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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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser