7th century lessons from the North East for the evangelization of Britain in the 21st century and the way ahead.
This is the title for our last session. But the lessons have their roots in the early 5th century when the Roman legions had left Britain to defend the Empire nearer home. And, more precisely, they began in Celtic Ireland not the North East of England and with Patrick who was born in 390 and who in 432 was a missionary bishop for Ireland.
There he spent his time travelling throughout the land as a church planter and evangelist, often in great danger. And 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.
He went and 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 many 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, appointed as a missionary bishop, came; and in 635 he founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. This island, now Holy Island, then became the 7th century centre for Christianity in Britain. Aidan and other church planters went out from Lindisfarne not only evangelizing Northumbria but many other parts of England; and this resulted in a great advance of the Christian faith. So the Celtic mission took over where the Roman mission had failed and converts now 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 around the year 700.
The strength of the Celtic mission certainly has lessons for us today. Not least it needs to be noted 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 organization and then evangelize. 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 great early 8th century Tyneside historian, the venerable 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 that 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. 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.
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 operating 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 there is, on average, one Church of England clergy-person to 2,500 English citizens. Of that number, 2,455, on average – according to the latest official figures for 2015 – will not have attended a Church of England on Sunday or during the week. It is, therefore, truly sad when some clergy claim 'no-go' areas to prevent others evangelizing those (on average) 2,455 people, when they are only able to minister to (on average) 45 people! But if a new model of Celtic mission would profit by having the help of missionary bishops, what does a Celtic missionary bishop look like?
Chad is a good example, a great Northumbrian Christian leader of the 7th century. With his brother Cedd, he was one of the twelve pupils (or disciples) of Aidan on Lindisfarne. In 664 he succeeded Cedd as Abbot of Lastingham, in Yorkshire. He then was consecrated as a bishop, acting episcopally when needed and irregularly when needed. Above all he was noted, like many others for whom Lindisfarne was a spiritual home, for his humility, his devotion, his teaching ability, and his missionary journeys. Bede says he was,
"a holy man, modest in his ways, learned in the Scriptures, and careful to practise all that he found in them."
Undoubtedly Aidan's example as a missionary bishop made a profound impression on Chad. Aidan was constantly travelling on foot around Northumbria evangelizing, preaching and teaching. This became the pattern on which Chad directly modelled his own work. Bede describes Chad's ministry as follows:
"When he became bishop, Chad immediately devoted himself to maintaining the truth and purity of the Church, and set himself to practise humility and continence and to study. After the example of the Apostles, he travelled on foot and not on horseback when he went to preach the Gospel, whether in towns or country, in cottages, villages, or strongholds."
After a life of service and, finally, two and a half years of mission work throughout Mercia "with great success", Chad, now bishop of Lichfield, fell ill from a plague outbreak, and died in 672 on 2nd March, the date on which he is commemorated to this day.
Numerous aspects of Chad's ministry as a bishop merit reflection and appropriate application in our own context: his genuine humility and simplicity; his tireless evangelism; his establishing of centres of Christian education and mission; his devotion to study, teaching, and obeying the word of God in the Scriptures; his prayerfulness; the need to provide Godly episcopal provision if it is lacking; the need for valid but irregular consecration if the occasion demands; the possibility of combining thoroughly missionary episcopal ministry with appropriate church order; the need not to allow an excessive concern for form and order to militate against getting on with the urgent task of the evangelization of pre-Christian (or post-Christian) populations; and the continuing fruitfulness of the Celtic, missionary pattern of episcopacy as an alternative to the Roman model more suited to a developed Christian society.
Obviously, we are in need of men who will learn from Chad, as Chad learned from Aidan, who learned from Columba, who learned from Patrick, all of whom learned from the Apostles. So one aspect of a renewed and reformed Anglican church, which we pray that God in his grace will use towards the re-conversion of England, should be a genuinely apostolic, missionary episcopal ministry. This will mean that what is needed is really the kind of 'mixed economy' church about which, ironically, Rowan Williams spoke when he said:
"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).
This 'mixed economy' analogy is potentially fruitful and needs to be taken further. We could think of state owned, centrally controlled and run enterprises on the one hand, and private enterprise on the other. Both are part of the same economy and operate under the same overarching framework. For the Church of England this is, above all, Canon A5. Of course, a missionary church planting strategy that succeeds would mean an increasing number of churches outside the existing diocesan structures of the Church of England. These new churches can maintain a link with the Church of England both through supporting churches and networks (such as Reform) that have a foot inside the structures and outside, and also through bishops who likewise have one foot in and one foot out. Such new churches will need to be thoroughly Anglican in theology, polity and practice.
The theological basis is expressed by Canon A5, the Lambeth quadrilateral, the Reform covenant, and the Gafcon Jerusalem Statement and Declaration. Arguably Canon A5 suffices, implying the others if properly understood. For appropriate Canons, an adapted form of the Church of England Canons in force in 1969 would be helpful. They are admirably few and short, and seem workable as a framework. An annual conference for the leaders of Anglican church plants would provide a basic structure for networking and such consultation as was necessary. In terms of liturgy, the basis is provided by the Book of Common Prayer; and some modernised version such as Roger Beckwith's An English Prayer Book can be used.
Church buildings can be registered as places of worship and for marriages through the civil registrar, and the Church of England wedding service amended as necessary for civil registration can be used, as we have at Holy Trinity, Gateshead and St Joseph's Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne. But for all this to be reality there has to be "deep change".
Deep change is a management category used with companies experiencing cases of "slow death". Such would seem also to be the experience, not of the Church of God, but of parts of the Church of England at present. In his book Deep Change, Robert Quinn identifies three strategies for confronting "slow death" (Robert E. Quinn, Jossey Bass, 1996).
First, there is "peace with pay"; you just "don't rock the boat". But as Quinn says, "when people do this, they are coping with slow death by choosing slow death." Secondly, there is "active exit"; this is when people "jump ship" to work elsewhere. Thirdly, and the only effective solution, is "deep change". Such a deep change agent needs to be prepared for three things: one, to take significant risks; two, to "build the bridge while walking over it" – there cannot be a foolproof business plan, but certain immediate, necessary steps are clear; and, three, (like Chad) they are prepared to "break the rules" – for it is some of the internal rules of the company that often are strangling the company to death. As Quinn says:
"Usually the organization can be renewed, energized or made effective only if some leader is willing to take some big risks stepping outside the well-defined boundaries. When this happens, the organization is lured, pushed, or pulled into unknown territory. The resulting journey through the unknown is a terrifying experience."
That is what happens in a secular organization. But with God we need not be terrified or afraid of the future when we step out for Him in faith, like Patrick, Columba, Aidan and Chad once did. Let me conclude, therefore, with some words of Hebrews to encourage boldness.
They are for people willing to reject the sexual decadence of their contemporaries (in the world and the Church), and the greed of their contemporaries and so willing for financial sacrifice when necessary. So they are highly relevant for those of us who know we have to take action in the Church of England that, at this particular moment of sexual decadence and financial need for church planting, and along with other church groupings, is in need of "deep change" to combat "slow death":
"Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your lives free from love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'" (Heb. 13.4-6).