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The Celtic Mission of Iona and Lindisfarne

Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn.

Isaiah li. i.

At a great crisis in their national history the prophet directs the thoughts of the chosen people to the lessons of a remote past. He bids them find inspiration and guidance in the first beginnings of their race. They were separated by a chasm of twelve or thirteen centuries from the day when their shepherd forefather left his far-off Syrian home to grasp the splendid destiny which God's purpose had marked out for his race. Yet this long interval, with its amazing vicissitudes, had not broken the continuity of their national life. The prosperity of a Church, as of a Nation, depends largely on its connexion with the past. Progress is not severance. A healthy Church is not indeed the slave, but it is essentially the child and the pupil, of the past. The accumulated lessons of its bygone history are its rich inheritance, lessons learnt alike from its failures and its successes.

Shall I do wrong then, if, on this last morning of your dedication festival, I plant my foot in the prophet's tracks, and invite you, the latest sons and daughters of the Northumbrian Church, to look to the rock whence you were hewn, to glance for a few moments at the earliest history—the Celtic period— of the Northumbrian Church, and to draw thence the inspiring lessons which it promises to yield? In this octave of dedication services you celebrate the transformation of the ancient parish church into the cathedral of a new diocese; but this building, so transformed, is the outward embodiment, the local symbol, of the latest development of the Northumbrian Church—the foundation of the see of Newcastle. Is it not then an opportune moment to revert to the cradle of its history, and thus link together the last days with the first in the bonds of a natural piety? In this long lapse of time much has happened. The English Crown, the English Parliament, the English Nation itself, have come into being. But what then? The interval between this latest growth of the Northumbrian Church and its earliest beginnings is roughly the same as that which separated the prophet's utterance in the text from the call of Abraham, the forefather of the race. The value of the lessons is only increased by the lapse of time.

And indeed there has been no more brilliant epoch in the history of Northumbria than those earliest days. Northumbria has never since been so great a power in England, or indeed in Christendom, as she was in that remote age. Northumbria bore the chief part in the making of the English Church, as she did likewise in the making of the English State.

Shall I be thought to overstrain my analogy, if I begin by comparing the migration of S. Columba1 from his Irish home to the migration of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, the one the initiative of the Northumbrian Church, as the other was the initiative of the Israelite people? A voluntary exile, like the patriarch of old, he obeyed the Divine call, and went forth, not knowing whither he went. He chose, we are told, as his adopted home the lonely, sterile, unlovely island which henceforth was to bear his name, because from its shores he could no longer gaze on the country which he loved with a tender, passionate love. Passionate indeed he was; passionate in his wrath, as he was passionate in his love. His was no faultless character. He had all the defects and all the virtues of his race in a heightened form. He was headstrong alike in his attractions and his repulsions—now fierce in his vindictiveness and now melting into tenderness—a nature of the strongest contrasts, a fountain sending forth both sweet water and bitter. But it is not for us members of the Northumbrian Church to lay our finger on the dark blots which stained so beautiful a picture. If he was not an apostle, not a saint, to others, at least to us, the heirs of his self-devotion, he was both in the highest degree. It is far pleasanter to note how the beauty of his character shone out, and the ugliness vanished, under the influence of his evangelistic work in his self-chosen exile. The very incident which led to this exile reveals the strong contrasts in his nature. He had a quarrel about the possession of a Psalter, which he considered to have been wrongly adjudged to another. He stirred up a deadly strife between clan and clan to avenge the wrong. Overwhelmed with penitence, he pledged himself to win as many souls to Christ, as bodies had been slain in the murderous conflict. His exile was the expiation of this sin, the redemption of this pledge. 'It is thou who art my father,' said the faithful disciple' who accompanied him: 'I swear to follow thee, wherever thou goest.' 'My country is where I can gather the largest harvest for Christ.' The words of the disciple reflect the spirit of the teacher.

And so the harvesting of souls for Christ began. For thirty long years Iona was the centre of his evangelistic work. Never man laboured more earnestly or more successfully for Christ. When the sixth century was fast drawing to its close he passed away, some three or four weeks after Augustine had landed on the shores of Kent. His missionary work was altogether independent of Rome. The Roman legions had long been withdrawn from Britain. They had never penetrated into Ireland. But the influence of the Roman Church was largely dependent on the extension of the Roman Empire. Hence Celtic Christianity grew up, a strictly native growth. The influence of Rome for long centuries was practically unfelt. Whether for good or for evil, the Island of the Saints developed a type of Christian civilisation and Christian character peculiar to itself. Long after the English Church had submitted to the Roman domination, the Irish Church remained essentially free. It was not till the twelfth century, when Hadrian", the English pope, made over Ireland to Henry II, that along with the English conquest the yoke of Roman dictation was firmly riveted on the neck of the ancient Irish Church.

This independence Columba brought with him to his new island-home off the west coast of Scotland. Iona became now the light of Christendom. For many generations it was the centre of the great evangelistic movements of the time. Not England or Scotland only, but large parts of the Continent also4, were Christianized by these Irish missionaries, either from their adopted home in Iona or from their mother country.

And what of Northumbria meanwhile? Paulinus" had advanced northwards from the Roman mission in Kent; he had preached for a time to our pagan forefathers in Northumbria; but he had made no way. Disheartened by his patron's defeat and death, he abandoned the field, and retired southward to a more congenial sphere of work. The country remained pagan still. Not a single church, not a single altar, no symbol of the Gospel of any kind, we are told, had been erected between the Forth and the Tees6. For the Christian missionary it was virgin soil still. Then Iona stepped in, where Rome had failed. Some two years after the retreat of Paulinus, Aidan left the shores of Iona, and took up his abode at Lindisfarne. Oswald the king, educated as an exile in Iona, naturally sought thence the teacher who should win his newly-recovered kingdom for Christ. The story of Aidan's selection for the work is too well known to need repetition here. It is a noble testimony to the character of the man, his simplicity and his gentleness, his absolute self-renunciation and his unflinching faith. Never did the pure flame of the evangelistic spirit burn more brightly in any man. He had all the excellences of Columba, his melting sympathy, his fervid zeal, his directness of purpose. But we see none of the grave blots which sully the master's character—no irascibility, no vindictiveness, nothing of the headstrong and ungovernable passion. The capabilities of the Celtic temper were moulded and restrained by the spirit of Christ.

It was in the year 635—a little more than seventy years after Columba landed in Iona, just thirty years after the death of Augustine—that Aidan commenced his work. Though nearly forty years had elapsed since Augustine's first landing in England, Christianity was still confined to its first conquest, the south-east corner of the island, the kingdom of Kent. Beyond this border, though ground had been broken here and there, no territory had been permanently acquired for the Gospel. Then commenced those thirty years of earnest energetic labour, carried on by these Celtic missionaries and their disciples from Lindisfarne as their spiritual citadel, which ended in the submission of England to the gentle yoke of Christ. Not Augustine, but Aidan, is the true apostle of England.

Before I pass away from this Celtic period—the most attractive, and (in a spiritual aspect) the most splendid, in the annals of our Church—and proceed to speak of the Roman submission, let me dwell for a moment on the two great facts which this history reveals. These are the success of the Celtic preachers, and the independence of these Celtic missions.

1- Of the triumphs of the Celtic evangelists something has been said already. If we desire to know the secret of their success, it is soon told. It was the power of earnest, simple, self-denying lives, pleading with a force which no eloquence of words can command. But whatever may be the explanation, the fact remains. Iona succeeded, where Rome had failed.

Lest I should seem to exaggerate or to heighten the colouring, I prefer to tell the tale not in my own language, but in words taken from an accomplished writer of the Roman Communion. 'From the cloisters of Lindisfarne,' writes Montalembert, ' and from the heart of those districts in which the popularity of ascetic pontiffs such as Aidan, and martyr kings such as Oswald and Oswin, took day by day a deeper root, Northumbrian Christianity spread over the southern kingdoms...What is distinctly visible is the influence of Celtic priests and missionaries everywhere replacing and seconding Roman missionaries, and reaching districts which their predecessors had never been able to enter. The stream of the Divine Word thus extended itself from north to south, and its slow but certain course reached in succession all the people of the Heptarchy7.' And again, at the close of the chapters of which these are the opening words he writes; 'Of the eight kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Confederation, that of Kent alone was exclusively won and retained by the Roman monks, whose first attempts among the East Saxons and Northumbrians ended in failure. In Wessex and in East Anglia the Saxons of the West and the Angles of the East were converted by the combined action of continental missionaries and Celtic monks. As to the two Northumbrian kingdoms, and those of Essex and Mercia, which comprehended in themselves more than two-thirds of the territory occupied by the German conquerors, these four countries owed their final conversion exclusively to the peaceful invasion of the Celtic monks; who not only rivalled the zeal of the Roman monks, but who, the first obstacles once surmounted, shewed much more perseverance and gained much more success8.' Sussex still remained heathen; Sussex, 'the smallest of all but one of the earliest founded9;' Sussex, the immediate neighbour of the Roman missionaries in Kent. Sussex was at length stormed and taken. And here again the conqueror of this last stronghold of heathendom, though an ardent champion of the Roman cause, was a Northumbrian by birth. Wilfrid had been a pupil of Aidan, and his missionary inspiration was drawn from Lindisfarne. Was I not right then in claiming for Aidan the first place in the evangelisation of our race? Augustine was the apostle of Kent, but Aidan was the apostle of England.

2. The independence of the Celtic missionary again is a patent fact, and stands out in strong contrast to later evangelistic movements in Western Europe. Rome neither initiated, nor controlled, these Celtic missions. The missionaries owed allegiance, not to the Bishop of Rome, but to the PresbyterAbbot of Iona. There is no evidence that they sought or accepted any authoritative directions from the Roman mission in the south of England. Their usages were different in many respects from the usages of Rome. When these came under discussion, and it was a question between allegiance to Iona and allegiance to Rome, they unhesitatingly chose the former. It is probable, indeed, that if asked they would have granted a certain precedency to the great patriarch of the West, the bishop of the world's metropolis, though of this there is no evidence; but it is quite plain on the other hand that in their eyes he had no constitutional right to command them. Roman direction is treated as absolutely valueless by them; Roman wishes are disregarded. Sooner than abandon the traditions and customs of Iona for those of Rome, they retire altogether from the field, leaving the rich fruits of their labours to others at the very moment when the harvest is full ripe. The Abbot of Iona—the successor of Columba—is their acknowledged ruler, the ruler even of bishops, though only a simple presbyter, their superior in ecclesiastical office, though their inferior in spiritual functions10. From him they receive their commission, though not their consecration; and to him they render their account. The bishop of Rome is in no sense their master.

But this Celtic period was brought suddenly to a close. The rivalry between Rome and Iona came to a head. The dispute was about matters unimportant in themselves". There was the cut of the tonsure, a wholly trivial matter, in which there could not be a right or a wrong. There was the time of the Easter celebration, which was a question of convenience rather than principle. The real issue lay behind all these petty disputes. It was the alternative of allegiance to Rome or allegiance to Iona. The conference was held at Whitby". On the side of Iona were all the great makers of England. Hilda the royal abbess, Colman the successor of Aidan, Cedd the great missionary bishop. But the fiat of the king prevailed. Iona was defeated. The Celtic brotherhood at Lindisfarne was broken up. Colman retired with the brothers and their scholars to their Scottish home. 'What heart/ writes Montalembert, 'is so cold as not to understand, to sympathise, and to journey with him, along the Northumbrian coast and over the Scottish mountains, where, bearing homeward the bones of his father [Aidan], the proud but vanquished spirit returned to his northern mists, and buried in the sacred isle of Iona his defeat and his unconquerable fidelity to the traditions of his race?18' To the English Churchman the event will suggest other and wider reflexions beside.

So the Celtic missionaries laboured, and others were to enter into their labours. Once again the saying was fulfilled,' One soweth and another reapeth.' But an irreparable loss was inflicted on the English Church by the withdrawal of this child-like simplicity, this generous devotion, this fervour of missionary zeal. Devout and upright men, like Bede", even though their sympathies might be with Rome in the dispute, yet writing while the memory of these Celtic days was fresh, looked back with longing eyes on the departed glory. It was the golden age of saintliness, such as England would never see again.

Yet along with this terrible loss the change brought some great and immediate practical advantages. To be united with Rome was to be connected with the centre of the highest Christian civilisation and art of the age. What the rude Celtic churches with their walls of timber and their thatch of reeds were to the stone buildings of the 'Roman' style, as Bede calls it15, introduced by Benedict Biscop from the Continent, this the civilisation of Iona was to the civilisation of Rome. Moreover, Christian Rome had inherited from heathen Rome her great capacity for organisation; and just here lay the main defect of the Celtic Churches. The Celtic Churches of Ireland remained without regular parochial and diocesan organisation for many centuries later. Still the English subjugation brought with it the Roman ascendancy. The English soil was more favourable than the native Irish for organisation, and accordingly the Celtic Church of Northumbria fared better. But organisation was still its great want. Thus the connexion with Rome supplied the element of progress which at this moment the Celtic Churches most needed. Moreover, the Roman submission brought one other paramount advantage. The development of England demanded unity, but unity there was not . Politically, the island was broken up into several independent kingdoms. Ecclesiastically, there were two independent Churches, the Celtic in the North, the Roman in the South. The unity of the Church was the first step towards the unity of the State. At whatever cost this unity was attained at Whitby, and the State soon followed in the wake of the Church.

These immediate advantages were so tangible and so patent that it is no surprise to find men like Benedict Biscop and Chad and Bede welcoming the Roman submission. The tremendous ulterior consequences were quite beyond the range of human foresight.

Nor must we forget that the submission required by Gregory and his immediate successors was different in kind from the imperious demands of Rome in a later age. Two centuries were yet to elapse before the forgery of the False Decretals16 furnished a documentary basis for the claims of Rome. In exalting the power of the Roman See Gregory exerted a practical influence second to none of his predecessors; he strained the authority of the patriarchal chair to the utmost; he was far from consistent in his language. But at least he denounces" the title of 'Universal Bishop' as a proud and pestilent assumption, an act of contempt and wrong to the whole priesthood, an imitation of Satan, who exalted himself above his fellow angels, a token of the speedy coming of antichrist.

Thus passes away 'this goodliest fellowship' 'whereof the world holds record18.' Of these splendid traditions, of this bright example, of these evangelistic triumphs, you are the heirs. This diocese of Newcastle still enshrines the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the true cradle of English Christianity. The building, whose completion and adornment we this day celebrate, is in some sense a replacement of the older sanctuary. If it is ever to fulfil its mission it will become not only the house of more ornate and frequent services, of a more splendid ritual, but before all things the centre of intense missionary and philanthropic work. After all it was not the splendour, but the simplicity, of Iona and of Lindisfarne, that won England for Christ. Times are changed. The evangelistic agencies of that age were modelled on the monastic type. None other, so far as we can see, would then have done the work so well. Times are changed. No one could wish now to replace the stately pile of William of Carileph by the wooden shed of Finan1'. Art, music, poetry, architecture, all the choicest adornments of life which God has given us, these we are bound to render to the service of the sanctuary, not selfishly keeping our best for our private homes. But while all else changes, the spirit is unchanged. The simplicity, the self-devotion, the prayerfulness, the burning love of Christ, which shone forth in those Celtic missionaries of old, must be your spiritual equipment now. Then, when your work is done, and another generation shall have taken your place, it may be that some future Bede will again trace in words of tender and regretful sympathy the undying record of a Christ-like life and work.