The English/Anglo-Saxon Church “Western Rite”
- The English/Anglo-Saxon Church in the Seventh & Eighth Centuries
- Monasticism in England
- The English/Anglo-Saxon Church in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries
The English/Anglo-Saxon Church in the Seventh & Eighth Centuries
It is impossible to determine how far the ancient Teutonic gods and goddesses, such as Woden, the god of war, and Thor, the thunder god, and others were worshipped in the sixth century in England. By sacrifice to Woden Englishmen probably hoped to overcome their enemies and, if they fell in battle, to be admitted to Valhala, the hall of the slain, where they expected to feast forever. In time of fighting they thought they could hear Woden’s daughters, the witch-like Valkyries, the choosers of the slain, riding through the air to the place of slaughter. A god of fertility, Frey by name, may have been worshipped, in order that worshippers might win increase of flocks and crops. Some of the prayers of our pagan fathers have come down to us. A ploughman beginning his work asked for-
“Acres a-waxing and plenteous in strength,
Hosts of grain shafts and of glittering plants,
Of broad barley the blossoms,
And of white wheat ears a-waxing.”
When he had sung all his prayer he drove his plough on, beneath the first furrow laid a loaf of bread, and then sang once more-
“Acre, full fed, bring forth fodder for men.”
Englishmen seem to have prayed incessantly. If their bees swarmed they prayed that they might not lose them. If they had a stitch in their sides they thought it was caused by javelins of witches, and prayed again. They attributed all the blessings and ills of life to good and evil spirits, and by sacrifice and prayer hoped to obtain the one and avert the other.
But they seem to have been troubled by the inefficacy of their prayers. Evils and blessings descended on them, so far as they could see, for no rhyme or reason; sickness, disease, murrain among the cattle, bad harvests, raids by hostile folk, all the ills that flesh is heir to, and wealth, high positions, and the favour of the great al came to a man no matter whether he prayed to the gods or not. Englishmen explained this in two ways. Either the gods were indifferent to the prayers and sacrifices of mortals, or else there was some power which was stronger than the gods, and beyond the influence of human prayers. They called this power Wyrd or Fate. With freakish despotism it might buffet them one day, and raise them to glory the next; they knew not why. It was a malicious supernatural force with which neither they nor their gods could contend.
Let no one think that in such circumstances our ancestors lived in daily or hourly fear of fate. They lived in the midst of tragedy; but they were brave men. Fear, of course, they must have felt, but they had the courage that beats it down. The poem Beowulf tells how the hero and his men, while waiting in the hall of Herot for the expected attack of the monster Grendel, never thought to see their homes and kinsmen again. But still with cool courage they waited for the certain death that was to overtake one or more of them and, like many an Englishman in our own day, made arrangements to rest in comfort while they waited. our forefathers loved to hear poems that told of courage, and strove to practice it themselves, not merely in battle with their own kind, but also in their almost hopeless contest with the supernatural, and in the unending fight with the forces of nature that imperilled life so often by sea and land. and when fate finally overtook them they endured it in no cowardly way.
In their private life they strove after virtue. Any one who reads Beowulf can see that that is true. They practiced justice and mercy, and were ready to protect the weak and to help the oppressed at a great cost to themselves. In this they seem to us greater than the gods whom they feared and worshipped. They showed tenderness in family relations. They understood honour and kept faith. They loved purity of life. “No one,” says Tacitus, “laughs at vice in Germany.” We may confidently believe that Englishmen at the time of their settlement in England were equally scrupulous. But passions broke out in pagan Englishmen, as they do today after 1300 years of Christianity. Angle, Saxon and Jute warred furiously together, and the warriors took delight in the thought of the carrion crow, wolf and eagle glutting themselves upon the bodies of their fallen foes. And at the warrior’s banquet not all the poems that were recited held up Beowulf’s ideals. Faith was not always kept. Drunkenness and dishonour and murder as well known as they are today. But in sane moments they were loathed as we loathe them, and it is clear that our pagan forefathers, in their unceasing fight to achieve their ideals of conduct, and to beat down their baser nature, were eager to get help from any source that offered it.
In the year 597 A.D., there came the dawn of a great power, before which dark supernatural forces slowly withdrew, and human nature took on a gentler guise. Englishmen began to look for what their poet Cynewulf of the eighth century called “a fairer bliss, where never foot of fiend or fearsome spirit shall be in all the land.” there came to all a measure of relief, not only from the terror of the unseen, but from human malice. English ideals were changed; they were strengthened; they were pursued with greater hopes. Englishmen took the Christian faith to their hearts, because it agreed with and supported their own moral instincts. It set up with renewed force the ideal of conduct that man should love his neighbour as himself. And after that ideal humanity since the conversion has toiled with renewed hope, not always with success, but still it has toiled, and no one looking back upon the past, from which it emerged, can deny the triumph of Christianity. By it the heroic virtues of our forefathers have been immeasurably strengthened.
Every one knows how Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, landed with some forty followers in Kent in 597 with intent to convert all England to Christianity. This Roman mission met with small success. So far from converting England it failed for long to convert even Kent to a permanent acceptance of the new faith. The Kentish men, despite archbishops living at Canterbury, openly practiced pagan rites till 640. An attempt to convert Northumbria commenced in 625 by Paulinus, a Roman missionary sent from Kent, met with success for a while. (He went with the future queen as her priest, the same as her mother did when she married Aethelbert the pagan king of Kent). The Northumbrian king, Edwin, and Coifi, his pagan high priest, accepted Christianity, and Paulinus baptised many Northumbrians in the rivers Glen and Swale. But in 633 Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, defeated and killed Edwin. Paulinus fled to Kent with the queen, and pagan kings ruled in Northumbria for a space, “defiling themselves,” as Bede says, “with abominations of their former idols.”
The work of conversion began with greater vigour in 635, when Oswald, another Christian king of Northumbria, introduced into the north of England a church with a genius and a passion for mission work. From 615 to 633 Oswald had lived in exile in a monastery on the island of Iona, situate off the west coast of Scotland. How there came to be a monastery there is explained by Bede :-
“In the year of our Lord 565 there came into Britain from Ireland a famous priest and abbot, a monk by habit and life, whose name was Columba, to preach the word of God to the provinces of the northern Picts, who are separated from the southern Picts by steep and rugged mountains. Columba converted that nation to the faith Christ by his preaching and example, whereupon he received from them Iona for a monastery. There are on it lands for five families (i.e. five hides). His successors hold it to this day.”
Columba reached Iona from Ireland. Ireland in its turn had been Christianised from Britain in the fifth century. The traditional apostle of the Irish was St. Patrick, who is said to have commenced his missionary work in 431. When the Irish Church comes into the light of history in the sixth century, it is found to be in a flourishing condition. Its love of education is proved by the existence of numerous Irish manuscripts of the classical authors dating from that time.
But the outstanding feature of the Irish Church was its success in missionary enterprise. all over Ireland, on the capes and islands, and on the western isles of Pictland/ later Scotland, are to be found the remains of the small monastic settlements from which the missionary monks issued to wrestle with barbarism, and to which they returned for seasons of rest and spiritual revival. Periods of intense activity in preaching to savages in hill country and in royal courts alternated with periods of intense quietness, during which in the silence of monastic cells the missionaries searched their hearts, and drew further energy from the highest source. This passion for solitude carried them far afield to the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands, and even to Iceland. Columba well illustrates this characteristic by his settlement and life on the island of Iona. By 597, the year of his death and of Augustine’s landing in England, parts of central Pictland/later Scotland were dotted with monasteries, all dependent on Iona and its master abbot.
To this Scottish Church (the Scots originated from Ireland), at one with the Welsh/British and Irish in its customs and festivals, Oswald, now king of Northumbria, appealed for a bishop to undertake the further work of conversion among his subjects. In 635 Aidan was sent. following the usual Irish custom he established a monastery upon the bare and dreary island of Lindisfarne. The monastery consisted probably of scattered huts made of wood, clay and wattles, wherein the missionaries lived alone. The church was possibly 20 or 40 feet/6 or 12m long, and made of the same materials. It had probably neither aisles nor chancel. The kitchen was probably in a separate building. There would be a guest-house for visitors, various granaries and store-houses. The whole collection of buildings most likely had a palisade round it. Not far off on the mainland was the royal palace on the rock of Bamborough. At low tide it was possible for Oswald to go on foot or horseback across the sands to visit his friend, skirting as he did so the dangerous pools and quicksands.
Bede’s beautiful account of Aidan deserves to be quoted-
“It was the highest commendation of his doctrine that he taught no otherwise than as he and his followers; for he neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing amongst the poor whatsoever was given to him by the kings or rich men of the world. He was wont to traverse both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity. And wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if infidels, to embrace the mystery of the faith, or if they were believers, he endeavoured to strengthen them in the faith, and to stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works. His course of life was so different from the slothfulness of our times, that all those who bore him company, whether they were shorn monks or laymen, were employed either in reading the Scriptures or in learning the Psalms. This was the daily employment of himself and all that were with him. And if it happened, which was but seldom, that he was invited to eat with the king, he went with one or two clerks, and having taken a small repast made haste to be gone with them, either to read or write. He never gave money to the powerful men of the world, but only meat if he happened to entertain them. And whatsoever gifts he received from the rich, he either distributed to the poor, or used in ransoming those who had been wrongfully sold as slaves. Moreover, he afterwards made many of those he had ransomed his disciples, and, after having taught them, advanced them to the order of the priesthood.”
Bede, in history, can hardly bring himself to part company with Aidan, but he does not abstain from criticism of him. He says:-
“I in no way commend what he imperfectly understood in relation to the observance of Easter; nay, I detest the same and have written a book against it. But even in the celebration of Easter, the object, which he had in view in all he said, did or preached, was the same as ours, that is, the redemption of mankind through the passion, resurrection and ascension into heaven of the man Jesus Christ, who is mediator between God and man.”
Everything that Bede says about Aidan is the testimony of one noble man to another.
Aidan lived to continue his work till 651. Clearly he was the man who more than any one else laid hold upon Northumbria for the faith. Even when the Christian Oswald was slain in 642 at Oswestry by the heathen Penda of Mercia, there was no reversion to paganism as there had been when Edwin fell; neither did Aidan flee home to Iona as Paulinus fled to Kent, but Paulinus went back to Kent with the queen who accompanied her from Kent as her priest before her marriage to Edwin. Oswy, Oswald’s brother, succeeded him on the throne, and in 655 destroyed all pagan hopes by defeating and slaying Penda on Winwaedfield.
But by that date almost all England had officially accepted Christianity. Missionaries, about whose doings we know next to nothing, had been at work in the kingdoms of East Anglia, Wessex, Essex and the Middle English. In all this activity it was men who had been educated in Ireland or Iona, or in English or Gallic schools of the Celtic form, that did most of the work. The one piece of mission work undertaken by the Roman Church of Kent between the years 628 and 653 was the despatch of Felix to East Anglia to assist the king of that country in his encouragement of Christianity among his subjects.
Bede, in his “Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert,” has given us glimpses of the mission work that was carried out among the valleys and hills of Northumbria. Cuthbert was born about 630, and died in 687. He received all his early training at the hands of Celtic missionaries, Englishman though he was, he well illustrates for us Celtic mission work and holy living. He was one of the great saints of Northumbria. He entered the monastery of Melrose in 651, the year of Aidan’s death. Bede says:-
“He confirmed himself to the rules of the place with the same zeal as the others, and, indeed, sought to surpass them by observing stricter discipline; and in reading, working, watching and praying he fairly outdid them all. Like the mighty Samson of old he carefully abstained from every drink that could intoxicate. . . . He sought to lead the minds of the neighbouring people to love of heavenly things. Many of them, indeed, disgraced the faith they professed by unholy deeds; and some of them, in the time of the plague, neglecting the sacraments of their creed, had recourse to idolatrous remedies, as if by charms or amulets, or any other mysteries of the magical art, they were able to avert a stroke inflicted on them by the Lord. To correct these errors he often went out from the monastery, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot, and preached the way of truth to the neighbouring villages. . . . It was at this time customary for the English people flock together when a cleric or priest entered a village, and listen to what he said, that so they might learn something from him, and amend their lives. . . . He was mostly accustomed to travel to those villages, which lay in out of the way places among the mountains, which by their poverty and natural horrors deterred other visitors. . . . He often remained a week, sometimes two or three, nay, even a whole month, without returning home; but dwelling among the mountains, taught the poor people, bot by the words of his preaching and also by his own holy conduct.”
When living in a monastery he showed the asceticism which all Celtic monks practiced.
“He would go forth when others were asleep, and having spent the night I watchfulness, return home at the hour of morning prayer.”
One night he was seen to enter the sea till the water reached his neck and arms, and spend the night there praising God. At dawn he came out of the water and fell on his knees to pray again
Another Celtic quality, love of solitude, was strong in him. There is, says Bede, an island called Farne, lying off several miles from Lindisfarne to seaward.
“No one before God’s servant Cuthbert had ever dared to inhabit this island alone on account of the evil spirits which reside there; but when his servants of Christ came. . . . all the fiery darts of the wicked were extinguished, and that wicked enemy and all his followers were put to flight.”
He lived there alone, save for occasional visitors from the mainland, for eight years. He built himself a round call.
“The wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within by excavating the rock he made it much deeper to prevent the eyes and thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence but the heaven above him.”
Bede probably means that Cuthbert could only see the sky by looking up through windows in the wall.
The wall was constructed of rough stones and turf. There were two apartments in the cell, one being a chapel, the other a living-room. The roof was formed of rough poles and straw. Near to the island’s landing place Cuthbert built a large house for his visitors. He grew crops of barley, from which the birds abstained in marvelous fashion. Other food he got from fish, sea-birds eggs.
” He had so far withdrawn his mind from attending to the care of his person, and fixed it upon the concerns of his soul, that he would often spend whole months without taking off his gaiters, Sometimes, too, he would keep his shoes on from one Easter to another, only taking them off on account of the washing of feet, which then takes place at the Lord’s Supper.”
when, in 685, he was made bishop of Lindisfarne against his will, he continued his mission work.
“As this holy shepherd of Christ’s flock was going round visiting his folds, he came to a mountainous and wild place, where many people had got together from all the adjoining villages, that he might lay his hands upon them. But among the mountains no fit church or place could be found to receive the bishop and his attendants. They therefore pitched tents for him in the road, and each cut branches from the trees in the neighbouring wood to make for himself the best sort of covering that he was able.”
Even when plague broke out in 686, he still went round his diocese comforting those who were left alive.
“He adorned the office of the bishop by the exercise of many virtues, according to the precepts and examples of the Apostles. for he protected the people committed to his care with frequent prayers, and invited them to heavenly things by most wholesome admonitions, and followed that system which most facilitates teaching by first doing himself what he taught to others. He saved the needy man from the hand of the stronger, and the poor and destitute from those who would oppress them. He comforted the weak and sorrowful; but he took care to recall those who were sinfully rejoicing to that sorrow which is according to godliness. Desiring still to exercise his usual frugality, he did not cease to observe the severities of a monastic life amid the turmoil by which he was surrounded. He gave food to the hungry, raiment to the shivering, and his course was marked by all the other particulars, which adorn the life of a pontiff.”
After two years of work as a bishop, feeling that death was approaching, he returned once more to his beloved solitude on Farne Island, and there, in 687, he died. One of those who attended him upon his death-bed, lit two candles, and carried them to high ground upon the island, to show by this signal to the monks of Lindisfarne that the saint was dead.
One is naturally interested in the arguments by which the conversion of the English was accomplished. When in 625, Edwin, king of Northumbria, and his Wise Men debated as to whether they should adopt the faith that was preached by Paulinus, the Roman missionary from Kent, Coifi, the high priest, spoke as follows:-
“O king, the religion which we have hitherto professed, has no virtue in it. None have worshipped our gods more diligently than I, and yet there are many who receive greater favours from you, and are more prosperous in their affairs. If the new doctrines are more efficacious, we ought to receive them at once.”
Coifi’s motives clearly were not religious, but commercial. He threw over his own set of deities in order to win the favour of the Christian God, through whom he hoped to gain places at court and prosperity in his affairs. Possibly, Ethelbert of Kent was attracted by Augustine’s ‘delightful promises” (he had marriage Bertha the daughter of the King of Paris, who was a Christian, part of his marriage agreement was for him to have a church, St. Martin’s in Canterbury, so she could continue with her Christian faith having a priest who accompanied her when she came to Kent) of everlasting joys and a kingdom that would never end. such language must have had one meaning for the missionaries and another for the pagan audience. Many a man disappointed in any year’s increase of flocks and herds must have determined for the sake of greater prosperity next year to try the efficacy of prayers offered to the new God.
More thoughtful minds reasoned differently. One of Edwin’s men, following Coifi’s speech, compared man’s life to the flight of a sparrow, which darts from the darkness without into the warm, well-lit hall, and, flying through, disappears once more in wintry night. “So this life of man,” he said, “appears for a short space, but what is to follow, we know not. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains more certainty, it deserves to be followed.” Christianity brought the certainty which humanity longs for. It was Christianity’s bold denial of man’s mortality that gave the new faith weight with this type of mind.
But there is no question that most men were won by the fascination of Christ’s figure. The thinking Englishman who felt himself at the mercy of freakish heathen forces like Wyrd, and who had realised the futility of such protection as he enjoyed against them in heathen prayers and sacrifices, was drawn to the side of the missionaries by the conception of Christ as a heroic chieftain, surrounded by twelve mighty was companions, the apostles, whom He led invincibly in a war against all the forces of ill. The prayers of sin against which Christ fought were thought to take form as devils. By His aid all of them were to be controlled, and the world was to become happier.
But the thoughtful Englishman longed for help not merely against Wyrd and the fearsome spirits which he imagined haunted fens, woods, rivers, caves, and air, and lay in wait for the wayfarer, but also against the dark forces of evil within himself. Men in all ages, and Englishmen as much as most, have been oppressed by a lamentable discord between their ideals and their life. When the sinless figure of Christ, in whom there was no discord between life and ideals, was presented to them in the seventh century al their moral instincts rose to the hope of a perfect life such as the missionaries preached and practiced. Cynewulf’s poetry is full of this longing. “I am was guilty of misdeeds,” he says, “fettered by sins, tormented with anxieties, bound with bitterness,” but “now I am ransomed from the power of sin.” Because thoughtful men now believed that there was hope for themselves in the unceasing struggle against their lower nature, and had visions of an England reformed, they laid hold with both hands upon the new faith. There was none of the emotionalism so often shown at modern revival meetings. There was no hysteria displayed by Englishmen in the seventh century. What attracted them to Christianity was a sober and well-founded appreciation of its moral power. how great that power can be in every human activity comes vividly home to us if we study carefully the history of Northumbria in the late seventh and early eighth centuries as narrated in the pages of Bede. no doubt Englishmen hoped for more permanent results then actually followed. Human nature has proved to be a more stubborn thing than was imagined in England of the seventh century.
Bede tells the story which is evidence of opposition on the part of followers of the older gods. Two brothers slew a Christian king of Essex. On being asked “why they had done this, they had nothing else to answer but that they had been incensed against the king, and hated him because he was too apt to spare his enemies, and forgive the wrongs they had done him, when asked to do so.” In this story Christianity and paganism at its worst stand face to face. It was the essence of manliness, according to the latter, to be avenged with full measure upon one’s enemies, and to turn their skulls into drinking cups. According to the former the greatest height to which a man may scale is the practice of charity. To the lowest pagan mind Christianity was a force sapping the strength of man and forbidding him to triumph; to the Christian it was obvious that only by denial of self and the triumph of forgiveness might he rise to the stature of God.
Bede also tells of men who fell away from their new faith in days of trial, and found their way back by the ancient paths to the deserted temples of the gods. They would believe in Christ in days of prosperity, but in times of stress they turned to Thor.
But despite opposition of this kind the greater part of the missionary work had been done by 655. Problems of another sort now appeared. The Church needed organisation, for it was in dire confusion.
The country had been converted from two centre, Rome and Iona. The bishops of Rochester and East Anglia looked to Canterbury and its archbishop, and thence to Rome. The Middle English, the Mercians, East Saxons and Northumbrians looked to Aidan or his successors on Lindisfarne, and thence to Iona. not only was kingdom divided against Kingdom, but Northumbria was divided against itself, for Eanfled, the wife of King Oswy of Northumbria (654 to 671), had been brought up in Kent, and had accepted the Roman view about Easter, so that she celebrated Easter at one time and her husband at another. (The Council of Nicaea in the year 325 had decided that Easter Day should be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Now the Celtic Church placed the equinox on March 25th, but the Roman on March 21st; this affected the date of the festival. Supposing that the Roman placed the equinox on a Friday, and a full moon came on the following Saturday, then the next Sunday would be Easter Day in the Roman Church. But as the Celtic equinox came four days later, the full moon from which the Celtic Church reckoned its Easter Day would be a lunar month later. Four weeks, therefore, would separate the Celtic and Roman celebrations of the holiest festival in the Church calendar. A situation like this actually did occur in 631 in Northumbria and as Easter is the starting point of the Church calendar, from which most of the festivals are dated, this divergence was a matter of some importance.) Clearly it was the awkwardness of this situation that led to a change.
Moreover, there was growing in Northumbria a party of Churchmen who understood that much more was to be gained from Rome than from Iona. In matters such as Church government, doctrine, ritual, music and vestments Rome was the acknowledged source of light. emissaries going thither from England passed through countries long age converted to the faith, like France and Italy. There they came under the influence of the best views in church architecture, theology and art of all kinds. On the other hand, a journey to Iona took them through pathless wastes of mountain and moss-hag to a monastery upon a small island, set in stormy seas and in close neighbourhood to wild savages, who could contribute nothing of value to any field of Christian effort. To the question which was the best connection for England there could be but one answer.
To men in Northumbria, who realised all this, and who had learnt what Rome had to offer by visits thither, the controversy as to the date of Easter within the king’s court gave an opportunity. At a synod, held in 664 in the monastery that stood on top of the cliffs at whitby, King Oswy listened while rival Churchmen debated the claims of Iona and Rome to settle the date of Easter. There could be but one end to the debate. Rome was the very heartstone of civilisation; Iona was but a frontier post. King Oswy was easily won to decide that Roman ways were best, and that they must be accepted for the future, not merely as regards Easter, but in every department of Church life.
When England had thus made up its mind to follow Roman practice, the papacy in 669 sent thither a Greek named Theodore to be archbishop and to make the Church a still more efficient means of improving the faith and morals of the people. For twenty-one years Theodore vigorously pursued this object. In order that priests might be better supervised and the people better instructed in the faith, Theodore increased the number of bishops from six to fourteen.
Being a scholar who original came from the from the Eastern Empire in what is now in Turkey and was named by the pope after the death of the next archbishop who had travelled to Rome to get his pallum from the pope who named Theodore as his replacement, Theodore understood the value of education as a weapon of moral and religious reform. of the archbishop and his helper, Hadrian, Bede says:-
“Forasmuch as both of them were well read, both in sacred and in secular literature, they gathered a crowd of disciples, and there daily flowed from them rivers of knowledge to water the hearts of their hearers. Together with books of holy writ they taught the arts of ecclesiastical poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic, a testimony of which is, that there are still living at this day (circa 731) some of their scholars, who are as well versed in the Greek and Latin tongues as they are in their own, in which they were born. Nor were there ever happier times since the English came to Britain; for their kings, being brave men and good Christians, were a terror to all barbarous peoples, and the minds of all men were bent upon the joys of the heavenly kingdom, of which they had just heard. and all who desired to be instructed in sacred reading had masters at home to teach them. From that time also they began in all the churches of the English to learn sacred music, which till then had been only known in Kent.”
John, the Precenter of the Pope’s own church of St. Peter at Rome, came to England to instruct men in ritual and music. men flocked to consult him, and everywhere, we may be sure, anxious priests, eager to practice according to the methods of Rome, where etiquette was best observed, consulted him on all manner of points concerned with doctrine, ceremonial, and vestments, upon which nowadays they question their bishops or write to Church newspapers.
With all causes of differences removed between Roman and Celtic Churchmen, with a more numerous staff of bishops, with better education, and better services, machinery in England was set in motion for applying a steady pressure that would guide men in the way of salvation and decent living.
It would be wrong, however, to suppose that the Church in England had become a perfect instrument by the end of the seventh century. One has not to read far in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical history of the English People” to come to serious criticism of its condition at the beginning of the eighth century.
Apparently it had failed to live up to the high ideals which Theodore had held up to it.
Bede is severe on some bishops of the eighth century. He writes of “Idle confabulations and revilings and other pollutions of the unrestrained tongue” as though these were their special faults. He adds:-
“It is noised abroad concerning some bishops that they have no men of religion or of self-restraint near them, but rather such as indulge in laughter and jests, revellings and drunkenness, and other temptations of an idle life, and also feed their bodies with carnal food rather than their minds with the heavenly sacrifice.”
In 748 Boniface, an English missionary living in Germany, wrote thus to Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury:-
“I hear in England drunkenness is a vice of only too common occurrence. And the bishops not only do not prohibit it, but get drunk themselves and make others drink by pressing big bowls upon them. . . . Only pagans and Englishmen have such a vice; Franks, Gauls, Lombards, Romans and Greeks are free from it.”
Many bishops never thoroughly visited throughout their dioceses. Bede complains that many townships and hamlets among the fells and dales never saw a bishop from one year’s end to another. And not only did the bishops stay away, so that there was none to confirm the young, but never a single preacher appeared to teach the true faith or the distinction between right and wrong.
The root of all ills, says Bede, is greed.
“When a bishop under the dictation of avarice takes under his care more people than he can in a whole year visit by preaching, he is a very deadly danger to himself and to his flock, to whom he is a false bishop.”
Bede was an ardent advocate of a still further division of the dioceses.
But the English Church compares triumphantly with any other if missionary effort be regarded as a test of its vitality. Many an English man and woman crossed the sea to labour enthusiastically for the conversion of the pagan tribes of Germany, the Low Countries and Denmark; they were helped probably by great similarity between the English tongue and that of these countries. Willibrord and Winfrith are the most famous of these missionaries. Willibrord went to Frisia in 690, and became archbishop of Utrecht. He had his failures. Rathbod, the Frisian king, was no doubt a fair sample of his people. He was persuaded to receive baptism, but with one foot already in the font he paused to ask whether his forefathers were already in that heaven which was promised to the baptised, or in the alternate abode of eternal punishment. The honest reply came back that assuredly they were all in hell. Whereupon Rathbod withdrew from the font, saying that he would rather dwell in hell with his ancestors and the Frisian nations than in heaven with a parcel of beggars. Perhaps here Willibrord was a little servere. No doubt many of Rathbod’s forefathers were honest and courageous men, in whose company their descendant might well take pleasure.
But Willibrord had his successes too. He defied heathen gods by smashing their shrines everywhere, and eresting churches on their sites.
From 719 to 722 Willibrord had the assistance of Winfrith. This latter was a Devon man, born at Crediton in 680. He is usually known by the name Boniface, which was given to him by Pope Gregory II. when he was consecrated bishop in 723. From that date onwards Boniface devoted himself to his great work of evangelising Germany. He pursued the same methods as Willibrord, smashing idlos, destroying shrines, and building churches. He met his death in 755 among savage Frisians, and was buried at Fulda. Possibly, like Willibrord, he was a little harsh. A little of the patience Aidan displayed might have helped him. But Germany has acknowledged her debt, for at Fulda she has raised a bronze statue to the Englishman, who more than any other man brought her both Christianity and knowledge.
Had Germany desired to honour an English woman as she has honoured Boniface she would surely have chosen Lioba, the kinswoman whom Boniface set over the nunnery of Bischofsheim on the Tauber, “where they was collected no small number of the handmaidens of Christ.” these, fired by the example of their leader, who forgot her own land and al her kinsfolk in her desire to be blameless in the sight of God, set themselves with such goodwill to the study of the heavenly discipline, that many of them became abbesses over other monasteries.
Boniface, when setting forth in 755 at the age of seventy-five on the journey that he knew would be his last, called Lioba to him and exhorted her to continue her work in Bischofsheim. He bade her-
“think nothing of bodily weakness, nor the long years, nor the greatness of your task; mortal time as compared with erternity is short, and the troubles of the present are as nought compared with the future glory which shall be revealed in us.”
Lioba survived her kinsman till 780, to be “loved by princes, received by nobles, and entertained by bishops.”
A Church which could produce missionaries like Willibrord, Boniface and Lioba was certainly not dead.