The Northern Saints – some stories of people and faith Setting the scene – Christianity in the north-east of England Christianity first came to English shores during the period when the north of England was a frontier of the Roman Empire. The faith was spread through traders and soldiers and led to the establishment of a few churches including at Eboricum – the Roman name for York. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 the northeast evolved into two kingdoms, Diera in the south centred on York and Bernicia in the north centred on Bamburgh. As the Romans retreated so paganism developed as the dominant religion again, a situation that continued until the early 7th century when Christianity came again, this time from two different directions. First Pope Gregory the Great sent a mission which began under Augustine and was followed a generation later by Bishop Paulinus who was sent from the established church at Canterbury to be the chaplain for Queen Ethelberga of Kent when she married King Edwin at York. The second mission came from the north west. King Edwin was killed in battle and succeeded by Oswald. Oswald had been baptised on Iona whilst in exile, and having come to power sent for a missionary from Iona. The mission from the south and the north were of contrasting styles. The southern mission was rooted in Rome with its more established and universal style of church, under direct Papal authority. The northern mission was of a more monastic Irish/Celtic style of Christianity, spread by Columba and others from Ireland across to the south west of Scotland in the kingdom known as Dalraida, with significant authority exercised by the spiritual leaders of the monastery houses. The story of the northern saints has roots in the monastic/Ionan style of Christianity and includes the meeting with the more Roman Christianity at the Synod of Whitby. Some hold that the future direction of Christianity in Britain was set at the Synod, with victory to the Roman authority, others that differences were not necessarily so great. Some today look back to this period as a golden age of Christianity, others as a time of inevitable evolution. Others are not so concerned with the past but find inspiration in the stories of the northern saints that speak to the 21st century church and world. Aidan On becoming King of Northumbria Oswald turned to Iona for help in converting his new kingdom to Christianity. The first monk didn’t do well, returning to Iona complaining that the Northumbrians were too obstinate and barbarous. At their community meeting a young monk named Aidan rebuked the monk for going to far too quickly rather than leading the people gently. Aidan was subsequently chosen to go himself to Northumberland. Aidan chose Lindisfarne as his base, it was an island like Iona (at least twice a day when the tide came in) and was close to the court at Bamburgh. From here Aidan, together with a band of monks, undertook many missions, gently and politely conversing with people and gradually winning hearts and minds to the Christian faith. Aidan lived in two worlds, his influence was both amidst the finery of the court and equally in the peasant villages. Two stories illustrate this. One tells of Aidan and King Oswald seated together in front of a silver dish laden with good things, when a steward announced that there were people at the door begging for bread. Oswald commanded that everything on the plate be given to those at the door and that the plate be broken into sufficient pieces such that every person should have a piece of silver too. Aidan responded by praying that Oswald’s right hand would never perish. Aidan also influenced Oswald’s successor, Oswin. Oswin gave Aidan a horse thinking it would be more suitable for a bishop to ride than walk on foot. One day Aidan met a beggar, and having nothing to give him, gave him the horse. On hearing this the king rebuked Aidan but Aidan responded… asking “which is more important, this child of a mare or this child of God?” Humbled by Aiden’s authenticity and simplicity the king went down on his knees and asked for forgiveness. Aidan died in 651 after 16 years working for the conversion of Northumbria. His legacy included many hearts won for Christ and the establishment of Lindisfarne as a monastery and centre of spiritual life in Northumbria. Cuthbert Cuthbert grew up in a rapidly Christianising Northumbria and experienced a turning point when aged 16. With a group of shepherds in the Borders Cuthbert stayed awake at night on guard. When praying to God he saw movement and a stream of light cut across the sky. It was the following day that Cuthbert learnt that Aidan had died the night of his heavenly vision. Cuthbert felt he was called by God, and went to test his call in the monastery at Melrose. Cuthbert was accepted into the monastery, served as a monk, then soldier, then monk again before becoming Abbot of Melrose Monastery. In 676 he left Melrose for a solitary life, settling on one of the Farne Cuthbert at prayer in The Islands to live an austere life as a Christian hermit. Little Lives of the Saints, He received visitors and washed their feet though later illustrated by Charles confined himself to a cell from where he would offer Robinson in 1904. people his blessing. Whilst on the Farne Islands he protected eider ducks, instituting what may be the first bird protection law in the world. Eiders are known in Northumberland as cuddy ducks meaning Cuthbert’s ducks. Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne in 684, but not long after his consecration he returned to his cell on the Farne Islands where he later died. Cuthbert was buried on Lindisfarne but his remains were taken later to Durham Cathedral. Cuthbert is remembered for ministering to peoples spiritual needs, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching, and performing miracles; for having a loving and patient nature, for charm and generosity to the poor and for his asceticism. Hilda Hilda was born in 614 into the royal household of Northumberland. As a great niece of King Edwin she was brought up in court and baptised along with King Edwin by Paulinus at York. Later in life she answered the call of Aidan and went back to Northumbria to live as a nun. She learnt from Aidan the Celtic monastic traditions and was appointed the second Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey. In 657 she became the founding Abbess of a monastery at Whitby where she remained until her death. Her monastery was a so-called ‘double monastery’ with men and women living separately but coming together for worship. The monastic style was Celtic, with members living in twos and threes in small huts, all property and goods were held in common, the Christian virtues of peace and charity were promoted and every member had to study the Bible and do good work. Hilda is remembered as a woman of great energy who was both a skilled administrator and teacher who gained a reputation for wisdom. She was known as ‘mother’ by all because of her outstanding devotion and grace. She also had insight into people’s gifts. One such person was Caedmon, a poor elderly cowhand who couldn’t read, write or sing. The story is told that one evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which he was asked to sing of the creation of the world. He first refused and then produced a short poem in praise of God. When he woke the next morning he remembered the verses, added to them and having told his foreman about the vision was taken to Hilda. Hilda tested Caedmon, ordered him to take monastic vows, after which he was taught both sacred history and doctrine. These Caedmon turned into beautiful verse. Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and his purpose, the work of the father of glory — as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders. He, the holy creator, first created heaven as a roof for the children of men. Then the guardian of mankind the eternal lord, the lord almighty afterwards appointed Above – Whitby Abbey Left: A modern English translation of one of Caedmons poems. the middle earth, the lands, for men. Bede Many stories of the saints might have been lost through the mists of time were it not for the ‘Venerable Bede’. Born around 673, Bede grew up to become a monk at the monastery of St Peter in a place now known as Monkwearmouth and of its sister Monastery of St Paul in Jarrow. Bede developed as a scholar and author, drawing on the library facilities of the monasteries. His best known and perhaps greatest legacy is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It is a work which earned him the title of the father of English history and which chronicles the lives of saints and kings. It also includes a full account of the Synod of Whitby, arguably one of the most significant turning points in British Church history. Venerable Bede The Synod of Whitby With Christianity arriving in England from two different directions, two forms of practice developed side by side. One which followed the customs of Rome, the other the Ionan Celtic monastic tradition. Differences included the dating of Easter and the style of wearing the tonsure (haircut). The dating of Easter was an issue within the Northumbrian royal household with Queen Eanfled, who being a daughter of Edwin observed the Roman Easter, and her husband King Oswiu who followed the Ionan tradition. But behind this issue was the desire of the Roman Church to bring consistent order and central authority across Christendom, whilst the Ionan community sought to follow the practice of Columba. A Synod was called at Streanaeshalch, set in Hilda’s monastery at what is now Whitby, to try and resolve the issue. Colman, Bishop of Northumbria stood for the Ionan tradition and spoke of the practice of Columba who was founder of their monastic network and a saint of unquestionable holiness who was himself following the tradition of St John the Evangelist. In the opposing corner Wilfrid of Ripon argued for the Roman position, using his persuasive more adversarial skills to state the priority of the Roman practice following the apostles of Peter and Paul, the universal practice of the church, that the Council of Nicaea had effectively superseded the customs of John, that Columba had set a practice based in part on ignorance – an excuse no longer valid, and that no one has authority over Peter or his papal successors in Rome. Oswiu asked both sides if they agreed that Peter had been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, to which they agreed. Oswiu then declared in favour of the holder of the keys. The decision led to the establishment of ordered Roman practice; Colman and some of his supporters withdrew to Iona. At one level the Synod was about the date of Easter and the tonsure. At a deeper level the Synod has been portrayed as the Roman verse Celtic tradition, with the victory of the Roman position paving the way for the Romanisation of Christianity in England. It is interesting to reflect on what Christianity in England might be like today had the decision gone the other way. Despite the decision, the legacy of the northern saints remains strong, with many today inspired in their faith by the ministry and witness of the early saints and sensing that they have much wisdom to offer individual spiritual life and the church today. DAP August 09.