THEODORE (c 602-90) is usually reckoned to he the
most important Archbishop of Canterbury between Augustine and Dunstan. His achievement was to reorganise
the Church in this country, to achieve a unity it had never
known before, through the holding of councils and the development of the diocesan structure. He established Canterbury as a centre of education which far surpassed the earlier schools in Ireland.
He became archbishop through papal choice, which was as unexpected as it was successful. Al the time of his appointment he was about sixty-six years old, or about the age when Pope John became pope or when Robert Grosseteste became bishop of Lincoln: all three had marvellously productive years when most people nowadays are in retirement. The vigour of these three ecclesiastics can be compared with the achievements of Winston Churchill or Conrad Adenauer.
Shortly before Theodore's appointment the famous Synod of Whitby had been held under the presidency of the Northumbrian king Oswiu, who was also overlord of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This important assembly, which included bishops from the south as well as the north, decided to accept the "Roman" calculation of Easter instead of that by the Northern Irish, more archaic but less accurate and long ago abandoned by the rest of the Church and even by the southern Irish.
It was also in fact a turningpoint at which the Church in England came to realise that its future was to be with the rest of Western Europe rather than with Northern Ireland, represented by lona and the missionaries it had sent to Northumbria, of whom Aidan was the most eminent example.
The future Archbishop of Canterbury would clearly be a key figure in implementing these decisions and extending them to the rest of the Church in England. The choice of the kings of Kent and Northumbria for the post was Wighard, but he died in Rome in an outbreak of plague.
Pope Vitalian then thought of appointing Adrian, an abbot from North Africa conspicuous for his learning. He excused himself and suggested instead that the Greek monk Theodore, born (like Paul) in Tarsus and educated at Athens, should be chosen.
This unlikely candidate was not even a priest, hut he was consecrated by the Pope and reached England in 669 after visiting Agilbert, Bishop of Paris who, as bishop of the Wessex diocese, had taken part in the Synod of Whitby several years before.
Theodore at once visited the whole province and found the Church in a state of some disorder. Several dioceses were vacant. At that time they were usually coterminous with the extent of royal power in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Theodore filled them and, realising that many of them were far too large, embarked on the policy of dividing them, but respecting the secular jurisdiction of the kings in doing so.
Thus he eventually established two sees in East Anglia and Wessex, three in Mercia and three (subsequently five) in Northumbria, where formerly there had been but one bishop in each kingdom.
Being a monk as well as a bishop he also encouraged the foundation of monasteries, while his schools, where he himself taught as well as Adrian, provided Instruction in Greek as well as Latin, in scripture commentaries, in pastoral direction and Roman Law. This not only ensured good standards for future priests and bishops in southeast England but also provided a model for schools elsewhere.
He brought to order the wandering Irish evangelists, insisting on the rights of the local bishops to authorise preaching within their diocese, while at the same time he safeguarded the legitimate autonomy of the monasteries.
The summary of his legislation in the council of Hertford insisted in the first place on the common, nationwide observance of the "Roman" Easter and ended with a strong reminder to the laity that married people are not allowed to remarry after separation.
In Northumbria Theodore was less than totally successful. His deposition of St Wilfrid without canonical cause was the occasion of the first appeal to Rome against an Archbishop of Canterbury. In this matter Theodore certainly appears to have been high-handed and unjust, but the case is far too complex for adequate treatment here. One might summarise it by saying that Theodore's policy of dividing dioceses was reasonable, but the way he carried it out in this case was not so.
Bede looked back on Theodore's episcopate as something of a golden age for the Church in this country, when all recognised his authority, when monasteries such as Wearmouth, Jarrow and Ely were founded, when Anglo-Saxon missionaries began their important evangelization in Holland and Germany and when unity was achieved among the local churches of Roman, Frankish or Irish foundation.
Unfortunately there was no comtemporary biography and all that we know about him comes either from Bede or his opponent Eddius Step hanus, the biographer of Wilfrid. Theodore was a great and good man, and efficient and devoted archbishop to whom England owes very much. The blemish is that he failed to assimilate Wilfrid's extraordinary capacity in to the harmonious development of the Church in this country.