Lent Reading Group – St Cyprian

Hosted by: Professor Oliver Nicholson

S. Michael’s Lent Group – 5 Wednesdays in Lent 7.00-8.15pm: Reading S. Cyprian of Carthage (martyred 258 AD)

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire in the first three centuries AD was one of the formative traumas of European Civilisation.   People were still telling tales of the martyrs, painting pictures of them, and asking for their prayers more than a thousand years later.  Of course the stories lost nothing in the telling -  thick layers of mythical varnish separate us from the vivid truth about the suffering and witness of our forerunners in the Faith.  

But this Lent we have an opportunity to investigate the truth about Roman persecution of the Christians, through reading texts (in English translation) written at the time.  These reveal much about the motives of the authorities (and the lions), the very varied reactions of Christians, the pastoral problems of the clergy and the witness of the martyrs.  The primary meaning of the Greek word ‘martyr’ is ‘witness’, and the spirituality and commitment of martyrs like S. Cyprian can speak to us directly over seventeen centuries later.    

S. Cyprian was made Bishop of Carthage, the largest city in Latin-speaking North Africa, soon after his conversion in the late 240s.   In the year 250, the Emperor Decius required all Roman citizens to take part in sacrifice to the pagan Gods and to acquire a certificate, written on papyrus, to say that they had done so -  a couple of dozen of these certificates have actually been excavated from the sands of Egypt.   Many Christians complied, others were imprisoned, a good number were martyred (including the Bishops of Rome and Antioch).  Cyprian managed to escape and to direct the affairs of the African church from exile.

Remarkably, we still have more than 80 of the letters Cyprian wrote trying to hold the church together, as well as a dozen or so treatises, and a brief biography by his deacon, written a year after his death.   For in 257 persecution of the church was renewed by the Emperor Valerian, and Cyprian was tried and beheaded on September 14, 258.  He became the greatest homegrown hero of the African church.

A group will meet on at 7 pm on Wednesday evenings this Lent at S. Michael’s Mount Dinham to discuss selections from S. Cyprian’s writings.  Readings will be provided at the first session, which will be on Wednesday March 13;  subsequent meetings will be on March 20 and 27 and April 3 and 10.   Anyone is welcome to come to as many (or as few) meetings as they are able.   If you have not planned your Lent yet, you might like to give this a try.

Oliver Nicholson


St Michael and All Angels’ Church, Dinham Road, Mount Dinham, Exeter, EX4 4EB