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Radio: Bishop Theodora?

24 March 2010

by Edward Wickham

IN THE darker recesses of academe, you can still find people who will claim that nothing new has happened since the fall of Con­stantinople in 1453. That is when history stops and current affairs begins. Two programmes last week bore witness to the ways in which contemporary situations so con­vinc­ingly frame our perceptions of the past.

The first was Bettany Hughes’s Banishing Eve (Radio 4, Sunday), in which the historian sought to explain the apparent disappearance of women in the practice of religion in the early Christian Church. In

the words of the publicity blurb: “Women went from goddesses to flower arrangers in little over a century.”

Ms Hughes is an enthusiastic and engaging guide, taking us on a Dan-Brown-like tour of obscure corners of modern-day Rome in search of tombs and private chapels that reveal the rich involvement of aristocratic women in the early decades of Roman Christianity.

Naturally, listeners were re­minded yet again of the convoluted historical arguments that have been marshalled by both sides in the debates on the ordination of women. Ms Hughes presents herself as a level-headed historian, but, even so, one could not but imagine the presence of some fanatical cardinal in the background, watching her every move, not least in the section discussing the memorial to “Theo­dora episcopa”, where — possibly — the final “a” of the lady’s name has been obliterated so as to obscure her gender.

Conspiracies abound also in the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose assassination 30 years ago was marked by Heart and Soul: Voice of the voiceless (World Service, Wednesday of last week). What was so fascinating about Julian Mig­lierini’s documentary was the sense of a history in the balance between factual narrative and mythology, the transition being made in front of our eyes.

There are still people who will admit that they opposed Romero’s appointment, as someone seemingly in the pocket of the oligarch run­ning El Salvador in the 1970s. And there are even people still prepared to stand up for Robert d’Aubisson, the man thought to be the instigator of the killing.

At the same time, however, one encounters people who recount Romero’s premonitions of his death in the language of the Garden of Gethsemane, and who tell of his egregious acts of kindness to the poor in Christlike terms.

Of course, the nature of his death encourages this mythologising tend­ency: gunned down as he said mass, and breathing his last at the foot of the cross. Students of medi­eval church history, and Thomas Becket in particular, might do worse than to keep an eye on El Salvadoran politics. Not least, the issue of Romero’s canonisation, which seems to be delayed only because of qualms over his interest in Marxist liberation theology (Comment, 19 March).

Any of you who, like me, were wondering what all the fuss was about vis-à-vis the radio station 6 Music, and who, like me, tuned in on Thursday evening to The Archers, may be wondering what was going on. Instead of Alan and his cough, we got several minutes of 6 Music. Guerrilla tactics by a discontented producer? No one will say.

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