Page 6, 11th August 1972

11th August 1972
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Page 6, 11th August 1972 — Early Church tensions
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Early Church tensions

r is of the genius of

Christianity that, given the chance, it will grow anywhere. Anglo-Saxon England in its midland district was described by an ancient biographer as: ". . a very long tract, now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams . .

A place as apparently uncongenial to the Gospel as its inhabitants. Yet it was from here after diverse missionary labours of a little over 200 years that a splendid Christian culture, the fruit of a rich and varied series of influences, encountered Carolingian Christianity whence it became an integral part of the Western Faith.

How this wasachieved is the object of Mr. .Mayr-Harting's book. The first section concentrates on the creative influences of the Roman and Irish traditions. and places in its proper perspective the conflict between them. Part II deals with the Christian achievement in the period between c,650 and c.750. • As Mr. Mayr-Harting points out, the .British lost their racial identity through the fall of Roman institutions and the marauding barbarians who overcame and overlorded. them. But the evidence is thare, not the least being the presence of British bishops at Church Councils in Gaul and Italy, that Christianity flourished in Britain years before Columba and Augustine appeared on the scene.

Gaulish Christianity had done its work before then. The kingdoms or confederations of tribes, therefore, were not completely pagan. The Highland Zone of the Pennines and Peak District, less accessible to invasion, preserved its religious continuity more easily than the Lowland Zone of Scotland. Wales, Devon and Cornwall which suffered constant incur

sionshe

The British Church, therefore, could have had little or no influence on Anglo-Saxon Christianity but it was that Church that Augustine had sooner or later to confront. Bede's "Ecclesiastical History" is seen to be the most important source of Anglo-Saxon Christianity written with the intellectual climate of the times very much in mind.

The author affords us a succinctbut penetrating analysis of Bede's value and

reliability. However, the greatest power behind the process of conversion lies in the spiritual and personal eminence of Pope Gregory the First and the intense study of that great Pope clarifies the extraordinary devotion and esteem in which he was subsequently held by the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Augustine also is shrewdly assessed as being considerably more than the cowardly bigot he is sometimes thought to have been. Ireland was powerful through the influence of the Egyptian Fathers via the Gaul of St. Martin of Tours. By the

mid-sixth and seventh centuries Finnian of Cionard, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Comgall of Bangor and Columba had founded their confederations of monasteries.

By 563 Columba had landed in Iona, by c. 590 Columbanus was in Gaul. Aidan in Lindisfarne by 635 and Cedd the tribal bishop of the East Saxons by 654, Thus we are brought to the Synod of Whitby in which the prime manaeuvrer was Wilfred of Lindisfarne, become Wilfred of Rome through his ambitious journeyings.

The Synod was politically motivated but it was the occasion for a grave ecclesiastical issue between the Irish and the Roman traditions to be openly debated. Rome won.

In the late seventh century Anglo-Saxon politics show the increasing domination of Northumbria. Mercia and Wessex with Christianity gradually permeating the courts. The monasteries flourished, pilgrimages began and most significantly Pope Vitalian appointed to Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus who reorganised the diocese and monasteries, gave education an immense impetus and fused together the Irish and Roman traditions.

The seafaring Anglo-Saxons navigated the great rivers of Gaul, establishing trade and communications as far as the east Mediterranean to the enrichment of the Church and people. Probably. no one person embodied the Irish, Roman and Frankish cultures as did Wilfred, a man of many parts with whom, in spite of his dubious methods of conversion, we learn to sym path ise.

But the central force of early English Christianity lay in the monasteries, and these are the object of a close ancleecholarly analysis elaborated by subsequent chapters on prayer and worship, books and studies, saints and heroes, church and laity.

Henry Mayr-Harting has presented us with a highly readable literary diptych of very distinguished scholarship, the subject of which is urgently relevant to our own times. It is a work of wide appeal which will surprise and delight both those who lament and those who applaud the changing face of the Church.

It is always chastening to remember our origins and realise that tension is inherent to stability, and progress impossible without sacrifice and an accepting faith.

Kenneth Green




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