The Celtic Church in Northumbria (2)
Lindisfarne to Whitby
Lindisfarne Monastic Community
After building his monastery to accommodate himself and fellow missionaries Aidan would, without delay, have built a school to form, in the Christian faith and train in the discipline of learning, English boys and young men as priests, missionaries and teachers.(1) St Bede tells us that the first group to be formed and trained were 12 young slaves that he had paid money to purchase their freedom. Many of these in Aidan’s short span of 16 years as bishop of Lindisfarne, became priests, evangelists and the great missionaries of the next generation; a fascinating story in itself. Among them were four brothers Cedd, who became bishop of Essex, His brother Chad became abbot and bishop of Mercia, which covered the midlands and Birmingham area; then there were Cynebil and Caelin both priests who, according to Bede worked tirelessly for the Lord in preaching the Gospel and establishing the Christian Church beyond the borders of Northumbria. Also among the twelve was Eata who was abbot of Melrose on the Scottish Borders and later became the abbot of Lindisfarne. Bede referring to the rapid flourishing of the mission of Aidan from Lindisfarne has this to say: Churches were built in various places and people flocked together with joy to hear the Word. Lands and properties were given by royal bounty to establish monasteries, and English children and their elders, were instructed by Irish teachers in advanced studies and in the observance of the discipline of a Rule.(2)
Many other great churchmen and women came under the influence of Aidan the best know were Wilfrid (633-709) and Hilda (614-680). Wilfrid was educated in Lindisfarne; from there he went, at a young age, to build a monastery at Hexham and then went on to Ripon where he was consecrated bishop; later he became Archbishop of York. Wilfrid paid many visits to the continent and to Rome. Although he grew up as part of Aidan’s mission or as part of the Irish or “Celtic” Church,(3) as it became known, he was, however, more taken by the Roman model and set about, as the main focus of his life’s mission, to bring the “Celtic” Church into line with Rome We shall hear more about him when we come to the Synod of Whitby.
Lindisfarne to Whitby
As the crow flies there is a distance of about 100 miles, along the coast, between Lindisfarne and Whitby and just under 30 years, between Aidan’s arrival in at Lindisfarne in 635AD and the Synod of Whitby in 664AD when Wilfrid’s ambition of bringing the Celtic Church into line with Rome was achieved. In a sense the Synod marked a point of departure, the end of an era, the end of the “Celtic” Church in England, because many of the Irish monks with quite a number of English accompanying them departed for Ireland. With Coleman the Abbot of Lindisfarne as their leader they continued their mission in Ireland establishing a monastery in Inishbofin, off the North Galway coast. Eventually, Bede tells us, the English monks, who found the Irish ways too severe, broke away to establish a monastery of their own, in a place called Abbey Mayo, near Claremorris in the County Mayo, which became known as the ‘Saxon Monastery’ and became a popular centre of formation and learning for English monks and scholars. However, while the Synod of Whitby marked the end of the Irish mission it certainly wasn’t the end of the story. You could say that Wilfrid and the English won the battle but the Irish won the war because what had happened between Lindisfarne and Whitby in that short span of less than 30 years left an indelible mark, not only on the landscape, but on the soul and psyche of the people of Northumbria. It is as if during those years a great spiritual well had been quarried in the heart of Northumbria bringing spiritual refreshment, not only to its people, but to thousands and millions throughout England and far beyond, ever since. The Church in Northumbria today still takes pride in its Irish “Celtic” origins and heritage and has contributed much, perhaps even more than any other area in these Islands, to developing and promoting an authentic form of Celtic Spirituality.
The Irish “Celtic” Church and the Anglo-Saxon “Roman” Church
I would very much like to give a detailed, year by year, account of the main events and characters of those thirty years or so; of how the foundations were set so firmly that they have withstood the wear and tear and sometimes seismic political and religious conflicts over the past almost fourteen hundred years, and, also, try to explain why the memory of those years still lives on today. In this regard St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is an invaluable resource. In spite of the fact that Bede rejoiced in the Romanization or Anglicization of the Northumbrian Church; Bede, never-the-less, seemed to have had a deep, though sometimes begrudging admiration for the Irish Monks and their mission to Northumbria. Although he doesn’t offer a chronological account of events and happenings over those thirty years; he offers enough facts to provide a profile of how the mission began and developed. In his account he also highlights the main characters and gives us an insight into the kind of people they were; this information he had gained from people who lived during those years of the mission, but, also, from the legends that were already part of the folklore of the area.
In this respect much can be gleaned from Bede’s account of the Synod of Whitby which tells us a lot about the spirit of the “Celtic” Church inspired, especially, by the holiness and apostolic zeal of the man Aidan. Although the Synod marked the end of an era; it was more the end of a chapter than the end of the book. It would seem that the practices that distinguished the Irish from the Roman Church were by no means radical. They didn’t affect the integrity of either the Christian faith or its practice and they certainly didn’t inhibit the spirit in which the Irish monks lived out their faith. Even Bede regarded the Irish monks as exemplary and inspirational and more than anything else it was this spirit that lived on and, I believe, continues to live on today. This is how Bede introduces Aidan: a man of singular meekness, piety and moderation; zealous in the cause of God. He left his clergy a most salutary example of abstinence or continence; it was the highest commendation of his doctrine, with all men, that he taught not otherwise than his followers lived.(4) Writing just over 50 years after Aidan’s death Bede compares Aidan and his church with the post Whitby Anglo-Saxon church in the following words: His course of life was so different from the slothfulness of our times. Then he goes on to extol the virtues of Aidan which we will leave for another day.
The Issue of Easter
As we can see Bede had a deep respect for Aidan and writes very lovingly about him and states that although Aidan belonged to the Irish Church he was, highly regarded by Honorius Archbishop of Canterbury at the time and also by Felix bishop of East Anglia, both of whom belonged to the Roman Church. Yet Bede just could not understand Aidan’s and the Irish Church’s stance on the date of Easter, which was a date originally held by the Roman church where Easter was celebrated on the 14 day of the moon to co-inside with the celebration of the Jewish Passover, held, however, on the nearest Sunday, the day of Resurrection. In the beginning of the 5th century Rome decided that this way of reckoning Easter was incorrect, and decreed that the date of Easter should in future be on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring Equinox. There was, also the issue of tonsure, which for the Celts was right across the front half of the head with a pony tail on the back, probably in the style of the druids, rather than a circular tonsure on the crown of the head, which was the common practice in other forms of monasticism. There were also slight difference in the administration of Baptism and in the liturgy of the Mass, but these didn’t seem to features at Whitby or at least Bede only gives them a passing mention.
Also, as we saw last week Irish Church in its structure was monastic rather than diocesan. Here the main monastery like Iona in Scotland and Lindisfarne was the power centre of the Church where the local bishops were answerable to the abbot rather than to the Metropolitan Archbishop as was the case in the Roman church; and under this system the Church and the bishop seemed to have more independence on the local level. Of course at the time of Aidan and for some time afterwards there was no metropolitan in the north of England. The reasons for the distinctive nature in which the Irish Church developed are many and varied, historical, geographical and cultural. We have already seen how the early Irish Church’s association with Gaul and Eastern Monasticism and with the Desert Spirituality, with its focus on the ascetical and the penitential, as well as on the mystical spirituality of St. John the Evangelist, which played a big part in the way it shaped itself. As we saw last week the tribal and rural nature of early Irish society played a major part in the way the Irish Church was structured, which was very different from the more urban based Roman Church. Also of significance was the fact that geographically Ireland was situated at the margins of the then known world. It was never part of the Roman Empire. England was the outpost of the Roman Empire and according to Rome Ireland belonged to the twilight or mythical zone. Ireland, of course, became even more remote and isolated from the rest of Europe during the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire and therefore the church had to develop more or less organically.
Hilda of Whitby
To return to Whitby; while the Synod, as I have suggested, marked the end of an era, it does in retrospect tell us a lot about the nature of the mission conducted by Aidan and his disciples. But first of all a little background to the monastery at Whitby; when the Synod was called Whitby was a thriving “Celtic” double monastery of women and men with a woman, Hilda, in charge as Abbess. As Abbess of the monastery she hosted the Synod and may well have presided over the gathering. The monastery was a mixed or double Monastery comprising of monks as well as nuns and at the time of the Synod had become renowned for its scholarship as a centre of spiritual and intellectual formation where many bishops were trained to serve the English mission. Hilda, herself, was Anglo Saxon, she was in fact the grand-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria and with him was baptised by Paulinus in 627AD. Paulinus, as we saw last week, was a member of Augustine’s mission from Rome and was intended by Pope Gregory the Great to become Metropolitan Bishop of York to preach the gospel to the people of the North of England. It wasn’t until much latter, however, that he made the trip north at the request of King Edwin, and also to accompany, as chaplain, Edwin’s wife Eanflaed who was Christian. Edwin built a Church for Paulinus in York in 627 after he and Hilda were baptised. From York Paulinus preached the Gospel around Northumbria but, as we saw last week, the impression he created didn’t seem to have made a lasting impact; and within six years, on the sudden death of Edwin, Paulinus fled and returned to work in the south of England. Bede gives the impression that Paulinus baptised extensively in Edwin’s kingdom during those years; if this was so the reason was the custom that when the king or the local chief converted then the whole of the kingdom or tribe converted. The Irish seemed to have gone more for individual conversions so there would have been far greater preparation and instruction and the faith would be more deeply rooted in the individual’s life, through personal commitment. I would think that this approach accounts for the rapid and lasting success of the Irish mission.
When Aidan arrived shortly after Paulinus’ departure, he met Hilda and Bede tells us that he immediately recognised her exceptional gifts and encouraged her to follow a religious vocation. Bede goes on to say that for the first 33 years she spent her life in secular pursuits as a member of the royal household, while the next 33 years she was dedicated to Christ in the monastic life.(5) It was in 647 that she decided to become a nun in a monastery near Paris, to join her sister who was already a member of the community there. When Aidan learned of her intentions and while she was in transit to Paris he sent a messenger asking her to return to Northumbria where land would be provided for her to establish a religious community of her own, under his direction. She accepted the offer and established a small community probably around South Shields, south of Newcastle. After a year she was made abbess of an existing mixed monastery in Hartlepool.
Aidan instructed, advised and supported Hilda until his death in 651, and Bede tells us that there were many other devout and learned men and women who visited her not only to support her but also to consult her and receive advice because she was so widely known for her learning, her wisdom and holiness of life. Then in 657 she was chosen to lead, as abbess, a much larger and double Celtic Monastery at Whitby. Here Bede tells us that: she ruled the monastery with great distinction, teaching the observance of righteousness, mercy, purity and other virtues but especially of peace and charity …no one there was rich, no one was needy, for everything was held in common, and nothing was considered to be anyone’s personal property.(6) As well as its rich devotional life Whitby acquired a reputation for learning and trained within its walls were many monks who became bishops in York, Hexham and many areas outside Northumbria. It is presumed that Irish monks and scholars from Lindisfarne, Melrose, Iona, and probably from Ireland itself, provided the teaching.
The monastery became famous for its contribution to the growth and flowering of Christianity in the North of England, but also as a centre of learning and scholarship. It produced the first English poet Caedmon a simple cowherd who became renowned for his religious verse, as well as, for his angelic music and song. When Hilda realized that God blessed him with a very special gift she invited him to become a monk where he continued to compose and sing to the praise and glory of God and to the joy and edification of all who heard him.
Synod of Whitby
Hilda and Whitby, as I have already suggested are best known for the Synod convened there to settle a long- standing dispute between the “Celtic” and Roman branches of the Church. As we have seen the most serious difference was the date of Easter and the nature of the Celtic tonsure, with some other minor differences in the celebration of Baptism and of the Mass. Many of those who advocated complete conformity with Roman practice believed that the Irish or “Celtic” Church was disloyal and even heretical and were a scandal to the Church of Rome. Wilfrid, although brought up in the Celtic tradition, educated and formed in Lindisfarne soon became the greatest critic of the Irish Church. At a young age he made many trips to Europe and Rome and as a result became familiar with, and attached to, the Roman Church; and eventually he became a staunch Romanist setting about bringing the ‘Celtic’ church into line with the Church of Rome. It was the King of Northumbria Oswiu who called the Synod, but more than likely it was due to pressure from Wilfrid, who led the attack against the Celtic Church at the Synod. Oswiu was on the side of the Irish Church and accompanied by a number of the local kings. Among the “Celtic” delegates were Bishop Coleman and the Irish monks of Lindisfarne, Hilda and her community and also representatives from other Celtic Monasteries, including Cedd, one of Aidan’s original group of young disciples, who was now a bishop; while leading Churchmen representing the Roman Church from various parts of Britain stood with Wilfrid. That Whitby should be chosen in preference to Lindisfarne gives us some indication of the importance attached to the Monastery where in less than 30 years after the mission began, it had become a thriving community. The Synod was called by King Oswiu of Northumbria, himself of the “Celtic” persuasion, who was, none-the-less, anxious to settle the dispute and alleviate the growing tensions arising out of those different practices and customs that distinguished the Irish or “Celtic” Church from the Church of Rome.
Bede gives an account of the proceedings as follows: The cause of the Irish Church was defended by Coleman, abbot of Lindisfarne, who gave a moving explanation of the Irish observance of Easter: the Easter customs, he observed had been taught and practiced by his superiors at Iona and originated from the teachings of the apostle St. John. They had been observed too by their Celtic forefathers including the founder of their community Columba. Are we to believe said Coleman that our most revered father Columba and his successors thought and acted contrary to Holy Scripture when they followed this custom? In response Wilfrid challenged Coleman, saying: that the Easter customs of the Roman Church were those observed by the two chief Apostles Peter and Paul and were in use in Italy, Gaul, Africa Asia, Egypt, Greece and in every part of the world where the Church had spread. The only people who stupidly contend against the whole world are these Scots [Irish] and their partners the Picts and the Britons, who inhabit only a portion of these two remotest islands of the ocean; It is true, he said that Coleman and his party followed neither John nor Peter; their keeping of Easter agreed with neither Law nor Gospel.
His final challenge, which proved to be the fatal blow, was: did Coleman and his followers think that they, a few men in one corner of a remote island, were to be preferred to the universal Church of Christ throughout the world? Was their holy father Columba to be preferred before Peter, to whom our Lord said, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. With that King Oswiu, who was firmly on the Irish side, caved in and put this question to Coleman: Is it true Coleman that the Lord spoke these words to Peter. “It is true, O King,” answered Coleman. And was a similar authority given to Columba? “No,” replied Coleman. Oswiu concluded, if Peter was the door keeper and held the keys to the kingdom of heaven he [the King] would obey his commands in everything, as far as he understood them, otherwise ‘when I come to the gates of heaven, there may be no one to open them, because he who holds the key had turned away.’ In Wilfrid Rome had spoken, and I might add used plenty of rhetoric to convince those assembled at the Synod, and, so, the case was closed.
In Praise of the Irish
The case as presented by Coleman was so moving that nobody could doubt the sincerity in which the Irish held their views. Referring to Aidan and the Irish Church Bede, although he abhorred the way they dated Easter, had to acknowledge: But, nevertheless, I do approve of this, that in his celebration of Easter he had no other thought in his heart, he reverenced and preached no other doctrine than we do, namely the redemption of the human race by the passion, resurrection, and Ascension into heaven of the one mediator between God and men, even the man Jesus Christ. And therefore he always kept Easter, not as some falsely believe, on the 14th day of the moon, like the Jews, no matter what the day of the week was, but on the Lord’s day, which fell between the fourteenth and the twentieth day of the moon. He did this because of his belief that the Resurrection of our Lord took place on the first day of the week and also the hope of our Resurrection, which he, together with the holy Church, believed would undoubtedly happen on this same first day of the week now called the Lord’s day.
A Hidden Agenda?
One can detect hints in Bede’s words and in his guarded defence of the Irish ways that there was more at issue in the Synod of Whitby than doctrinal matters. Tom O’Loughlin commenting on the issue of the timing of Easter suggests that: at issue was a very technical piece of Maths [i.e. in the dating of Easter] that only bothered a small number of people for a limited time, and would hardly surface on the horizon of history save that it was a technical matter close to the heart of Bede. We should remember two things. First, that Bede had his own religious and ethnic reasons for recalling the question in the way he did – it was part of his aim to create a Christian Anglo-Saxon identity as an elect people.(7) Likewise the historian Plummer states that the Synod was more about ecclesiastical politics and suggests that: The real question which was decided at Whitby was not so much whether the English Church should use this or that Paschal Cycle, but whether she should link her fortunes with those of the declining and loosely compacted Irish Church, or with the rising power and growing organisation of Rome.(8) I would suggest also that there was more than Ecclesiastical politics; that going from Wilfrid’s strong words there was evidence of a deeper tension where Wilfrid more or less sought to undermine the Irish Church and the Celtic peoples because of their remoteness from the more civilized world thus implying that the Anglo-Saxon nation in its connection with and its loyalty to the Church of Rome was far superior.
I don’t know whether the tension was racial, a matter of faith or of temperament; perhaps there is a little of each. There is no doubt that the rigid ascetical practices of the Celtic monks, as well as the lack of order and discipline in the way they exercised their mission which seemed to lack focus as they wandered and meandered about the countryside as the Spirit moved them. To the Anglo-Saxons mind the Irish monks seemed to be doing their own thing rather than getting down to the work of building up the Church by preaching the Gospel to the people and converting them to Christ. Comparing the Celtic missionary outreach with the later missionary journeys of the Anglo-Saxon Church David Bosch suggests that: While they all had explicit conviction that one should not remain in the monastery for one’s own salvation, but to save and serve others. For the Celtic monks, however, preaching and mission were unplanned appendages to their penitential roaming or pilgrimages for Christ; for the Anglo-Saxons; however, pilgrimage was undertaken for the sake of mission. Their [Anglo-Saxon] travels were not instigated by a penitential urge or a desire for perfection; they were conceived to spread the Gospel and bring pagans within the bosom of the Church. (9)
Northumbria after the Synod
Anyway, to return to the Synod; after Coleman and his followers returned to Ireland the Irish monasteries in England made the necessary liturgical adjustments while, it would seem, maintaining the Celtic spirit. Cuthbert, who we will be hearing about later, an Anglo Saxon monk at Lindisfarne and of the Celtic tradition, was one who was reputed to have made a major contribution to bringing the two traditions together; while Benedict Biscop was the first to build a monastery at Wearmouth, near Sunderland, in the Roman Benedictine tradition in 674. This monastery like Lindisfarne and Whitby became renowned for its learning and scholarship. One of its earliest members was a young boy who entered at the age of seven in 679; his name was Bede and he became England’s first great historian. In spite of the outcome of the Synod of Whitby I believe spirit of the Irish and “Celtic” Church had become part of the very soil of Northumbria and had become integral to the faith of the Christian Church in Northumbria and I believe that in the clash of the Celtic and Roman Churches or in the clash between the Celtic and Anglo Saxon cultures there was a fusion that blossomed and brought forth the rich harvest of the Golden Age of Northumbria.
Final Reflection: Hilda’s Death
When Hilda had governed the monastery at Whitby for many years, it pleased God to test her souls by a long sickness, in order that, following the apostle’s example, her strength might be made perfect in weakness. She was attacked by a burning fever that racked her continually for six years; but during this time she never ceased to give thanks to her Maker, nor to instruct the flock committed to her charge, both privately and publicly. Thus, just as she had shown people when in health how to serve God obediently, now she demonstrated how to be grateful in trouble and in sickness. In the seventh month of her sickness the sickness penetrated deep into her body, and she knew her end was near. At about cock crow she received the Eucharist to help her on her journey through death; then she summoned her brothers and sisters to her side, urging them always to live in peace, both amongst themselves and all around them. And while she was still speaking she joyfully embraced death. (Bede)
The words of Caedmon’s Song – Given to him in a dream
Now must we praise the Guardian of heaven,
The might of the Lord and his wisdom of mind,
The work of the Father of Glory, maker of all wonders.
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned heaven
As roof for the sons of men.
Then the eternal Guardian of Mankind
Adorned the earth below, a land for men,
Almighty King and everlasting Lord.
The Celtic Church in Northumbria (2)
Lindisfarne to Whitby (635 – 664)
Final Reflection: Bede’s account of Hilda’s death
(2) St. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Surrey UK: Richmond = Tiger, 2007) Book 3, Cpt. 3
(3) Some scholars would say that “Churches of the Columban tradition would be a more accurate description than “Celtic” Church.
(4) Bede, 135
(5) Bede, book IV: 27, 257
(6) Ibid, 258
(7) Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Theology (London: Continuum, 2000), p.45
(8) Quoted from, Gallyon, The Early Church…42.
(9) David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis, 2000), 235.