LAST week's threatened crisis in Anglican circles over female ordination tickled the fancy of certain church historians with an eye for the ironical.
It brought to their minds the immense power once wielded in the Church by women, particularly those formidable medieval Abbesses with the power of Bishops.
One such historian maintains somewhat mischievously that there was _not just one English Pope, namely the well-known Adrian IV, but that there were two. The second, it is claimed was John VIII who reigned in the mid ninth century.
It was a highly confused period that could well give rise to the theory that a young Englishwoman, disguised as a Benedictine monk, travelled from near Mainz to end up by so thrilling philosophers and scholars in Rome that she was elected Pope.
This of course was the supposedly legendary Pope Joan whose existence nevertheless remained in the official chronicles for several centuries.
Among the papal busts in Siena Cathedral there was still one of "John VIII, a woman from England" until as late as the 16th century.
An embarrassed Clement VIII (1592 — 1605) decided, with or without evidence, to convert the offending monument into a bust of Pope Zachary. But the legend of Pope Joan has never quite died.
Women barred by Canon Law?
TALKING of women in the sanctuary, there was some heated correspondence recently in several papers following an incident in Westminster Cathedral when some girls who were hoping to help the Cardinal celebrate Mass were turned away at the sacristy door. What is the actual canon law, if any, on this topic?
You will no doubt recall our original report of the incident and subsequent comment. But perhaps the most interesting theory was produced by a correspondent to the Daily Telegraph who pointed out that the decree supposedly banning women from the altar, Inaestimablile donum (1980), pre-dates the current Code of Canon Law which became operatikze in November, 1983.
The relevant Canon, moreover of the current code (c. 203), which speaks of the scope for lay servers, uses a neutral as opposed to the masculine gender which was employed in the old Code of 1917.
Possibly most significant of all is the conclusion by the Canon Law Society of America that "...There is no solid legal basis for excluding female altar servers."
This might be some consolation to the parish priest of the girls turned away at the Cathedral, namely Fr Aiden Sharratt, Dean of Islington. As you may remember he refused to concelebrate the Mass in question after the girls had been excluded and commented afterwards "To celebrate unity and reject half the community from the sanctuary is ludicrous. I was not in a state to receive Holy Communion after the incident."
Firm hand of Prince Bishops
MORE visitors than usual will, between now and the autumn, be visiting the City and county of Durham at the encouragement of local hotels, tour operators and the like.
The latter have been inspired by the coming 1 3 0 Oth anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert (March 20, 637) to encourage as many visitors as possible to one of the most interesting parts of England.
Often overlooked, the 800 years heritage of the Prince Bishops who ruled over the "Palatine" County of Durham is also being brought back into focus in a new tourism promotion campaign by Durham County Council.
Indeed the Prince Bishops of Durham have a unique place in English history. In medieval times they administered their territories with an authority normally exercised only by the King.
As the Steward of the Bishopric stated in 1302: "There are two Kings of England, namely the Lord King of England wearing a crown in sign of his regality, and the Lord Bishop of Durham wearing a mitre in place of a crown as symbol of his regality in the Bishopric of Durham", Such Prince Bishops were proud fellows outwardly, at least in the early days, but often, saintly behind the scenes. The influence of the great Cuthbert hovered on through the centuries.
They first took on their great powers soon after the Norman conquest when Northumbria was regarded as a difficult territory to administer being on the frontier with a not always friendly Scotland.
Its traditional rulers were not, originally, the Bishops, but the Earls of Northumberland who had inherited the powers of the ancient Kings of Northumbria.
King William Rufus, however, eager to prevent any competition from local hereditary lords, saw great advantages in combining the political powers of the earldom with the spiritual powers of the Church.
He therefore transferred the powers of the Earl to the Bishop which meant that the Bishop now became Count Palatine as well as spiritual leader.
Such power was wielded, fiercely when necessary, through the centuries, but by the 17th century the golden period of the Prince Bishops was well into decline.
Their fuedal lifestyle came under much criticism, but their powers, though reduced, continued until, in 1836, on the death of Van Mildert, founder of Durham University, the Palatinate's rights and priveleges were vested in the Crown.
The Palatinate courts, however, were not finally abolished until 1971.
St Cuthbert cult fades
AS FOR St Cuthbert, there will be elaborate celebrations in his honour on March 20 both at Durham Cathedral and at Lindisfarne, as it was on the remote Fame islands that he died.
He was truly one of the great saints of English history. Few could have foreseen the extraordinary attraction he would continue to attract after his death.
He had a delicate and rare combination of holiness and humanity and pilgrims once flocked to his shrine. An excellent summary of his life has just been published by SPCK (at only £1.25) written by J C Stranks, former Archdeacon of Auckland and Canon of Durham.
Cuthbert's body, found to be uncorrupt after 11 years, was transferred from Lindisfarne to a place for his tomb which was at last found in Durham.
Sadly, as Canon Stranks puts it, "There are no longer streams of pilgrims, the gifts and miracles..." We live in an unbelieving age and even Jesus could not perform miracles among those (of his own country) who had no faith.
Howard earns limelight
IT often seemed to me that Hubert Howard, who recently died at the age of 79, was somewhat overshadowed by his elder brothers, even though he himself led a most eventful and fulfilling life.
He was the third son of the first Lord Howard of Penrith the well known diplomatist and Hubert happened to be born in Washington.
He went to Downside during what Ronnie Knox called the "good part of the Trafford era" and later distinguished himself at Cambridge. He helped to establish Sheed and Ward in New York in the 1930's while he was working at the Carnegie Endowment Institute for Foreign Affairs.
Perhaps his finest hour was when, in 1939, having been turned down as too old by the RAF, he became a member of the expeditionary force that went to the aid of the Finns against the Russians. When his unit was disbanded, he hid in the woods, working as a lumberjack, eventually escaping to Sweden.
His war did not end there. He subsequently joined the psychological warfare branch of Eisenhower's Mediterranean HQ and during the advance on Rome met, and later married, the only surviving child of the Duke of Sermoneta.
Hubert and the latter's family (the Caetanis) decided, in the absence of heirs, to preserve their Italian property as part of Italy's national heritage for the benefit of the public.
Thus did the Palazzo Caetani in Rome become the centre for a unique set of archives used by scholars from all over the world; the castle at Sermoneta a notable tourist attraction; the beautiful gardens at Ninfa available for use by the public, and the famous Pontine marches an important site for bird migration.
Come back for Bilbo Baggins
NEXT Thursday will see the publication of a new edition of The Hobbit, J R R Tolkein's classic which first appeared exactly fifty years ago. The publishers are Unwin Hyman.
The Hobbit has never lacked the praise of intellectuals, reviewers, teachers and the like. But children have always been its best advertisers by their spontaneous praise of a book whose hero, Bilbo Baggins, has taken his place beside such other hardy perennials as Alice, Pooh and Toad.
In case you have forgotten The Hobbit is a tale of high adventure involving a company of dwarves in search of dragonguarded gold. Bilbo Baggins is the somewhat reluctant cooperator in what turns out to be a perilous journey.
Perhaps The Lord of the Rings is even better known, but I have a feeling that the greatest success of all in terms of copies sold was that of the posthumously published The Simarillion which appeared in 1977, four years after the author's death.
He had been born in 1892, eight years after which his mother Mabel became a Catholic thus determining the future religion of Ronald as he was usually called.
In my own days at Exeter College, Oxford, I was told about how brilliantly Ronald had done in his undergraduate days there before and after the first world war, in which he fought gallently.
Returning to the Pyx
I HAVE just noticed that subeditorial requirements "on the stone" necessitated some last minute cuts from the final item on this column two weeks ago.
In speaking of the refurbished Pyx Chamber at Westminster Abbey, I mentioned that no Abbey plate went back further, than the 17th century.
The illustration, however, showed "some Abbey plate that has survived the Reformation."
This, as I had originally explained, had been acquired by the Abbey from the neighbouring church of St Margaret's and included some priceless objects, notably two fifteenth century chalices.
, As I also mentioned, the word Pyx, in this context, refers to the box at the Mint in which sample coins were kept for testing, the actual place of testing being the Abbey.
In more general, and particularly Catholic, parlance, a pyx is the small silver vessel used for carrying consecrated hosts to the sick.