Earthly powers, death and the divine – the message of Epiphany

Catherine Pepinster 

The recycling area in my local park has been packed since December 27th with unwanted Christmas trees. It’s a sign that the old tradition of Twelfth Night being the end of Christmas is fast disappearing.

Twelfth Night is synonymous with today’s feast of the Epiphany, which marks the moment when the three wise men, or magi, arrived at the stable in Bethlehem to honour the child born there. It is one of the greatest holy days of Christianity.

The scene is familiar from numerous Christmas cards and Renaissance paintings: the three men on their camels, who’ve followed the star and find Jesus lying in a manger. But this is no ordinary visit to a newborn. It is an epiphany: a word meaning a moment of sudden revelation.

And yet the gifts that the magi bring suggest that even as they set out on their journey, they sensed this encounter with the child, deserving of high honour, would be transformational. Matthew’s Gospel records the gifts as gold, frankincense and myrrh. At the time, these valuable gifts were standard means of showing respect for a king, and were also recorded as being used as tributes for the god Apollo.

The gifts can be read in another way. For the ancients, gold signified wealth and power – in other words, earthly concerns. Frankincense represents worship – a connection with the divine. And myrrh, an oil extracted from a thorn tree, is used in burials, and so represents death. These three – earthly powers, the divine, and dying – are the great issues that face all humanity. How do we live in this world? Who or what is God? Is death the end?

Having left their gifts and seen the child, the magi were warned in a dream not to go back the same route they’d come and to avoid visiting King Herod who’d asked them for intelligence about the child when they’d found him. “They returned to their own country by a different way”, records Matthew.

A different way can mean, literally, a different road. But in the Old and New Testaments it can also signify a new path for one’s life, a change in one’s behaviour or lifestyle. For the magi, it was much more than giving Herod a wide berth. It was the fruits of their epiphany.

This feast of the Epiphany, then, can signal a moment of change if people ponder what the magi’s gifts represent: the great issues of life, the divine, and death. It could well be a difficult path to embark upon, but a journey that needs taking.

This was Thought for the Day, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on January 6, 2017.





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.







How women and the Catholic Church work together to combat trafficking

Catherine Pepinster

This was broadcast on Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, December 30, 2017

Just before Christmas, Pope Francis made his annual address to the Roman Curia, the top Vatican officials. It was tough talking about the need for reform at the heart of the Catholic Church, including an enhanced role for women in Rome to increase the Church’s catholicity. Priesthood is not what he has in mind, but he is open to other forms of leadership for women. At the moment there are a few women of influence in the Vatican. Some are academics, some are church officials, others are journalists. Among the most powerful women you find there are ambassadors to the Holy See, including the UK’s own ambassador, Sally Axworthy.

Ambassadors to the Holy See represent their countries and their national objectives. The Catholic Church focuses more on the pastoral and the long-term, and it attempts to be politically neutral. Yet there is common ground between nations and the Holy See: what it sees as moral matters – climate change, migration, and poverty – can match countries’ political aims.

One moral cause championed by the Pope and taken up by the UK’s woman Prime Minister, its woman Home Secretary and its woman ambassador to the Holy See is fighting human trafficking. It particularly affects women and girls, who innocently pay extortionate prices to people smugglers, expecting a better life and are sold into domestic servitude and sex work, often enduring terrible abuse.

Two years ago Theresa May attended the launch of the Santa Marta Group, set up by Pope Francis so that politicians, police chiefs and the Church around the world could work together. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has also recently attended the Group. It focuses on combating trafficking and also helping victims escape from exploitation to build new lives. The prominent role of women is vital in this cause, not just in raising its political profile but also in making a practical difference. Catholic nuns across the world specialise in working with trafficked women who, traumatised by men, find it easier to trust members of all-female communities.

The Gospel stories are full of women disciples who were loyal to Christ right up to his crucifixion when the male apostles ran away. This message – to stand alongside someone in their greatest crisis – is one echoed in the work of nuns who support trafficked women. And it is gaining wider circulation, thanks to other women in positions of influence both in Rome and here in the UK. Pope Francis has spoken before about what he calls ‘prophetic audacity’, urging a boldness of spirit. Talking to the all-male Curia of a greater role for women was certainly audacious. It’s a vital message not just for the Church but for all social and political power structures.