Historical Outline

The Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland until the Eleventh Century: An Historical Outline by Brother Aidan

“In all parts of Spain, among the diverse nations of the Gauls, in regions of the Britons beyond Roman sway (Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca) but subjected to Christ… the name of Christ now reigns.” Tertullian in “Adversus Judaeos” Ch. 7, writing circa 200 AD

There is a saying commonly heard on Mount Athos, that it is not where we live that saves us (“topos” in Greek), but the way (“tropos”) we live. One could add that neither is it when we live that saves us. And yet on reading the lives of saints who lived in other epochs and other lands it is all too easy to feel that it is impossible for us, in our circumstances, to approach their level of repentance and humility. This is perhaps one reason why many British and North American Christians are being attracted to the saints of the British Isles; although these saints lived on this earth over a millennium ago, they at least lived on our own soil, or in the case of many Americans, on the soil of their ancestors. One feels that these indigenous saints are not only supporting us from heaven in our struggles, but that they are also with us here, in this our homeland that was also once theirs. How eagerly they must await our intercessions, that the land on which they so mightily laboured should again become a garden of virtue!

It is difficult to be inspired by saints whom we know little about. But when we do learn about their lives, they gebin to emerge from the mists and become real people. And learning something of these saints as individuals, we want to understand the society in which they lived and profoundly affected. To give this background information is the aim of this article — in particular, to outline the historical development of the Church in Britain and Ireland for the first millenium after Christ. It concentrates not so much on individual lives, but on the overall pattern of the Church’s history.

A study of the early history of British and English Christianity reveals two seemingly opposite characteristics of its saints. On the one hand, each saint appears as a crystallisation of all that is good in his or her particular race – Celtic or English; their holiness clarifies and intensifies the colour or personality of the culture which they were born into. A different tongue of Pentecost’s fire burns brightly above each unique saint.

Ultimately however, life in Christ transcends temporal categories like race and time; the uncreated grace which the saints bear within themselves surpass such boundaries. Archimandrite Vasileios, the present abbot of the Holy Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos, once said to a group of Englishmen that to become truly Orthodox it was necessary for them to be themselves, as Englishmen, and at the same time to go beyond Englishness, into the realm of uncreated grace. It is a paradox. In order to discover and clarify the qualities of our particular culture, he stressed, we needed to let go of that culture and strive to enter the divine-human culture of the Church. If we spiritually leave “our mothers and fathers and lands for Christ’s sake” we will “gain them a hundredfold”.

But how can we know how to live such a life? The contemporary western believer who seeks to follow Christ can do no better than to know and follow those saints who have walked in the West before them. They are our best models.

The following article provides an outline of the pre-schism Church in Britain and Ireland (i.e. up to 1054 AD) and the social background to its development. Particularly with regard to the latter, much will be based on the conclusions which recent scholars have drawn from the various sources that are available: archaeology, literature, and place-names. The scope of the article has not permitted inclusion of any lives of saints in detail; the emphasis instead has been on the historical “roots” of the British saints and the subsequent fruits of their spiritual labours for Christ. There is in any case an increasing number of Lives of British and Irish saints available, and the reader is encouraged to read these. Some of these Lives are listed in the bibliography at the end of the article.

Some might ask why the Orthodox Church venerates only those Western saints from before 1054 AD. Until the Great Schism of that date, and to a degree for a while afterwards, Christendom of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland was in communion with the Church of the East. This is to say, Western Christendom was Orthodox until that time (excepting of course those groups and periods which held erroneous views like Arianism and Pelagianism.1)

It might be said that the date of 1054 is somewhat arbitrary: Surely things did not change overnight? it might be asked; Could an event in Constantinople suddenly open a great chasm between every bishop and lay Christian East and West? There is a point here of course. In fact the crucial event of 1054 was the impulsive initiative of a single bishop, albeit a papal legate. Pope Leo IX had sent three representatives to Constantinople in response to a conciliatory offer by Patriach Michael Cerularius. (There were conflicts over differing liturgical practices, but most importantly over the Latins’ addition of the filioque clause to the Creed, namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son.) Primarily because of one legate’s abrasive character — Bishop Humbert of Silva Candida — communications with the Patriarch quickly failed. The visit ended with Humbert, of his own initiative, laying down on the altar of Agia Sophia a Bull of Excommunication against Patriarch Cerularius, and departing for Rome. Later the Patriarch anathematised Humbert, but not, it must be noted, the Roman Church as such.

Tensions between the East and Western Churches had indeed been accumulating for a long time before these mutual excommunications; the clash in Constantinople was an eruption of a volcano that had been boiling for some time. However, it was only many decades later that this event of 1054 came, in retrospect, to symbolise the rupture of East and West. Intercommunion continued for some time after that date in many, if not in most, places. An instance of this is found in the writings of Abbot Daniel of Tchernigov, Russia. He mentions that at the time of his pilgrimage to the Holy Places (1106-7 AD) the Greeks and Latins (who were there subsequent to the Crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem from the Turks in 1099) worshipped together in harmony. Indeed, hopes of a possible reunion were only finally shattered one hundred and fifty years after the Great Schism, when in 1204 the Crusaders sacked Constantinople.

Although the moving of Western Christianity away from the Church in the East was gradual, a date nevertheless must be set somewhere to enable undisputed commemoration of western Orthodox saints — and 1054 AD is the natural and commonly accepted date. In the case of Britain it can be argued that it was not until its invasion by the Normans in 1066 that any practical implications of the Schism were felt. But if such finer details are to be taken into consideration for one country we must do it for all, and then uncertainty and confusion reigns.

Among the saints of the Isles venerated by Christians today, perhaps the Celtic ones are the most popular. There is however a modern tendency to contrast Celtic Christianity too starkly with the Roman Christianity reintroduced by St Augustine of Canterbury. This school presents St Augustine’s mission as a sort of invasion, and the Council of Whitby, where Roman customs were promulgated, as a death blow to Celtic Christianity. But such an interpretation forgets that the early Church in Britannia was, via Gaul, Roman in its structure. Indeed, for some time after the Roman Empire relinquished its rule in Britain in 410, many Britons, particularly those in present-day south Wales, actually prided themselves in continuing Roman ways. There are for exmple fifth- to sixth-century memorial stones in Gwynedd which proudly sport Roman titles: at Llangian a medicus (doctor), at Penmachno “a citizen of Gwynedd and cousin of … (a) magistrate“.

Three Periods

The history of the Church in Britain during the first millennium can be divided into three periods. These are summarised below so as to give a birds-eye view, before the more detailed examination which follows. But first, for clarity’s sake, a brief explanation of the various ethnic groupings referred to in this history would not be amiss. Britain was brought into the Roman Empire at its conquest by Emperor Claudius’ commander, Aulus Plautius, from 43-51 AD2. At this period two main Celtic groups inhabited the Isles. The Brythonic Celts or Britons (whence Britain, or Britannia as the Romans called it) occupied present-day England, Wales and south Scotland. They spoke Brythonic or British. In north-eastern Scotland were the Picts (from the Latin pictus, since they painted or rather tattooed their faces). These Picts are of unknown ethnic origin, although some of their tribes spoke a Celtic language. The Goedelic Celts or Scotti were found in Ireland, and a little later in western Scotland as well (whence the name). According to the writings of Bede and Patrick, these Scotti came to Scotland in an organised immigration under their chieftain Reuda, in the fifth century. They came to be called Dalreudians, dal meaning a division. Ireland remained unconquered by the Romans. The term English applies to the Germanic tribes of the Angles (whence the word English), Saxons and Frisians, who conquered and settled in the area approximating present-day England. Many Britons, however, remained in the conquered area and presumably interbred with the Anglo-Saxons. The term English therefore must to an extent imply some Celtic British blood as well as Germanic. Another people referred to in this history is the Gauls. This was another Celtic group, dwelling approximately in present-day France.

1. The Roman Britain

(From the coming of the Gospel to the withdrawal of Roman rule in c.410)

In this period the Church comprises chiefly of those Roman Christians who were part of the Empire’s occupying forces, and of those native Britons who were most intimately in contact with Romans. Such contact with Continental Romans was strongest for those Britons with administrative positions or involved in commerce. Precisely how and when the Gospel came to Britain is not known for certain, although there are numerous traditions. We are left to construct a picture of the Church’s possible origins and nature primarily with the aid of archaeological evidence, since written accounts are rare and scanty in detail.

As shall be discussed in more detail later, the evidence suggests that the faith spread among the native Britons primarily through resident Christian citizens and administrators of the Roman Empire; it was a filtration process rather than a radical conversion through any one individual’s efforts.

Roman rule in Britain came to a close when the Empire withdrew its military, administrative and economic suport around 410 AD, the time of Rome’s fall to the Goths. Although Roman rule ceased at this time, it was natural for at least some Britons to try and continue Romanity, with its sense of culture and urbanity. Unfortunately, according to St Gildas’s writings, this desire for urbanity often translated itself into an elitism within the priestly class. Since it was a ‘class’ implanted by the Romans, it was in danger of becoming merely a means of gaining prestige. Be that is it may, the literary evidence suggests that Christianity had become the dominant religion among the Britons by the end of the fifth century, albeit only nominally held in many places.

It can be said that the Romano-British Church continues as such until about the 470’s, when the popularity of monasticism gave it a more distinctively indigenous character. This phase of the Church in Britain has come to be called Insular.

2. The Insular Celtic Age

(The fifth through to the seventh centuries.)

Soon after the withdrawal of Roman rule, Picts from the north (present-day Scotland) and Irish Scotti from the west stepped up their attacks on the now disorganised British. In an attempt to stay these attacks the Britons employed mercenary fighters from the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes from across the channel. Very soon however, about 441 AD, these tribes, along with Frisians, turned against the British. The boundary continued to fall back before these advancing waves of allies turned-invaders. Eventually the Britons managed to hold their own in the more mountainous areas approximating contemporary Wales and Cornwall; many later migrated into Amorica (now Brittany in Gaul). Present-day England was to be born out of the final settlement of these Angles and Saxons.

Modern historians label this period “Insular” because the Christian Celts’ communications with Europe were greatly hindered by upheavals both in Britain and Europe. One consequence of this was that the British sent no more bishops to councils on the Continents.3 Such isolation caused the Celtic Christians to continue their life largely ignorant of the various changes in liturgical practices which were adopted by their sister Churches in Rome and Byzantium: the dating of Pascha and the method of tonsure are two such instances. These differences were to become a problem later when the two worlds met again.

By divine providence the English invasion of the British worked for the good of the Irish. We know from archaeological finds that there had been some Christian presence in Ireland in the Roman times. Nevertheless, it was not until the Saxon invasions drove Christian Britons into south and west Britain that the faith gained any real impetus in Ireland. Although we are unsure of the details, it is known that contact with Wales was particularly important in this conversion of Ireland. By the latter half of the fifth century the Church had become a considerable influence in Ireland.

Toward the end of the fourth century, but mainly in the beginning of the fifth, a new element greatly influenced the Celtic Christians — monasticism. It had begun in the Egyptian deserts, and was introduced to the Isles through Gaul (although during the fifth century, Mediterranean seaways opened up more direct contact with eastern monasticism). Monasticism’s ascetic ideals quickly fired the Celtic spirit to the point that Celtic monastics soon matched their eastern co-strugglers in prayer and ascetic exploits. Communal monasticism also offered the ideal alternative to the urban-based structure on which the Continental Churches based their episcopal structures. In a sense, monasteries became for the Insular Church what the cities were to the Continental Church.

Through the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the Faith therefore shifted its concentration from the south-east of Roman times, towards the west into what is now Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, and from thence, Ireland. To the east of the Britons were the pagan Anglo-Saxons, apparently settled for good. But the Britons had no interest in evangelising these their conquerors. This was a work which Continentals and the Irish would have to do.

3. The Anglo-Saxon and Irish Period

(Seventh century though to the Norman invasion of 1066)

With the coming of St Augustine of Canterbury to Britain in 596, the mission proper to the Anglo-Saxon (English) tribes begins. Once consequence of the mission was that after almost two centuries of relative isolation the resident Celtic Christians were exposed again to the ways of Roman Christianity — and Rome expected them to conform. After initial resistance the various Celtic Churches adopted Roman practices where they differed from their own. But this was not the end of Celtic Christianity by any means.

Whilst the Celtic Christians ‘Romanised’ in regard to some particulars, they did not forfeit their essential personality; the amazing knotted designs found in their illuminated manuscripts, stone carving and metal-work are an artistic expression of their continued virility. But more fundamental than this artistic expression is the form that Celtic monasticism developed over the centuries. Britons and Scotti were very much attracted to the ascetic and erimitic ethos of primitive Egyptian monasticism; they were not so attracted by the more formalised shape that western European monachism had quickly assumed. Irish monasticism is well known for its love of peregrinato pro Christo, or “wandering for the sake of Christ.” Ironically it was this form of asceticism rather than primarily any evangelistic zeal which caused the Irish monks to be so fruitful in mission, both to the English and all over the Continent.

Beginning with Augustine, the Anglo-Saxon peoples converted over the opening decades of the seventh century. The initial impetus for the mission came from the Continent — from St Gregory the Great of Rome in particular, but also from as far afield as Tarsus, in an aged but incredibly vigorous Greek-speaking Archbishop called Theodore. In a short time the Irish joined the mission, beginning with St Aidan of Lindisfarne. Then Anglo-Saxons joined in the evangelism of their own people; St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is perhaps the most famed of these.

But this apostolic zeal was not to be contained within the Isles. Following the example of St Columbanus, Irish and English monks and scholars spread far and wide throughout the Continent, establishing new Christian communities, monasteries, and centres of learning.

The next major social change for the Isles occurred around 835 when Scandinavian raiders began coastal attacks. These Danes and Norwegians wrought havoc especially with monasteries, which tended to be on or near the coasts. Eventually the English mustered themselves and began to offer effective resistance; they had to, for it was evident that many of the North Sea raiders were intent on pressing inland, settling and ruling. Victories and treaties now favoured one side, now the other.

This turbulence continued for two centuries until things were decided by an invasion from yet another quarter — the powerful Norman kingdom from Gaul. The victory by William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066 was decisive; the Normans were there to stay, rule and transform.

As far as Britain is concerned, the schism of western Christianity from its Orthodox roots started to have its practical effects from this time. With their characteristic vigour and organisational skills, the Normans swiftly reorganised both Church and State to suit their ideals. A new spirit was sweeping through western Christendom, and Norman rule proved to be its channel into Britain.

Endnotes

1. For example, for some time the Goths were Arians, but then of course Arianism was for a considerable time dominant in the East as well. In fact, for the first millennium the West was less prone to heresy than the East, perhaps because by temperament its people were less inclined to metaphysical speculation than the Greeks — they were more pragmatic. It is pertinent that the only heresy to have originated in the West during this period was supremely pragmatic, namely Pelagianism. This stressed human effort to the detriment of divine grace.

2. Julius Caesar had landed earlier, with smaller forces, once in 55 BC and again in 54 BC. Because of difficulties in Gaul and elsewhere, however, he had had to withdraw after only three months.

3. One exception turns out to be only apparent. One Mansuetus at the Council of Tours in 461 signed himself episcopus Britannorum. Scholars are generally agreed that he is the same as a Mansuetus, bishop of Toul, in eastern Gaul. If this is so, then the Britanni referred to were immigrants from southern Britain, rather than people resident in Britain itself.

Source: Orthodox Outlook, Vol. XI, No. 1 (November-December 1997).