Mothers of the Early Church

What's this -- a picture of a female bishop from the early church? Can it be that women served not only as priests but as high-ranking leaders?

The answer is an unqualified yes, said Dorothy Irvin, a Roman Catholic theologian and archaeologist who has uncovered numerous images of early church women dressed in priestly vestments and has found epitaphs describing them as church leaders.

The mosaic shown here appears in a side chapel of the Church of St. Praxedis in Rome. It depicts Theodora, who lived around 850 and is identified with the title "episcopa," the feminine form of the Latin word for bishop. She wears the same kind of pectoral cross worn by bishops today.

Among Irvin's other discoveries: a fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla, also in Rome and dated around 100, that shows seven women apparently celebrating a memorial Eucharist; a 4th-century fresco in the catacomb that shows a male bishop wearing a wool garment associated with ordination and placing his right hand on the shoulder of a woman in liturgical garb; and a mosaic over the tomb of a woman at the Cathedral of Annaba in Algeria describing her as a presbyterissa, or priest.

A Deadly Sin? In France?

While French politicians have been arguing against preemptive military action against Iraq, French Catholics have taken a stand of their own, asking the Vatican to revise its list of sins so they can enjoy a nice meal without feeling guilty.

At issue is the word gourmandise, "gluttony" in English, which appears in the French edition of the Catechism along with the words for lust, pride, anger, envy, sloth and covetousness -- the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. The problem is that gourmandise no longer means eating and drinking to excess but instead refers to enjoying good food and wine in pleasurable company, according to a group of celebrities who have petitioned the Vatican to replace gourmandise with gloutonnerie, a term they believe is more accurate.

Several members of the group, which includes chefs, writers, scholars and a yachtsman, recently raised the issue in an audience with Pope John Paul II. The pope was sympathetic, Jean-Francois Fayard, historian and group member, told the International Herald Tribune.

Thus far he hasn't ruled on the matter.

AME Zion Church Sets the Pace

A historically black denomination has become the fastest-growing of the top 25 churches in the United States, according to the 2003 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

The 2.5 million-member African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, based in Charlotte, grew 12 percent from 2000 to 2001, the period for which the most recent data are available. It was followed by the Roman Catholic Church, with 2.5 percent growth; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 2 percent; and the Assemblies of God, 2 percent.

AME Zion is the nation's 19th-largest denomination, said the report, which was released yesterday by the National Council of Churches. The council bases its numbers on self-reported membership figures.The largest U.S. denominations are the Roman Catholic Church, with 65.2 million members; the Southern Baptist Convention, 16 million; the United Methodist Church, 8.3 million; the Church of God in Christ, 5.5 million; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5.3 million; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 5.1 million; and the National Baptist Convention USA, 5 million.

Celebration

This Month's Spotlight: Ostara, the pagan and Wiccan celebration of the spring equinox.

Date: March 21.

Description: This pagan festival marks the transition from the darker half of the year to the lighter months of spring and summer. Ostara is a Germanic goddess of spring, and the name of her Anglo-Saxon equivalent, Eostre, is said to have been used to derive the term "Easter" by Venerable Bede, an 8th-century English monk and historian. The festival emphasizes the fertility of the goddess, who is represented by rabbits and the egg as a symbol of the soul. She is courted by the sun god, with whom she has a child nine months later.

Religion 101

Is it becoming politically incorrect to refer to dates as B.C. and A.D. rather than B.C.E. and C.E..?

Many historians now use the abbreviations B.C.E. (before the common era) and C.E. (the common era) instead of B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. ( anno domini, or in the year of of our Lord), arguing that the traditional terms offend billions of non-Christians. Others say it's pointless to change because the internationally accepted Gregorian calendar is based on Christian chronology no matter what terminology is used. Whether the new abbreviations are more precise or merely more politically correct will remain a matter of opinion for the foreseeable future.

E-mail questions on religious traditions or practices to religion@washpost.com. Include a daytime phone number.

-- Compiled by Bill Broadway

Saturday in Religion: Iraq's role in "end time" scenarios as presented by some biblical interpreters.