Drink to me only…

‘And then how I shall lie through centuries
And hear the blessed mutter of the Mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long
And feel the steady candle flame and taste
Good strong thick stupifying incense smoke!’

So Browning’s bishop imagined lying in state in his tomb in St Praxed’s Church – his nephews (‘sons mine’!) rejoicing in their legacies rather than grieving his demise.

Truly the basilica of Santa Prassede is one of the jewels of Rome, erected by the hands of three Popes – Siricius (384-99) who built it; Hadrian I (772-95) who restored it; and Paschal I (817-24) who virtually built it afresh, and added the glorious chapel of S Zeno as the tomb of his mother Theodora.

The mosaics of the ninth-century apse (almost certainly also executed for Paschal) are one of the finest examples of the Byzantine style of in Rome. S Prassede, it seems, was part of a Papal response to the ‘re-establishment’ of the Empire in the West. The Popes – and Paschal in particular – were seeking to re-affirm the authority of the Holy See in a world where Caesaro-Papalism seemed to be the dominant political ideology. The result is a triumphal arch of glittering colour at the heart of which the martyred Apostles Peter and Paul present the martyred sisters Pudenzia and Prassede to the assembled worshippers. To one side, in the modest square halo of one not yet sainted, stands Paschal himself, holding a model of the restored church.

But S Prassede boasts other treasures; an early funerary bust by Bernini; a fine monument by Arnolfo di Cambio; four sculptured sarcophagi containing the remains of the 2,300 martyrs brought by Paschal from the catacombs to keep his mother company; and the column of the flagellation of the Lord, brought from Constantinople in the thirteenth century by the eponymous legate Giovanni Colonna.

All these things, however, are as nothing beside the one feature which now draws the Sisters from across the globe to this place of feminist pilgrimage. They come to gaze, not on the relics of the sister martyrs Pudenzia and Prassede, but upon a single talismanic word in blue tesserae above the head of the mosaic portrait of Theodora. The word, of course, is ‘episcopa’. Here, claimed Joan Morris, the pioneer Roman Catholic feminist, is evidence of a woman bishop in the ninth century – and the mother of a Pope to boot!

All this is doubly tragic. Tragic because the history of SS Pudenzia and Prassede is truly one of the glories of Christian Rome; tragic because, in search for role models, modern feminism clearly prefers the fictitious to the actual.

The sisters Prassede and Pudenzia maintained two of those ‘safe houses’ (the ‘tituli’) upon which the apostles relied. They are a direct link with those women in the Pauline letters in whose homes the church met. And their respective churches in Rome still occupy the very sites of their ministry. They are tangible and actual links with the holy women who preserved and nurtured the faith. The notion, on the other hand, of a ninth-century female bishop (the mother of a Pope!) is patently absurd to anyone who takes the trouble to think about it for a moment. The truth is movingly different.

Theodora, whose portrait Paschal placed in the chapel which he had created for her mortal remains, was no bishop. She was, Paschal would probably have said, more important than any bishop. The Pope revered his mother, and knew that it was from her that he had first learned the faith. She had been to him what Pudenzia and Prassede were to the Roman Church; so he buried her with them, and proudly showed, by the words above her portrait, that she was the mother of the city’s bishop, the successor of the Apostles.

How sad that modern feminists, forbidden by their ideology to celebrate the glorious vocation of real Christian women, have adopted instead the implausible fiction of Bishop Theodora. And how typical that they have turned the venerable mother of Pope Paschal I into a cocktail.

Let WATCH (Women and the Church) (London) explain:

‘At London WATCH events recently we have been serving a drink we call ‘Theodora’. As it seems to be popular, I would like to pass on the recipe, and also say how it got its name. It is a very simple mixture of 50% sparkling wine and 50% guava juice, mixed in the glass, not beforehand. We get the guava juice from Sainsbury’s (£1.09 a carton), and the wine is Sainsbury’s Australian Sparkling Wine Brut (£4.99 a bottle, 20% off for six.) The resulting mixture is similar to the Venetian Bellini, but has more body. It is purplish in colour, quite episcopal, in fact. In the church of Santa Prassede in Rome (Browning’s Saint Praxed’s) there is a ninth-century mosaic in the chapel of S Zeno which has a mosaic inscription ‘Theodora Episcopa’. The Roman authorities are at pains to say that this does not mean that Theodora was a bishop, though one could be forgiven for thinking that this is the ordinary meaning of the words. Theodora was mother of Paschal I (Pope 817–824), who had the chapel built as her mausoleum and exquisitely decorated in mosaic. We think that, whatever Theodora’s actual status, here is inspiration for women bishops, and we drink to that prospect.’

Indeed! But now members of Forward in Faith need not be (alcoholically) backward in coming forward. New Directions offers the following drinks for universal (and decidedly inclusive) consumption, based on other no less fictional characters:

The Christina: one third white rum, two thirds sweet potato puree and a dash of grenadine.

The Lavinia: One third gin, one third vodka and one third pure imagination.

The Angela: Two measures of crème de menthe and half a pint of cream stout.

The drinks, of course, will all be of differing colours, and none of them purple* – but enjoy!

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark.

* As a matter of fact I have tried the WATCH recipe, and rather predictably, it is not ‘quite episcopal’ but weakly pink – a colour, I suggest, that WATCH might be wise to avoid. The taste and appearance would be vastly improved, in my view, by a good shot of crème de cassis. An excellent selection is available from Robin Yapp, Mere, Wiltshire. With that robust addition I might even find myself serving the odd Theodora Mater (as I am sure we should call them) at ‘A la Table du Curé’.