Conscience, compromise and Reformation

Catherine Pepinster 

Thoughts on Martin Luther – and Katharine of Aragon 

With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation being marked this year, attention will turn to the contemporary relationship between Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. The tone was set when Pope Francis travelled in October last year to Lund in Sweden to warmly join the commemorative events there. Francis’ trip caused a few raised eyebrows among more traditional Catholics but for those aware of Catholicism’s recent history, the Pope’s journey was hardly revolutionary. The great moment of reconciliation between the Churches was the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism which has led to increasing friendship at both the local and hierarchical level for Protestants and Catholics. According to William Kenney, auxiliary bishop of Birmingham and co-chair of the international conversations between the Lutheran and Catholic Churches, “there are few differences today”. Kenny was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief edition on Martin Luther his words reflected a similar sentiment to those of Pope Francis in Lund: “We have a new opportunity to accept a common path”.

The trouble for Catholics and Protestants is that we have become so used to these sentiments of goodwill that we are in danger of taking them for granted. We forget that it took hundreds of years to get to this point. And there is a risk that we will become too accustomed to the Kenney point of view, plausible though it is. Yes, the differences may be few compared to what they once were, but they are still significant and have yet to be overcome. We do not share Holy Communion, something that causes particular pain for families where the parents are from different denominations. (Remember how Tony Blair got ticked off by Cardinal Basil Hume for receiving Communion when he accompanied his Catholic wife and children to Mass, years before Blair himself became Catholic?)

There are also different ideas between the denominations over sexuality and human anthropology. And for women in the Catholic Church, there is the lingering, seemingly intractable issue of priesthood. A commission is underway to study the possibility of women deacons. Pope Francis readily meets women clergy from Protestant denominations. In Lund he met the woman Lutheran bishop of Uppsala. At least women’s priesthood gets talked about now in the Catholic Church. The days when John Paul II demanded we don’t even discuss it at least seem to be over.

The poignancy of the history and contemporary situation between non-Catholics and Catholics was brought home to me this week when I visited Peterborough Cathedral. Peterborough began life as a Catholic, Benedictine abbey, and became an Anglican Cathedral in 1541, 24 years after Luther’s 95 theses, critiquing indulgences, were first posted on the door at of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, and 10 years after the Reformation came to England when Henry VIII broke with Rome over his desire to divorce his wife, Katharine of Aragon.

In 1517, matters other than Luther’s 95 Theses may well have been on Queen Katharine’s mind. It was the year of riots in London, put down by Henry when people protested against the number of foreigners coming into the country (English people are certainly constant in their prejudices). And Queen Katharine’s sister Maria died that year. Their parents, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, had made the two sisters pawns in the European game of thrones. Maria became queen to Manuel I of Portugal after his first wife, their other sister, Isabella died. Katharine married Henry after her previous husband, his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, had died. Whether or not she was truly ever married to Arthur, and the marriage had been consummated or not, became a key debate when Henry attempted to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn, and try to secure a male heir. Among those who objected was Katharine’s nephew, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who in turn had immense political power over the Pope.

Today, Katharine of Aragon’s tomb is to be found in Peterborough Cathedral. It was her casting aside by her husband and king that led to the founding of the Church of England whose clerics now care for and honour her tomb. It is decorated with candles and flowers and also a row of pomegranates, symbols of Katharine, her Spanish homeland and of the Resurrection. Visitors, both Catholic and non-Catholic, pay their respects.

Later this month Peterborough Cathedral will host its Katharine of Aragon Festival, which will include a lecture by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb on Character and Conscience: a dynasty of Catholic Queens, in which she will discuss Katharine’s faith and integrity.

When Katharine held fast to her belief in the supremacy of the Pope and the indissolubility of her marriage, she could easily have used Luther’s own words: “Here I stand, I can do no other”. The history of the Reformation is a history of politics as much as theology. But it is also a story of conscience, of people standing firm in the face of opposition to what they believe. Five hundred years on, will we still do that, and continue with our divisions? Or could compromise help us towards what, in true conscience, matters even more: unity?

Catherine Pepinster’s book The Keys and The Kingdom – the British and the Papacy, will be published later this year by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark.








2 thoughts on “Conscience, compromise and Reformation”

  1. “A commission is underway to study the possibility of women deacons.” – That’s not quite true. What is underway is a commission to determine if women deacons ever existed, and if so what precisely these “deacons'” role was.

    Even if such questions can be determined with certainty (which seems unlikely to me) it does not necessarily follow that such a situation would be re-instituted today. For example it would be perfectly possible to argue that even if women were “ordained” in the past, they were ordained erroneously and without authority. Conversely, even if there were legitimate female deacons in the past there is no reason in principle why that should automatically lead to their re-introduction. Just as the past existence of married male priests does not automatically provide for the routine ordination of married men today.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s