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The Early English Church


Bede relates in his Ecclesiastical History that, before Gregory became pope, he had seen British boys, handsome and with a fair complexion, for sale in the Roman market. Told that they were Angles, Gregory thought it only appropriate, "for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should become fellow-heirs with the angels in heaven." And, AD 597, Gregory sent Augustine to England the restore Christianity there.

Augustine arrived in Kent and had a audience before Æthelbert, the first Anglo-Saxon king to be converted, who found Augustine's message to be intriguing but also "new and strange to us, and I cannot accept them and abandon the age-old beliefs of the whole English nation." Still, the king's wife already was a Christian and even had her own Frankish bishop (indeed, she would not marry unless she could practice her faith). Æthelbert installed Augustine and his companions at Canterbury, his capital, where they were given a building once used by Roman Christians as a place of worship. There was founded the predecessor of the present cathedral, which the king enriched with gifts, and where, relates Bede, "the bodies of Augustine and all the Archbishops of Canterbury, and of the Kings of Kent were to rest."

In time, "A number of heathen, admiring the simplicity of their holy lives and the comfort of their heavenly message, believed and were baptized" and, in AD 601, additional clergy were sent from Rome, bringing with them "everything necessary for the worship and service of the Church, including sacred vessels, altar coverings, church ornaments, vestments for priests and ministers, relics of the holy Apostles and martyrs, and many books."

Augustine died in AD 604 and was buried outside the city walls, his remains later translated to the monastery that he had begun to build there. Twelve years later, Æthelbert, himself, was dead, which, relates Bede, "proved to be a severe setback to the recently established Church." By the early sixth century, many Britons, especially those in south Wales and Ireland, had retreated from political and social life and embraced monasticism. By the seventh century, the movement had spread from Ireland through Northumbria to the rest of England.

Nor did the Celtic and Roman church agree about all matters of discipline, especially the observance of Easter. When Oswy, the Northumbrian king, was celebrating Easter, his queen, who had been brought up in the south in the Roman church, was fasting. Such was the dissension that, in AD 664, the Synod of Whitby was convened to resolve the issue.

Yet twenty years later, at the death of St. Cuthbert, there still was dissension between the Celtic and Roman church. Pagan belief also smoldered and there was resentment in the countryside over the new faith (the very word pagani, pagans, originally meant "country-dweller"). Bede relates in his Life of St. Cuthbert that monks once had come to the monastery at Jarrow, where Cuthbert had resided but which now a nunnery, to bring wood. A gale arose, sweeping the rafts out to sea. The peasants on shore

"began to jeer at their way of life, as thought they deserved such misfortune for spurning the life of the ordinary man and introducing new, unheard-of rules of conduct...'Nobody is going to pray for them. Let not God raise a finger to help them! They have done away with all the old ways of worship and now nobody knows what to do.'"

Cuthbert prayed for his brethren and, when the wind turned and the monks had come safely to shore, the peasants "gave due credit to Cuthbert's faith, and from then on never ceased to praise him." The fickleness of the people is revealed in another story by Bede. A year after the Synod of Whitby, he records in his Ecclesiastical History that there was a plague. The "people abandoned the mysteries of the Christian Faith, and relapsed into paganism.... Hoping for protection against the plague by this means, they therefore began to rebuild the ruined temples and restore the worship of idols."


References: The Age of Bede (1988) translated by J. F. Webb (Penguin); Bede: A History of the English Church and People (1955) translated by Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin); The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (1991) by Henry Mayr-Harting; The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600-900 (1991) edited by Leslie Webster and Janet Backhouse; The Poetic Edda (1962) translated by Lee M. Hollander; The Anglo-Saxons (1982) edited by James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald (Penguin); The Fury of the Northmen: Saint, Shrines and Sea-Raiders in the Viking Age, AD 793-878 (1995) by John Marsden; The World of Bede (1970) by Peter Hunter Blair; Chronology of the Ancient World (1980) by E. J. Bickerman; Arthur's Britain (1971) by Leslie Alcock; Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (1984) by E. A. Thompson; English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 (1979) edited by Dorothy Whitelock; Anglo-Saxon Art: From the Seventh Century to the Norman Conquest (1984) by David M. Wilson.

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