Interview with Rev'd Canon Angela Tilby
Angela Tilby was, before her ordination, a radio and TV producer with the BBC. After her ordination she was Vice-Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge for six years, and then Vicar of St Benet’s Church in Cambridge. She is now Diocesan Canon at Christ Church Cathedral Oxford. She can often be heard on ‘Thought for the Day’, BBC Radio 4.
The Rev'd Tilby was interviewed by Samantha Bromley before the première of Perpetua at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in November 2012.
Who was Perpetua?
Vibia Perpetua was a young Roman-educated wife and mother who lived in Carthage, in Roman North Africa. She converted to Christianity during the reign of the emperor Septimus Severus at the beginning of the 3rd century. This brought about a rift with her family and eventually led to her arrest and condemnation along with her servant Felicity and other members of the Christian group she belonged to.
The Roman empire was reaching the height of its powers. Severus had a devotion to the Egyptian god Serapis, and in 202 passed an edict forbidding conversion to Christianity. This led to persecutions in Alexandria which spread Westwards to other parts of Roman North Africa. As new converts, Perpetua and her Christian friends were particularly vulnerable. They were particularly unfortunate in that the Roman governor, Hilarion, had his own reasons for wanting to make something of a spectacular out of the execution of these martyrs. He was something of a zealot and was trying to ingratiate himself with the emperor and planned their death by wild beasts as an entertainment in honour of the emperor’s son’s birthday.
Why is the text / her diary important?
It is just an extraordinarily direct, personal, honest and moving prison diary. It gives a wonderful insight into the inner life of a new Christian convert and into the role of women in the early church.
What is your view on its authenticity?
If it is not authentic it is a work of genius. I have always thought it must be authentic. The visions and dreams have a peculiarly convincing quality about them; not least because they show how Perpetua’s pagan past was still very much alive in the imagery of her unconscious mind. The diary is a snapshot of a Christian community under extreme pressure and responding in a very human way.
What is remarkable about this story?
It shows a young woman defying her society for her beliefs in an age when women were expected to fit in to the traditional roles of a highly patriarchal society. Her account begins quite abruptly with an argument with her father who is trying to stop her being baptized. She insists that she will never revoke her Christian faith and then goes ahead with the baptism. The account is full of this sense of courageous defiance. Perpetua is very much the leader of her group in spite of her youth and the fact that she was nursing a baby. She is the one who is expected to interpret God’s will through her visions and dreams. There is no mention of a bishop or other male authority figure in this small Christian community, though a bishop and a presbyter are mentioned in one of the visions.
Perpetua shows great courage but she does not hide her vulnerability. She speaks movingly of her anxiety for her little son; she is frightened of the darkness of the prison, she is very aware of the horror of the ordeal that lies ahead of her. And then there are strangely comic touches. When she is facing her death in the arena she is charged by an enraged heifer who ripped her thigh. Having rearranged her tunic to protect her modesty she asked for a pin to tie up her hair. Dignity mattered! In the end the soldier charged with killing her with a sword made a mess of it and she had to guide the blade to her throat. Some critics have seen an echo of the great Dido in this detail; Dido who killed herself for love of Aeneas.
Do you think the dreams are important?
I think the dreams are very important. Perpetua knew instinctively how to simply record an experience as an experience and then reflect on it in order to interpret it. Particularly moving are the dreams about her little brother Dinocrates, who had died of a facial cancer. She sees him in the realm of the dead, suffering from terrible thirst and she is able to deliver him through her prayers. The imagery is entirely pagan, and yet, given her recent baptism, she will also have in her mind the image of the water of life, and this is what Dinocrates is able to drink from and relieve his agony. But the dreams about Dinocrates have another layer of meaning. They resolve her anxiety about her little son whom she was nursing and who has been taken away from her. So this is a very human blend of the clash between personal anxiety and vocation being resolved through the dreaming mind. The most extraordinary dream, though, is the one where she prepares for her martyrdom. She is stripped naked and oiled, like an athlete. For her final conflict she becomes virile; she takes on the integrity which in the ancient world could only belong to male persons. It is quite extraordinary that the Church has this account in its memory of women acting as full human beings for the sake of Christ, and yet we are still worrying about women priests and bishops!
Why do you think Perpetua’s story is suddenly receiving so much attention and how is it relevant today?
I think down the ages it was passed over for many reasons. Augustine disapproved of its theology, and that set the tone for others. The reliance on dreams and visions in the story suggested to some that the group were Montanists; Montanism was an early Christian charismatic movement which was eventually condemned as heretical. So it was assumed that Perpetua and her companions were not quite orthodox. Then there was, I suspect, a distaste for the fact that pregnancy and birth plays a part in the story; the church came to prefer its female martyrs to be virgins!
Even in more modern times many writings by religious women were simply regarded as second rate or hysterical and were often dismissed. One way in which this dismissal showed itself was in the widespread view that it was no more than a piece of pious fiction. It is only very recently that Perpetua’s prison diary has been thought to be authentic.
It has come into prominence partly through the feminist movement in the Church and in wider culture and the recognition that some women have carried significant spiritual authority. I also think people hear an individual voice in it and they find the account moving and powerful. It chimes in well with the contemporary search for spiritual experience and authenticity.