The Conversion of England (400-700AD)

Following the rioting and looting in August 2011 in English cities, the need for the re-conversion of England to Jesus Christ as “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14.6) seems obvious. Maybe there are lessons from the first conversion of England over the three hundred year period 400-700 AD.

The beginning

By the early 400s the Roman legions had left Britain to defend the Empire nearer home against barbarian invaders. This left the situation in Britain without Roman organization and so fluid politically and religiously. There was now, therefore, a new challenge for the few Christians that remained in the country. So who met the challenge? It was met by 5th century evangelistic monks. They were people God used for church growth in these Islands when invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes had driven Christians west and north to the Celtic regions of Wales and Scotland.

But this new period of evangelization started not in England but in Celtic Ireland with Patrick (390-461). A son of British Christians he was kidnapped as a teenager by Irish slave traders to work as a shepherd in Ireland where in God’s providence he was soundly converted. After managing to escape, he spent a period of monastic training on the Continent before going back to Ireland in 432. By this time a missionary bishop, he then travelled throughout the land, preaching, teaching and baptizing new converts, against great odds and often in great danger. However, before his death Ireland was significantly a Christian country.

Patrick was an amazing church planter and evangelist. He established many churches, schools and monasteries (or minster churches). He influenced Irish kings and argued for the abolition of slavery. He, indeed, was a man committed to “godly living, church growth and changing Ireland”. Here are his own words: “In the light, therefore, of our faith in the Trinity I must make this
choice: regardless of the danger, I must make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation. Without fear and frankly I must spread everywhere the name of God so that after my decease I may leave a bequest to my brethren and sons whom I have baptised in the Lord – so many thousands of people.”

Celtic Christianity

We need to note that Ireland was not part of the Roman empire. It, therefore, lacked Roman administration and its organizational mirror image in church administration. This allowed Patrick’s Celtic Christianity to develop independently. How different this development was is disputed. But without a Roman diocesan and parochial system abbots of monasteries had practical authority over bishops, Celtic monks (as a simple fact) shaved their heads differently to Roman monks (this becoming a symbol of difference - like surplices were at the Reformation for the Church of England) and there was a practical difference over the date for Easter. However, the crucial difference was that while Roman monasticism was a tradition more of withdrawal, the Celtic monastic tradition was to encourage church growth, church planting and missionary work in the wider world.

Indeed, a wider Celtic missionary movement was launched from Ireland in 563. That was when Columba, a Celtic monk, founded a monastery on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. This became a centre for evangelising Scotland and northern England. So Scotland soon saw many believers as did many places in England where monasteries were planted which in turn were new evangelistic centres. Even continental mission-work proceeded from Iona when Columbanus, a young monk with 12 assistants, went to the Continent, where having founded many other monasteries, he ended up in Italy and in his seventies founded the monastery at Bobbio.

The Roman mission

But in 597, 34 years later, there was also a new Italian, or Roman, missionary movement to Britain. It began small with Pope Gregory (590-604) sending a team under Augustine (not to be confused with the great Augustine, Bishop of Hippo) to the south of England. He was to establish 12 dioceses with parishes and with provincial archbishoprics in London and York, following the pattern of government left by the Roman legions nearly two centuries earlier. The Pope’s desire was to organize and centralize the Christianity that was re-emerging. Augustine was not, however, the most robust of men. He wrote back before leaving Gaul saying his party were afraid! “They were appalled,” he said, “at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce and pagan nation,” to which Gregory replied to the effect, “keep calm and carry on!”

In the event Augustine was able to use an old church in Canterbury and had a significant response with many converts. Bishoprics in London and Rochester were established, but in 616 a pagan East Saxon king succeeded a friendly Christian king and the Bishops of London and Rochester had to flee across the Channel. But Paulinus, part of Augustine’s original team and working with King Edwin of Northumbria (through his Christian wife Ethelburg), was able to go to York in 625. He, too, saw a significant number of conversions. He even baptised some Christians in a river in Northumberland (off the road to Kirknewton, near Wooler where there is now a roadside plaque to commerate the event). Sadly this work of Paulinus was also short lived. This followed Edwin’s death in 633 with Mercians gaining control of Northumbria and re-establishing paganism as the kingdom’s official religion. Paulinus had to flee south. So by the early 630s, 40 years after its start, the Italian mission to Kent appears to have been unsuccessful. But in God’s timing that was when there was to be a new Celtic mission to England. It came from Iona to Lindisfarne, the island off the coast, just south of Berwick on Tweed.

Only a year or two after Edwin’s death, a Christian Northumbrian King gained power, named Oswald. He immediately invited not someone from Paulinus’ Roman connection but from Celtic Iona to re-evangelize the north. After a short visit by someone less than competent, Aidan came and in 635 founded the important monastery on Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne then became the centre for Christianity in Britain. People went from Lindisfarne not only evangelising Northumbria but many other parts of England. This resulted in a great advance of the Christian faith. So the Celtic mission took over where the Roman mission had failed and converts stood firm. There were no more widespread lapses into paganism. Nor was Lindisfarne only an evangelistic centre; it also became a centre for education and scholarship with the world famous Lindisfarne Gospels being completed at the monastery in 700.

The Celtic mission

The strength of the Celtic mission was centred on large monasteries (or minster churches) under abbots and not bishops, with evangelistic teams going out from the monasteries which were not regularized into neater diocesan and parish structures. It seems the Pope, or those of the Roman connection in the south, were worried and so sought conformity with the presenting problems being the date for Easter and the tonsure of monks.
According to the historian Bede (672/673 – 735), a Northumbrian pro-Roman monk, matters came to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 664 (convened by King Oswy of Northumbria). At this Synod the Roman tradition won the day. But faith and politics were so closely entwined at this stage that the King no doubt had his own political interests. However, one issue must have been the fundamental difference between the Celtic versus Roman way of evangelism. As John Finney puts it: “The Roman pattern was to set up a skeleton organisation and then evangelise. The Celtic pattern was to gather the people and then set up an appropriate framework for them.”

According to Bede the clinching argument at the Synod was “is Columba … to take precedence before the most blessed Prince of the Apostles?” And Matthew 16.18 was quoted. This, in those days, was a knockdown argument. Indeed, King Oswy concluded: “Peter is the guardian of the gates of heaven, and I shall not contradict him … otherwise, when I come to the gates of heaven, he who holds the keys may not be willing to open them!”

Things then changed but only gradually. In the providence of God good came from both traditions with, undoubtedly, faults and deficiencies on both sides. But with society so unstable and people too often on the move as they were displaced through invasion or war, there was something to be said for the Celtic method and for the comment that the Celts looked after people while the Romans looked after geographical areas. Be that as it may, the fact is that after Whitby, the Roman diocesan and parish system was now on its way.

The parish system

Theodore (d.690), who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 668, is said to have been the main advocate for the parish system. However, establishing a parish system was a slow process and was hardly established by the time of the Norman Conquest. As a structure it is valuable in some situations (as currently in the South Sudan). In Britain it could work as long as there was “one” church for the whole land, compulsion could ensure allegiance, and modern urbanization had yet to occur. But it has gradually proved a liability following “no compulsion” (through the Act of Toleration 1689 when rights were given to Free Churchmen), Catholic emancipation in 1829, modern urbanization (soon after), and, especially when the Church of England became so divided doctrinally and declined numerically (after 1960). That is why in England many are now arguing the time has come to try again a Celtic model of church order and evangelism – the minster model.

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