7th Century Lessons from the North East for the Evangelization of Britain in the 21st Century

The following is an edited extract from my 20 minute introductory talk at the fourth session of this year's February Jesmond Conference.

7th Century Missions

The lessons actually have their roots in the early 5th century (AD) when the Roman legions had left Britain to defend the Empire nearer home; and, also, the lessons began in Celtic Ireland, not the North East of England, with Patrick who was born in 390 and who in 432 was a missionary bishop for Ireland. Amazingly before his death Ireland had become a Christian country. Patrick died in 461. However, his work bore more and significant fruit 100 years later. For in the 6th century, in 563, a wider Celtic missionary movement was launched from Ireland by Columba, who founded a monastery on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, that then became a centre for evangelizing Scotland.

The next important initiative as far as Britain was concerned was in 597, 34 years later. That was when there was a new Italian, or Roman, missionary initiative. 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 diocesan structures and with provincial archbishoprics in London and York, following the pattern of government left by the Roman legions nearly two centuries earlier. Augustine saw people converted and he established bishoprics in London and Rochester. But, sadly, in 616 in the face of a pagan resurgence the bishops of London and Rochester had to flee across the Channel. Paulinus, however, who had joined Augustine's team, went up to York in 625 and was involved in the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria. But, sadly, that mission too was short-lived. For with Edwin's death in 633, pagans gained control of Northumbria and Paulinus had to flee south. So by the early 630s, forty years after its start, the Roman mission to Kent appears to have been unsuccessful.

But in God's timing there was now to be a new Celtic mission to England, coming from Iona to Lindisfarne, the island off the North East coast, just south of Berwick upon Tweed. How did it happen? Well, only a year or two after Edwin's death, a Christian named Oswald gained power as the Northumbrian king. He immediately invited not a person from Paulinus' Roman connection, but from Celtic Iona to re-evangelize the north. After a short visit by someone unsuitable, Aidan came as a missionary bishop, and in 635 he founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. This island, now "Holy Island", then became the 7th century centre for Christianity in England. Aidan and other church planters went out from Lindisfarne not only evangelizing Northumbria but many other parts of the country; and this resulted in a significant advance of the Christian faith. So the Celtic mission took over where the Roman mission had failed and converts now stood firm. 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 around the year 700.

Lessons for Today

The strength of the Celtic mission certainly has lessons for us today. Not least is the fact that it was centred on monasteries (or minster churches) under abbots (with bishops assisting). Evangelistic teams were then going out from the monasteries which were not regulated or restricted by diocesan structures. This was so different to the Roman pattern of working. 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."

But the Celtic mission was not without challenge. It seems the Pope, or those of the Roman connection in the south, had worries over a lack of practical conformity and organization (with the presenting problems being the date for Easter and the tonsure of monks). According to the early 8th century Tyneside historian, Bede (672/673-735), himself a Northumbrian and pro-Roman monk, matters came to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 664. And at this synod the Roman tradition won the day. Things then changed but only gradually. For 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 but not fully established. However, in the 21st century, once again the Celtic missionary methods are being seen to be of value as distinct from established parish models. For following the Act of Toleration 1689 allowing freedom for free churchmen to meet; with Roman Catholic emancipation in 1829; with the advent of modern urbanization; with phones and cars; and especially when, after 1960, the Church of England became seriously divided doctrinally and has declined numerically, the parish system has raised many questions.

So that is why in England many are now arguing the time has come to try again, alongside the parish system, a Celtic model of church order and evangelism – the minster model with missionary bishops. Churches like Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, most famously, but other churches, including Jesmond Parish Church, are beginning to operate as "minster model" churches. True, in England the parish system cannot be abandoned in terms of duties (for example, for weddings and funerals). But a parish has lost its rights to a monopoly once churches of other denominations are in its parish and when many laypeople in its parish choose to attend another parish church, a church of another denomination or no church at all. Currently official Church of England figures for 2015 show us that the national average is for 1.5% of the population to go to church each week. That means 98.5% of people in England are not attending the Church of England on a Sunday. It is, therefore, truly sad when some clergy claim "no-go" areas in their parish to prevent others evangelizing those 98.5% when they are only able to attract to church 1.5%!

Missionary Bishops

A new model of Celtic mission, however, needs missionary bishops to help with visitorial and governance issues in the new churches planted. Also, and most importantly, such bishops are needed to help steer the church plants in a faithful, apostolic and biblical direction. A value of establishing the historic episcopate with regard to new church planting is to remind people that it is not only a small church in the North East of England (or wherever) but also part of the universal, or catholic, Church of God that has existed ever since the Resurrection and Day of Pentecost. And for Anglican churches and bishops that direction has to be determined by the words of Canon A5 …

"the doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the 39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal."

And current implications of that are spelt out in the REFORM covenant (an orthodox Anglican statement of belief and behavior). So the Church of England is based on the Bible. The tragedy is that we are going through a period when too many clergy, including bishops, are ignoring the Bible – hence another reason for the value of new Celtic evangelism. So we need to pray that God in his grace, and for the re-conversion of England, will raise up men for a genuinely apostolic and missionary episcopal ministry. This will result in what is a "mixed economy" Church about which a former Archbishop of Canterbury spoke, Rowan Williams (many will agree with him on this while disagreeing on other matters):

"Church is what happens when the call of Jesus is definitively heard. God calls. God makes a difference. God draws together a community of people. We hold to Scripture and sacraments as the essential common language God has given. But what then? Then, I suspect, it's a lot more chaotic than we have usually assumed. In Wales, we used to talk about the 'mixed economy' Church - that is, one which is learning how to cope with diverse forms and rhythms of worshipping life. The parish system works very well in some contexts. It's just that we are increasingly aware of the contexts where it simply isn't capable of making an impact, where something has to grow out of it or alongside it, not as a rival (why do we cast so much of our Christian life in terms of competition?) but as an attempt to answer questions that the parish system was never meant to answer… Mission, it's been said, is finding out what God is doing and joining in. And at present there is actually an extraordinary amount going on in terms of the creation of new styles of church life. We can call it church planting, 'new ways of being church' or various other things; but the point is that more and more patterns of worship and shared life are appearing on the edge of our mainstream life that cry out for our support, understanding and nurture if they are not to get isolated and unaccountable"

(Archbishop Rowan Williams, Presidential Address at General Synod, York, 14 July 2003).

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