whom Cooper (along with other scholars) suggests may have been female.
 
Cooper argues that the crowning achievement of the female perspective as far as the Church is concerned came at Chalcedon, at which the central doctrine of Christianity – that Christ was both fully human and fully divine –was declared after centuries of argument. Reading that Mary was described as Theotokos (“God-bearer”) and that she was championed by the powerful Empress Pulcheria, we learn that a commanding alliance was formed between Pulcheria and the theologian Cyril of Alexandria, who won the argument with Nestorius that set the Church on the course it is still steering today. The influence of the empress on the founding doctrine of Christianity is not something I have seen so clearly argued before. If one of Cooper’s aims, as she says in the introduction, was to write the kind of book that her mother and aunts might enjoy as intelligent but not professional readers of history, this chapter alone makes it worth reading the book.
 
Band of Angels is the best kind of popular history, which makes strange what might have been familiar to those steeped in feminist biblical critiques, while introducing us to generations of women – slave and free, rich and poor – whose influence can be discerned in the emotional intensity of Paul’s writing, in the quirky, wise reflections of the ascetic desert communities of the 4th century and in the corridors of power at Ephesus and Chalcedon.
 
That women figured so prominently as Christianity was being formed makes their institutional silence in later centuries more poignant and casts new light on today’s debates about women and religious authority. It seems that they were truly midwives of a fresh and revolutionary faith that championed justice and freedom, rooted in the knowledge that love was the basis for all life.
 
Reading about these first 500 years with the following a thousand in mind makes the words of these early women all the more powerful, because we know that their successors were shut out of public office, banned from teaching and martyred for suggesting that their voices should be heard. Cooper’s rediscovery of these women rescues them from a fate as silent pastelled saints and virgins in the frescoes of many churches. The members of the “band of angels” in this book are not perfect, but they are witty, flawed, compassionate, loving and brave – as those of us who are women know we can be.
 
Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Piccadilly in central London
 
Cooper's book ends with an imagined meeting between the Virgin Mary and the bishops arguing over he status in 451AD. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue