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Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil
(1 Peter 2:16)
Saint Patrick’s Mission
Two letters of Patrick pre-date the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain by ten or twenty years. Pirates raiding the British coast took the teenage Patrick captive to Ireland. He served there as a herdsman for six years before escaping abroad. While enduring the hardships of captivity Patrick was reminded of the waywardness of his boyhood and in sorrow he turned to God for help:
The Lord opened up my awareness of my unbelief so that I might, however late, remember my faults and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God who had regard for my lowly estate and took pity on my youth and ignorance and watched over me before I knew Him and before I learned sense or could distinguish between good and evil and who protected me as a father might his son.[fn8]
Patrick came from a British family of churchmen. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. His bitter experiences stung the faith of his childhood into life. It was during his studies at Auxerre in France that Patrick resolved to return to Ireland and to ‘fish with the net of the gospel’.
From the start, he was convinced God had chosen him for the work. A letter defending his mission points out God’s preference for him above ‘clerical intellectuals . . . powerful in speaking and all else’. Like St. Paul, whose message and preaching ‘were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power’, Patrick exemplified the character and manner of life that became the hallmark of Irish missionaries in Britain and in Europe (1 Corinthians 2: 4). His rustic simplicity earned the approval of the Irish, whom he laboured among until his death in A.D. 459.
In the century after Patrick, Ireland was divided by dynastic disputes. The tribal feuds and broken leadership present the historian with a paradox, for out of the anarchy Ireland’s golden age of learning emerged. During the early sixth century, Christian zeal established monasteries at Clonard, Bangor and Clonmacnois. Another ten could be named in the years after. It is said that over 3000 counted Finnian as their master, who taught in the open air at Clonard.[fn9]
These monasteries were simple settlements and not the grand stone edifices of later centuries. Pupils gathered around the home of their teacher, building their own dwellings. The community was sustained by simple agriculture and all took their share in the daily round of tasks. This life of labour and learning is epitomised by the sixth-century monastery atop Skellig Michael, a jagged fortress of rock eight miles off the coast of County Kerry. One must climb some 600 steps to reach the narrow terrace of beehive huts where the monks studied, prayed and sung Psalms.
The toil was a necessary counterweight to sedentary learning. The labour invigorated the mind in preparation for study, and inured the monks and nuns for a life of self-reliance. Life in an Irish monastery blended hardiness and erudition, making their graduates winning evangelists, independent of the rich, and no burden upon the poor.
For the next five centuries Christian scholars sailed from Ireland to Scotland, England and Europe. Many of these missionaries resolved never to return until their work was done. Like Abraham they forsook kin and country for a higher calling. Columban, Virgilius and Fursa stand out among the founders of Irish monastic communities in Europe. They were accompanied by others whose colourful handwritten gospels and Psalms survive in the libraries of St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Paris, Basel and Nuremberg.
In A.D. 561 the fighting men of Clan Neill defeated King Diarmait’s soldiers at the battle of Cul Dreimhne. A controversy had arisen around an Irish priest of royal lineage named Columcille, ‘Dove of the Church’ (better known today as St. Columba). His cousins of Clan Neill rallied to defend him and killed a large number of men. After the bloodshed, Columcille was threatened with excommunication until the intervention of his friend, Bishop Laisren, lessened the punishment to exile.[fn10]
Columba took to sea with twelve others and sailed north, looking for a place to live out his years. The land Columba first reached, with Ireland no longer visible on the horizon, was Iona, an island at the westernmost tip of the Isle of Mull. Columba and his companions established a small monastery from which the Irish mission went forth into Scotland, north of the Grampian mountains, a land of the Picts.
Adamnan in his biography of St. Columba, attributes the conversion of the Picts to miraculous events worked by the Saint in the court of King Brude Mac Maelcon. A more credible account is given by Bede in his History of the English Church and People. Bede puts the date of Columba’s Highland ministry at A.D. 565, when ‘he converted that people to the Faith of Christ by his preaching and example’[fn11] A common faith kept the peace among the Irish Scots and Picts.
The skirmishes between the native Britons and the Anglo-Saxon settlers inhibited a work like that of Columba in England. The monastery of Bangor in Wales patriotically supported the British armies by praying for their victory over the pagan invaders. Evidently the hostility of the conquered Britons was a barrier to a missionary work towards the English.
Rome had so far played no part in the traffic of the gospel across the British Isles. Pope Gregory on hearing that the English were still pagan, desired to send preachers to the Anglo-Saxons to convert them to Christ. In A.D. 596 Gregory sent Augustine and forty companions who arrived at the Isle of Thanet a year later.
King Ethelbert of Kent summoned Augustine and his band for an audience. The Roman party, singing hymns and carrying a tall silver cross impressed the King with their mission. Ethelbert gave them the freedom and protection to preach in his kingdom.[fn12] From the church of St. Martin in Canterbury the Augustine mission spread to the Saxons as far as London, and in the province of all the English to the Humber.[fn13]
In A.D. 625 King Edwin of the Northumbrian English, requested the hand in marriage of Ethelberga, daughter of King Ethelbert. The offer was turned down on religious grounds, for it was not considered fitting for a Christian maiden to have a heathen husband. Edwin was not easily rebuffed and gave assurance that Ethelberga and her household would be given freedom to worship in accordance with her faith. Edwin’s submission won her betrothal. The churchman Paulinus accompanied Ethelberga as chaplain to Northumbria.
The Augustine Mission Goes North
Paulinus conversed greatly with Edwin on Christianity. King Edwin stayed the bishop’s invitation to be baptized with a proviso that he first discuss it with his advisers and friends. Edwin called a meeting and asked of his wise men their opinion of the new faith. The outcome is summarised neatly by two of Edwin’s counsellors. Coifi, the high priest, confessed that in spite of his zealous service of the pagan gods, other men had received greater favour and honour than him. Another, in agreement, compared this life to a sparrow’s flight through a hall in winter ‘man appears on earth for a little while but what went before this life or of what follows we know nothing’. The council renounced their pagan religion and followed the King in his Christian conversion. Edwin was baptized in York at Easter, A.D. 627.
Rome’s mission courted the English royalty such that the Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons rose and fell with the faith of their kings. Though Rome disdained the Celtic churches as insular and unenlightened, the two traditions lived alongside each other. There were occasions when the liberty of conscience among the Celtic churches clashed with Roman dogmatism.
The differences came to a head when the King and Queen were seen to keep Easter at different times, so while one was eating, the other was fasting.[fn14] King Oswy of Northumbria had been instructed and baptized by Scots, while Queen Eanfled observed the customs she had learned in Kent. Bishops from both sides of the controversy agreed to settle matters at a synod held at Whitby.
Colman of Lindesfarne, a monk of Iona and Wilfrid, Rome’s champion both presented their cases. The debate ranged over an array of issues, notably the computation of the date of Easter, and the style of tonsure for the clergy. Neither side referred much to Scripture but relied on the superiority of the authors of their tradition.
Wilfrid trumped Colman’s argument claiming St. Peter as the father of Rome’s tradition. King Oswy decided against the Irish school. Defeated, but determined to maintain the practices held by Columba, Bishop Colman left Lindesfarne and returned to Ireland.
It is pitiful to see men contend over trifles in the name of Him who died for a religion untroubled by ‘divers washings and carnal ordinances’ (Hebrews 9: 10, KJV) . Christianity is a religion of the ‘hidden man of the heart’. There had to be more at stake at Whitby than haircuts and holy days, judging by the character of the men involved.
If Colman had given way to Wilfrid, the Lindesfarne community would have lost their independence. The Celtic churches, though narrow in the discipline of a religious life, were broad in their freedom to read and learn. The truths arising from independent study threatened Rome. She enforced her claim as the one true church, visible among men by purity of teaching. Whence came the title ‘catholic’, or universal, the doctrine believed everywhere and by all.
Colman and his monks relinquished the little honour and influence they had. No doubt they were despised for their indifference to Rome’s majesty and favour. Yet their resolve stands as a figurative tell of the spirit of Christianity preserved in the British Isles. The enduring British love of liberty, made virtuous by accountability, has been used by God to prosper His cause in these Islands since ever Britons were worthy to bear the name of Christian.
Muirchu’s Life, (Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd, 1978
Confessio.2, p. 41.
* 1654 Map of Britain from
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