Church History and Modern Worship (Part Three)

Hildegard Von Bingen & the Role of Women in Worship

In Part 1 and 2 of this series, we discussed the lives of Constantine and John Wycliffe. One of the main arguments I presented in Part 1 claimed that the Church is currently in a Constantinian Age of worship. It seems our modern worship gatherings are dominated by an aristocratic leadership, where elite leaders are the performers and the role of the congregation has been diminished to mere spectatorship. In Part 2, I proposed that we are in need of returning to a collaborative community, where the priesthood of every believer is celebrated. 

If the Church were to once again become a collaborative community, we’d begin to witness the beauty of every single believer’s distinct contribution to the Body of Christ. No longer would boring and colorless gatherings, monopolized by the elite, rob and plague our worship, but gatherings filled with the vibrant and diverse gifts of every participating believer would glorify God to the fullest as each son and daughter uniquely bore His image. 

Sadly, it seems that one of the symptoms of our cold, Constantinian Age of worship is the lack of women in leadership. Without question, male worship leaders dominate the stage in our worship gatherings, leaving little room for gifted and anointed female worship leaders to join in. If a female worship leader (without a sort of “male chaperone”) is actually found leading a congregation, it’s a rare and beautiful thing to witness. Part 3 of our series will take time to celebrate and honor the contribution of women in worship by reflecting on the life of Hildegard Von Bingen. 

St. Hildegard Von Bingen: What Couldn’t She Do?

Of all the Church Fathers and Mothers, perhaps there are none more interesting and colorful as Hildegard Von Bingen. She was a composer, a poet, a painter, a playwright, a visionary, a diplomat, a physician, and the abbess of a Benedictine monastery. With such a list of competencies, you have to ask “What couldn’t she do?” Hildegard lived from 1098-1179. She described herself as “a feather on the breath of God.” At an early age she began to see visions directed by a divine light “more brilliant than the luminous air around the sun.” Shortly after, her parents sent her away to a community of nuns at Bingen. There she studied with the anchoress Jutta. When Hildegard was forty-three years old, Jutta passed away and Hildegard was chosen to become abbess (leader of the community). During this time, Hildegard began to see her most powerful of visions. She wrote and illustrated three books on the visions: Scivias – a musical morality play including works of natural history and medicine; Liber vitae meritorum – a work on a disputation of virtues and vices; and Liber divinorum operum – which contains visions of the cosmos, and the earth and its creations. 

Hildegard’s creativity was extraordinary, and her music was of unparalleled beauty. She is recognized as one of the great medieval composers and, to this day, her music is performed and recorded around the world. Though influenced by the rich Benedictine environment she grew up in, she broke new ground in the realm of music, not conforming to common liturgical and linguistic models used in her time. Her style was always very vivid and loaded with prophetic imagery, opposite to the dry, academic writing that was so prevalent in her day. In her collection of poetry and music entitled Symphonie Armonie Celestium Revelationium (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), much of her devotional life resounds. For example, in her O ignis spirtus, Hildegard speaks of a vision she had in which Pentecostal fire settled upon her: 

O fire of the comforting Spirit, 
life of the life of all Creation, 
you are holy and quickening all Kind…
O breath of holiness
O fire of love
O sweet draught in the breast
And flooding of the heart…

The Symphonia consists of 70 compositions and is made up of antiphons (a responsory by a choir or congregation), responsories for liturgical feast days, sequences, hymns, and ends with Hildegard’s great composition: the lyrical play Ordo Virtutum. Barbra Jeskalian has said this about the Ordo:

Hildegard’s language in the Ordo Virtutum carries that stamp of highly individual expression. It is not always polished, but it shows the distinct power and energy of her vision. There is a richness in her writing that sets it apart from any other writing that came from the twelfth century. The macrocosm and microcosm of Christianity are developed through the characters in the play and through the dimensions of human behavior that the particular character symbolizes. The soteriological message of Christianity is present in the dialogue in both personal and archetypal ways.

Hildegard’s life and contribution to the Church is so significant she has been named a saint and doctor by the Roman Catholic Church. The fact that she was a female in a male ecclesiastical hierarchy never stopped her from greatly contributing and participating in the life and worship of the Church. Towards the end of her days, and despite her poor health, Hildegard managed four lengthy preaching tours (with papal approval). She visited monasteries and cathedrals, many times preaching to men more often than women! Her songs were sung as far away as Paris in her time, and the popularity of her life and message spread all over the face of Christendom. 

Hildegard’s Legacy

Hildegard’s legacy is evidence of just how important female voices are in the Church; and particularly how important they are in our Church’s worship. Her unique and dynamic approach to worship burst forth in brilliant beauty at a time when worship otherwise seemed cold, rigid, and predictable.

 I’m afraid that if we continue to silence and discredit female voices in our modern worship environment, we will not only dishonor the gifts that these women are to our churches, but we will also rob the Body of Christ of half (and might I say the better half) of its power and capacity. I believe we need more woman to be given the role of worship pastor and not just that of a background singer. Gifted and competent women should be given the right to lead, with or without the presence of a male worship leader.   

What do you think? Should a woman take a worship leadership role in the Church? If not, then why? If you’re a female worship leader, does this resonate with you? Do you feel like your leadership abilities have been overlooked because of your gender? For those, who haven’t given it much thought, take a look around at your next worship gathering. Are women being fully empowered? 

Resources:

  • The lectures of Dr. Sam Hamstra, Affiliate Professor of Church History and Worship at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.  
  • Jeskalian, Barbara J. “Hildegard of Bingen: her times and music.” Anima, pg. 7-13, Fall 1983.  

Listen to some of Hildegard von Bingen's work: