The Venerable Bede

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The first in a series of sermons on the four men depicted in the Lady Chapel window of St Mary, Moseley.

The Reverend Duncan Strathie
Vicar of Moseley

Sunday 10 September 2017, Trinity 13, Patronal Festival

There is a church somewhere in Aston that I remember driving past one day. After the name of the church – I think it was a black Pentecostal church – it says 'Founded in AD 33' above the door. In a sense, if we are to try and understand what it means to be an Anglican, a member of the Church of England here in Moseley today, we have to start our exploration back when the Church was born on that first Day of Pentecost sometime around AD 33.

God’s Church was born into an upper room in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. The first disciples were Galileans but from the outset the Church comprised an international membership. Its members brought with them the cultural, linguistic and faith influences that they had grown up with. As Christianity established its identity and churches formed, they did so in ways which reflected and expressed their members’ Greco-Roman heritage and the Jewish roots of our faith.

As well as a table of contents for the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 1:8 plots the trajectory of the expansion of the Church from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth—even to Kings Norton and eventually Moseley. As the Church grew and spread, different centres of influence grew up as bishops exercised leadership over their region. Among these centres were Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Damascus and Nicea.

Unlike today when we can consult vast libraries and the internet, these early leaders had to ‘make it up as they went along’. It is therefore not surprising that many disputes arose. Through the resulting process of debate, much Christian doctrine was thrashed out.

Sometimes the disagreements were so severe that representatives from across the developing Church came together in a series of Councils to debate and resolve points of contention.

These were much like the Council of Jerusalem we read about in Acts 15. Some of the more notable ones met in places like Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. An exploration of all these, as tempting as it is, is for another time and place!

I often sit and pray in the Lady Chapel and reflect on the stained glass windows and icons, the candles, the altar. I sometimes wonder that if I was asked today, to commission a four panel window for the chapel depicting great Anglicans, who I would choose. Who would you choose?

Those who have gone before us have bequeathed to us the Venerable Bede, an eight century monk who lived on Wearside, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who was the sixteenth century architect of the Church of England as we know it today, Lancelot Andrewes the seventeenth century Bishop of Chichester, preacher and writer on prayer, and from the 19th century John Keble who through one sermon saw a movement launched that continues to share its rich heritage with us today.

The English Church has long been open to the charge that it strongly feels that God is an Englishman! But how did Christianity first come to Britain? When did it arrive and who brought it? Where did the first church meet and which was the first dedicated church building to be built? What did they do when they gathered and how did they worship? How did Christianity impact on the spirituality that was indigenous to these islands when it did arrive? To gain an appreciation of Bede’s contribution we must first of all spend some time exploring these questions.

No-one can say exactly when Christianity came to our islands. Possibly through Roman soldiers, or traders or missionaries. There are reports of two English bishops attending a council in France in the third century.

The first English martyr was St Alban who was beheaded in the city that bears his name some time in the third or fourth century.

The fourth to the ninth centuries are often referred to as 'The Dark Ages' when little is known or recorded of Britain’s history. The break with the Roman Empire was so complete that their cities and country villas gradually became deserted ruins in readiness for Time Team to dig up. Britain was cut off from easy communication with Rome by the occupation of Gaul and Spain by barbarian tribes around 400 AD.

Although the Romano-Christian faith disappeared with everything else, the Celtic people who were already here, took the Christian faith as their own and with it the Celtic civilisation flourished. Christianity developed along a new and characteristically Celtic path. This unique development was influenced by Irish Christians who came from a country that had never been conquered by the Romans.

The Celtic faith was spread by monks. In their communities they were guardians of Scripture and produced illuminated bibles. They maintained a continuous round of daily prayer. But they also travelled. It is the monks of Celtic Ireland, not of the Roman Church, who travelled to Scotland and from there to England, spreading Christianity.

Gradually invaders from various Germanic tribes drove the Britons westwards to Wales, Scotland and Ireland and to the south western peninsula. These invaders became known corporately as the Saxons. They resisted conversion firmly; indeed, the tribes they came from in mainland Europe were the last to be converted in western Germany.

The Celtic saints of Ireland were always seeking to spread the word of God and in 563 AD St Columba founded a Christian community on the isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Western Scotland.

Less than a hundred years later, St Aidan had founded the community on Lindisfarne off the coast of North-East England and from there conducted missionary journeys across Northumbria. Celtic Christianity spread from Ireland, through Iona, on to Lindisfarne and from there across Scotland and the northern part of England.

In Bede’s first book History, we read

In the year of our Lord 582, Maurice, fifty-fourth in succession from Augustus, became emperor, and ruled for twenty one years. In the tenth year of his reign, Gregory, an eminent scholar and administrator, was elected Pontiff of the apostolic Roman see, and ruled it for thirteen years, six months, and ten days. In the fourteenth year of this Emperor, and about the one hundred and fiftieth year after the coming of the English to Britain, Gregory was inspired by God to send his servant Augustine with several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation.

That was in 597 AD. Bede goes on

At this time the most powerful king there was Ethelbert, who reigned in Kent and whose domains extended northwards to the river Humber which forms the boundary between the north and south Angles.

This gives us the division of south and north ‘Humbria’ which sees itself translated into the sees of Canterbury and York. The same year, 597, King Ethelbert was baptised and slowly the Saxons were converted.

Bishops were appointed at London and York, the two major cities of the old Roman occupation. The direction of conversion was now from South to North. Inevitably the Roman Catholic Christianity of the South was heading for a meeting with the Celtic Christianity of the North.

Bede and others record that there were marked differences between the Celtic and Roman faiths. Augustine worked with an administrative structure that the Celts did not have. Celtic mission was always based on a monastery where abbots had the same or greater status than bishops. The churches and monasteries were at the centre of small kingdoms or estates. Monks would travel on pilgrimages for the sake of their faith journey and as missionaries to unconverted regions. The monks had a hunger for learning and have left us a legacy of fine illuminated bibles and service books. They cut their hair differently, all shaven at the front but kept long at the back.

Bede, writing in his A History of the English Church and its People writes

At the present time, [AD 731] the Picts have a treaty of peace with the English, and are glad to be united in Catholic peace and truth to the universal Church. The Scots who are living in Britain are content with their own territories, and do not contemplate any raids or stratagems against the English. The Britons for the most part have a national hatred for the English, and uphold their own bad customs against the true Easter of the Catholic Church; however, they are opposed by the power of God and man alike, and they are powerless to obtain what they want. For although they have a certain measure of self-government, they have also been brought to some extent under subjection to the English.

Bede records for us that as the Celtic mission moved south, the Roman faction began to make inroads northwards. The two centuries during which the churches had been separated had led to marked policy differences.

The date of Easter had been made uniform by the Pope, but was on a different date for the Celts. The theology of Augustine of Hippo had been firmly stamped on the Roman Church and there was no place for anything with the flavour of the Irish or British Pelagius about it.

Augustine of Hippo had fallen out with Pelagius’ teaching on free will and grace and hence we have the Pelagian controversy in the early fifth century. A controversy that repeatedly rears its head in the history of the Christian Church.

At this time, Roman priests were celibate and this meant that there was a wider gulf between men and women than the Celtic church was used to. It was not unusual for a woman to be joint abbess of a Celtic monastery and nunnery in the same location.

In Northumbria King Oswy, a Celtic Christian, celebrated Easter on a different day to his wife, Queen Eanfleda who had been converted by a mission from Rome. This actually caused domestic strife! The two factions came together finally at Streaonshalh (renamed Whitby by the Danes) in the year 664.

At the monastery of St Hilda, the Council of Whitby debated the date of Easter and the style of the tonsure to be worn. Superficially this looks frivolous, but underneath it was a battle for the English Church to become wholly Celtic or wholly Roman.

In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede describes how Bishop Coleman of Lindisfarne, arguing the case for the Celtic mission, appealed to the authority of St John, as the disciple who leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper and heard the Lord's heartbeat.

Abbot Wilfrid, on the other hand, presenting the case for the Roman mission from Canterbury, argued for the authority of St Peter, to whom Jesus had said: 'You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church' (Matt.17:18). After much debate King Oswy decided in favour of the Roman mission, saying: ‘I shall not contradict Peter.'

The great tragedy of the Synod of Whitby is that neither the Petrine tradition nor the Johanine tradition should have been displaced. Each represents a way of seeing that is firmly rooted in the gospel tradition.

The decision of the synod was a fundamental rejection of the perspective of the Celtic mission. The St John tradition with its emphasis on the Light that enlightens every person coming into the world had inspired the Celtic mission to believe, like Pelagius, in the essential goodness of humanity.

Similarly, St John's vision of God as the Light of the world had led this mission to look for the grace of God within, as well as beyond, creation. The concept of listening for the heartbeat of God within all things, ourselves, one another and the whole of creation was a feature of the spirituality of the Celtic mission that now began to be displaced.

After the Synod of Whitby the Celtic mission entered into decline. Bishop Coleman's removal from Lindisfarne to Ireland represents the beginning of its retreat.

The Roman mission now occupied Lindisfarne and replaced the small wooden structures of the Celtic monastery with a church built of stone, symbolising its strength and organisation, but also the sharper division between the place of worship and creation.

In northern England, Wilfrid and the Roman mission began systematically to replace Celtic practices and monastic way of life with the Roman liturgy and Benedictine monasticism from the continent.

Mark Earey is a tutor at The Queens Foundation here in Birmingham and has written:

It was not until after the Synod of Whitby in 664 that Roman ways began to dominate. It did not all go Rome’s way then, however. A more monastic structure was retained, whereas across most of the old Roman Empire dioceses were the most natural unit of administration. Worship revolved around the abbeys and monasteries. In many places the parishes were served by small communities of travelling priests from a minster community. In addition, of course, Christianity was by no means the only faith—many still followed the old pagan ways and resented and opposed the ‘new religion’.

(From Common Worship Today, edited by Mark Earey, p.19)

The Welsh were effectively trapped in 'Cymru', the Cumbrians in Cumbria (both pushed up against the western shoreline), the Cornish Celts were trapped in 'Kerno' (Cornwall), the Irish were across the Irish Sea and the Bretons overseas in Brittany. It was difficult for a united Celtic nation to emerge and the longer each group was separated from the others the more they developed a particular and divergent identity. In Scotland the entrapment came from the arrival of the 'Great Host' of Vikings in northern England.

I would encourage you to add Bede’s A History of the English Church and People to your library and dip into it from time to time. You will be amazed at the level of detail Bede records about daily life and how the Church functioned. It is also important to acknowledge that he is much closer to early sources than we are and that many will have been lost in the intervening centuries. His work is significant and he leaves us a rich legacy at a time when the Church in England was fighting for a sense of identity.

Because these sermons form a series of snapshots, we are going to miss out on the impact of the Vikings and the Normans but even up until the thirteenth century the struggle for English identity involved violent opposition and tribal battles. The instability of the times was met by a system of feudalism where the vulnerable put themselves under the protection of overlords in return for fealty. The feudal system would become the social structure for England in medieval times, vestiges of which still exist. For example, the patronage system of parishes grew out of feudalism.

But it’s important to remember that Bede is writing after the Synod of Whitby and he has little sympathy for Celtic Christianity. But when you do order a copy, make sure it’s in a language or translation you speak—things were a bit different 1300 years ago.

The enduring nature of Saxon influence is revealed in the way that the days of the week, whose Roman names were replaced with the names of Saxon deities (except for Saturday), were never renamed with names of Christian significance. Through the ensuing centuries English Christians never quite lost the suspicion that the Roman Church was in some way a foreign imposition on national soil. This brooding suspicion was to resurface with a vengeance at the Reformation—as we will explore next Sunday evening as we look at Thomas Cranmer’s contribution to Anglican identity.

I will leave you with one of Bede’s most well known prayers:

O Christ, our Morning Star,
Splendour of Light Eternal,
shining with the glory of the rainbow,
come and waken us
from the greyness of our apathy,
and renew in us your gift of hope.

Amen.