Saturday, August 11, 2012

Forgotten Women in Church History: Katherine Zell

The Protestant Reformation is known for repudiating the Roman Catholic medieval idea that virginity was spiritually superior to marriage and family. This was good for women in that the basic roles to which they were largely confined were no longer considered base and unspiritual.  However, the Reformation's strong stance against monastic living, and their shutting down of convents, cut off for Protestant women what had been the main avenue for women's ministry.  A woman of exceptional spirituality and intelligence could no longer distinguish herself through the monastic system, as had St. Lioba or Hildegard of Bingen .  However, Protestant women still found ways to circumvent the restrictions placed upon them by Protestant teachings.   One way was to marry a Protestant leader, and this was how Katherine Zell (1497-1562) found a place for her ministry.

I was unable to find any information about Katherine Zell's early life: where she was born, who her parents were, or any other detail.  In this the Reformation bias against women in ministry may play a part, for while Roman Catholic research and documentation of the complete lives of their saints seems equally zealous for both  males and females, an early Reformation woman like Zell seems to have become of interest to Protestant historians only upon her marriage to Lutheran preacher (and former Catholic priest) Matthew Zell.  The only information I could find about Katherine Zell's early life comes from her own lips:

"Ever since I was 10 years old I have been a student and sort of church mother, much given to attending sermons.  I loved and frequented the company of learned men, and I conversed much with them, not about dancing, masquerades, and worldly pleasures, but about the Kingdom of God."

Matthew Zell was eventually excommunicated from the Catholic church for getting married, but Katherine defended her marriage by pointing out that Catholic priests of the time were notorious for their mistresses and their seductions, and that marriage to a priest was a woman's ministry that "uplifted the moral degradation of the clergy."  Matthew Zell certainly appeared to consider his wife his partner and companion in ministry: as Katherine put it, "My husband and I have never had an unpleasant 15 minutes.  We could have no greater honor than to die rejected of men and from two crosses to speak to each other words of comfort."

Katherine's primary ministry was the sheltering of Protestant refugees and traveling ministers.  According to church historian Philip Shaff in his History of the Christian Church, Reformation ministers reported that "she conversed with them on theology so intelligently that they ranked her above many doctors."  To opponents who insisted that she should keep silent, she said:

"You remind me that the Apostle Paul told women to be silent in the church.  I would remind you of the word of this same apostle that in Christ there is no longer male and female, and of the prophecy of Joel: 'I will pour forth My Spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy."   

She added, with a touch of sarcasm,

I do not pretend to be John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees.  I do not claim to be Nathan upbraiding David.  I aspire only to be Balaam's ass, castigating his master."

Katherine was also deeply involved in ministry to the poor, and she wrote many hymns, which she published in pamphlet form specifically for the common people of Germany.  But perhaps her most startling contribution was her kindness and inclusiveness towards those Christians who differed from her own group in non-essential doctrines-- a position that was not only ahead of its time, but received castigation from Protestants and Catholics alike.  To her greatest critic, Lutheran minister Ludwig Rabus, she wrote,

"Consider the poor Anabaptists, who are so furiously and ferociously persecuted. Must the authorities everywhere be incited against them, as the hunter drives his dog against wild animals? Against those who acknowledge Christ the Lord in very much the same way we do and over which we broke with the papacy? Just because they cannot agree with us on lesser things, is this any reason to persecute them and in them Christ, in whom they fervently believe and have often pro fessed in misery, in prison, and under the torments of fire and water?

Governments may punish criminals, but they should not force and govern belief which is a matter for the heart and conscience not for temporal authorities."

Katherine also stated emphatically that

"Anyone who acknowledges Christ as the true Son of God and the sole Savior of mankind is welcome at my board."

At the end of her life Katherine showed her commitment to this position by conducting a secret funeral service for a woman disciple of the "radical" sect of the followers of Kaspar Scwenkenfeld, even though she was old and gravely ill.  The city council of the town announced that they would publicly reprimand her for this as soon as she recovered from her illness.  She did not recover, however, and died at the age of 65.

Amanda at Cheese-Wearing Theology pointed out not long ago that the opposition to women such as Zell was largely because of their gender, not their teachings, and that if a male clergy member presented a similar teaching based on the same texts, his teaching would be accepted while hers was rejected.   I cannot help but wonder how the history of the Reformation might have been different if male Reforming leaders had been willing to give Katherine Zell's ideas about tolerance and freedom of conscience, the weight they might have given them if she were a man.  Perhaps the bloody persecutions of the Anabaptists and other sects could have been curtailed or even stopped.  Perhaps the sentiment "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity," which was coined by Lutheran Protestant Rupertus Meldenius more than 100 years after Katherine's death, might much sooner have become a Protestant ideal.

It seems clear to me that when Christ's church as a whole, or groups within His church, refuse to listen to the voices of their women, wisdom from God can be lost-- wisdom that could have spared much sorrow and harm.  Let Katherine Zell's life and teachings speak to us even now, and remind us of the voices that need to be heard.


Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), pp. 182-184.


believer333 said...

Excellent point about her insights being "fluffed" because she was a woman. But had it been a man presenting them, they would have been treated with respect. The same idiocy still happens today.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. When I was a little girl in Catholic school, it was made quite clear "between the lines" that "virgin, martyr" was the most esteemed status a woman could achieve.:)

Thank you for this encouraging essay. I look forward to your future articles on women in the church.

Gordon said...

It is clear from scripture that all believers are to act as priests, prophets and children of the King. Most often, men are also excluded by the clergy from making their contribution from the pulpit. There is no reason why these believers should not leave the distorted churches. Form an open , flexible and participatory congregation to enable the voice of Jesus to be more clearly heard and followed. If there is to be no quality participation and interaction, you might as well stay at home on Sunday.

Lisandro said...

I used my translation from English to Spanishe of this article about Katharina Zell as a reource to celebrate Reformation Daye2014. I am a Lutheran pastor in Buenos Aires. What is your name? I need that to put in the translation. You can see the translation in FACEBOOK. The site is 500 AƱos Reforma Luterana. Thanks

Kristen said...

Lisandro, I am so honored! My name is Kristen Rosser. Thank you!