S. Aidan

The glory of children are their fathers.

Proverbs xvii. 6.

'At this time there befell a great slaughter, none greater in the Church or nation of the Northumbrians.'

This is the language of Bede88, describing the disastrous defeat at the battle of Hatfield in 633—a great crisis in the history not of Northumbria only, but of England. It seemed for the moment as if the unity and the evangelisation of England were indefinitely postponed. Of the allied chieftains who dealt the fatal blow, the one the Mercian Penda84, a pagan still, was an enemy by religion, the other the British sovereign Cadwalla, though professedly a Christian, yet only in semblance a friend by creed, was an enemy by race. The Northumbrian king Edwin was slain; neither age nor sex was spared; Christianity was stamped out.

Only six years before this date Edwin had avowed himself a convert to Christianity. The Roman missionary Paulinus, consecrated bishop by a successor of S. Augustine of Canterbury, had accompanied Edwin's bride, the Christian princess Ethelburga of Kent, as her chaplain, when she settled in her northern home. He had preached far and wide; he had baptized whole multitudes; he seemed to be carrying everything before him. The conversion of a king in those days was the natural prelude to the conversion of his subjects. The name Pallinsbourne on the Scottish frontier still bears testimony to the energy and success of the preacher. Meanwhile the civil and political condition of the people was not less satisfactory. From the Forth to the Humber Edwin reigned over an undivided Northumbrian kingdom. His name and power have left behind them an imperishable memorial in the royal city of Edinburgh. But his authority extended far beyond the limits of his own kingdom. He was acknowledged as sovereign lord in the other kingdoms of the Heptarchy. It was the first time that any English prince had held this proud position. His kingdom was reaping the fruits of a strong and settled government. It was remarked that now first a woman with a babe in her arms might have wandered from sea to sea without fear of molestation86.

By the defeat at Hatfield all was changed. The Northumbrian kingdom was broken up again into two provinces. The two rulers were worse than pagans; they were apostates. They succumbed speedily to a foreign invader. It was the darkest year in the annals of Northumbria. Everywhere was dissolution, anarchy, ruin. The supremacy of Northumbria in the Heptarchy was gone. The hasty and superficial work of Paulinus had come to nought. He himself bowed before the storm, abandoned these northern kingdoms, and sought a more tranquil sphere of labour in the South. The night of heathendom again closed over the land. The first chapter in the history of Northumbrian Christianity was ended. The Roman mission, despite all the feverish energy of its chief, had proved a failure. A sponge had passed over Northumbria, and scarce a vestige of his work remained.

It was not from imperial Rome, nor from Kent, the handmaid of Rome, that Northumbria was destined to receive her Christianity. A larger and freer spirit must be stamped on the English Church in her infancy, never to be obliterated in maturer age. The cradle of Northumbrian Christianity was a bleak, lonely island off the western coast of Scotland. Here, just seventy years before the epoch of which I am speaking, the tender, passionate, remorseful, sympathetic Irishman, Columba—a Celt of the Celts—had settled; and under his fostering care a religious house had sprung up, the nursery of saints and scholars, who were to carry the faith of Christ and the light of learning far beyond the boundaries of the British Isles, beyond even the lofty mountain barrier of the Alps, invading Italy itself with a peaceful invasion. To this sanctuary of religion the Northumbrian prince Oswald had fled as a young lad on his father's death. There under the immediate successors of Columba he was reared and taught the faith of Christ. Thence he issued, a young man not yet thirty, to recover his hereditary kingdom. The light of dawn broke on the dark fatal year of Northumbrian annals. His arms were crowned with triumph. The cross was once more planted in Northumbrian soil. The whole kingdom was again united under the sway of one prince.

At this point begins the true history of Northumbrian Christianity. When Oswald planted the cross under the shadow of the old Roman wall on the site of his earliest battle-field, we are expressly told that it was the first erected in the northern of the two Northumbrian kingdoms, which extended from the Forth to the Tees. So entirely had the whirlwind sweeping over the land obliterated the footprints of Paulinus.

The cross planted by Oswald on the battle-field, and the victory achieved thereupon, were only the type of the spiritual efforts and the spiritual conquests which were to follow. Not content with fixing the outward symbol of man's redemption in his native soil, he would plant the cross of Christ in the hearts of his people. To Iona, the home of his own spiritual nurture, he betook himself for aid. The response was worthy of the appeal. Just twelve centuries and a half ago, in the year 635, Aidan, consecrated bishop, left the shores of Iona, and fixed his head-quarters in Lindisfarne, the Holy Island of the eastern coast, almost beneath the shadow of the rock fortress of Bamborough, the residence of the Northumbrian kings.

I may be pardoned this day, if I tell once again the oft-repeated tale of Aidan's selection for the office86. He was not the first choice of his spiritual superiors for this arduous work. The first missionary sent out from Iona had failed signally, even more signally than the Roman Paulinus. He returned speedily to Iona disheartened, reporting that these Northumbrians were a stubborn and impracticable people, with whom nothing could be done. Aidan was present at this conference. He broke in, 'Brother, it seems to me that thou hast been unduly hard upon these untaught hearers, and hast not given them first according to the Apostle's precept the milk of less solid doctrine, until gradually nurtured on the Word of God they should have strength enough to digest the more perfect lessons.' All eyes were turned upon the speaker. Here was the very man whom the work demanded. The humility, the patience, the gentle sympathy, the wise discretion, the whole character of the man flashes out in this simple, eager utterance.

I know no nobler type of the missionary spirit than Aidan. His character, as it appears through the haze of antiquity, is almost absolutely faultless. Doubtless this haze may have obscured some imperfections which a clearer atmosphere and a nearer view would have enabled us to detect. But we cannot have been misled as to the main lineaments of the man. Measuring him side by side with other great missionaries of those days, Augustine of Canterbury, or Wilfrid of York, or Cuthbert of his own Lindisfarne, we are struck with the singular sweetness and breadth and sympathy of his character. He had all the virtues of his Celtic race without any of its faults. A comparison with his own spiritual forefather—the eager, headstrong, irascible, affectionate, penitent, patriotic, self-devoted Columba, the most romantic and attractive of all early medieval saints— will justify this sentiment. He was tender, sympathetic, adventurous, self-sacrificing; but he was patient, steadfast, calm, appreciative, discreet before all things. 'This grace of discretion,' writes Bede87, 'marked him out for the Northumbrian mission; but when the time came he was found to be adorned with every other excellence.' This ancient historian never tires of his theme, when he is praising Aidan. 'He was a man,' he writes, 'of surpassing gentleness, and piety and self-restraint.' Among other traits of a holy life 'he left to the clergy a most wholesome example of abstinence and continence.' 'He lived among his friends none otherwise than he taught.' 'He cared not to seek anything, to love anything, belonging to this world.' He was incessant in his journeys through town and country, always travelling on foot where it was possible. Those who accompanied him on his walks were expected to occupy themselves in reading the scriptures or learning the psalms; 'a strange contrast,' adds Bede, 'to the slothfulness of our own age.' He redeemed many captives, and educated them when redeemed for the priesthood. He rebuked the misdemeanours of the wealthy without fear or favour. He was most merciful and kindly to the poor, a very father to the wretched. On one occasion king Oswyn had given him a fine horse, suitably caparisoned, to carry him on his frequent journeys through field and flood. A poor man came in his way and asked an alms. He dismounted and gave the horse to his petitioner. The king, hearing of this, remonstrated: 'Were there not poorer horses, or other less costly gifts, to bestow upon a beggar?' His reply combines the quick repartee of the Irishman with the earnestness of a devout Christian soul, 'What sayest thou, king? Is yon son of a mare more precious in thy sight than yon son of God?88' The secret of his power reveals itself in this rejoinder. He treated all men, even the lowliest, not only with sympathy as brothers, but with reverence as sons of God.

We may confidently accept everything that Bede tells us in praise of S. Aidan. The channels through which the information has passed were not too partial to the theme of their eulogy. Roman supremacy prevailed before Bede wrote. Aidan had not acknowledged this foreign allegiance. He owed obedience, not to Rome, but to Iona. Along with his spiritual fathers and brothers, he accepted the rule of S. Columba, and he rejected Roman usages. This was a grave offence with Bede's contemporaries. In Bede's language Aidan's was a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. But Bede was a truthful and a kindly man, and he could not withhold the rich tribute of admiration due to the apostolic zeal and simplicity of the evangelist of Northumbria.

Do we wonder that a character so deep and yet so attractive drew men after it with the cords of power and of love? Daily, we are told, recruits came in from the West, and 'preached the word of faith with great devotion.' Churches were built; crowds of people flocked to hear the message; lands were given for religious purposes; monasteries and schools were built, where English children were taught by Celtic missionaries from Ireland and from the Scotch coast.

Aidan was both a diligent student and an assiduous teacher. He would not have been true to his spiritual nurture otherwise. Iona was at this time the focus of intellectual light to Western Christendom. It is a curious fact that the great crisis in Columba's life is said to have been a quarrel for the possession of a book—the Battle of the Psalter—when the blood shed through his means filled his soul with penitential remorse and drove him to perpetual exile in Iona, there to atone for the slaughter of bodies by the conversion of souls. Aidan saw that if the foundations of the Church were to be solidly laid, education must be a chief part of his work. He gathered about him a class of the most promising lads, twelve in number, many of them famous in after-life. He seems to have had a remarkable insight into character. The same appreciation, which led him to recall Hilda to his side for an important work, would guide him in the selection of his pupils. Among the members of his class were Eata, his successor in the see of Lindisfarne, and the two brothers Chad and Cedd89, the evangelists of southern England; and Wilfrid, the most famous of northern Churchmen in the succeeding age.

Aidan was the intimate friend and counsellor of two successive Northumbrian sovereigns. This close alliance of king and bishop contributed largely to the progress and the evangelisation of England. Of these two sovereigns, the first, Oswald, immediately on his accession had brought him from his northern home to take charge of the mission; the death of the second, Oswyn, preceded his own by a few days. Thus his episcopate was co-extensive with the two reigns.

The death of Oswyn was a fatal blow to him. Twelve days later, leaning against a wooden buttress at the west end of the church of Bamborough he breathed out his soul, on the last day of August 651. The day is fitly designated in the Calendars, 'Aidan's Rest,' Quies Aidant. It was a tranquil close to a tranquil life; most tranquil within, but most laborious without.

Once again, as he mentions his death, laying aside his Roman partialities, Bede turns aside to pay his parting tribute of respect to so much worth. Though not approving his Easter usage, he feels himself constrained, he tells us, as a truthful historian to praise what deserves praise, his diligent pursuit of peace and love, of chastity and humility; his spirit superior to avarice, and contemptuous of pride and vain-glory; his assiduity in doing and teaching the heavenly precepts; his industry in reading and in vigils; his resoluteness, alike in condemning the proud and powerful, and in comforting the feeble, in relieving the poor and upholding clemency. 'In short,' he adds40, 'he was careful not to neglect any duty which he had learnt from the writings of the evangelists and apostles and prophets, but to put every one in practice with all his might. These features,' he continues, 'I heartily cherish and love, because I believe them to be well-pleasing to God.'

Is not the memory of such a man—the truest of saints and the greatest of benefactors—an undeserved inheritance which we too are bound to cherish with affectionate reverence? Yet, while S. Cuthbert has been honoured with memorials far and wide, not a single church, so far as I remember, has been dedicated to S. Aidan within this county of Durham in ancient or modern times. This neglect is not difficult to explain. His divergence from the Roman usage was a fatal barrier to a just recognition, while Rome gave the law to Western Christendom; and the precedent thus set prevailed, even when Roman ascendancy had passed away.

Aidan was succeeded by Finan, a man likeminded with himself; and Finan by Colman. Both alike came, as he had come, from the parent monastery of Iona. Both alike adhered, as he had adhered, to the P. S. 4 usages of S. Columba. The three episcopates together covered a period of thirty years. Then came a change. At the synod of Whitby, despite Colman and Hilda, the use of Rome prevailed over the use of Iona by the influence of the king. Colman, the last of the Celtic bishops, retired with a large band of followers from Northumbria. A new volume in the history of the Northumbrian Church was opened, with the impress of Rome upon its pages. The age of Oswald and Aidan and Hilda was past.

This was the first rivet of the Roman yoke, which was to press so heavily on England in the generations to come. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the immediate advantages of this submission. The Church of England needed unity before all things. But this was impossible, while there was one Church in the North looking to Iona for guidance, and another in the South owing allegiance to Rome. Moreover, the fuller development of the English Church required that it should be drawn into the main stream of Christian civilisation, which at this time flowed through Rome. While we are thankful that the foundations of our Northumbrian Church were laid on the simplicity and devotion, the free spirit, the tenderness and love, the apostolic zeal of the missionaries of Iona, we need not shrink from acknowledging that she learnt much from the more complete organisation and the higher culture, of which Rome was then the schoolmistress.

Nor may we forget that the claims of Rome in this early age were modest indeed compared with her later assumptions. It is an enormous stride from the supremacy of Gregory the Great, as the patriarch of the West and the father of the English Church in the sixth century, to the practical despotism claimed by Hildebrand and Innocent III in the eleventh and succeeding centuries, as it is again a still vaster stride from the latter to the absolute infallibility asserted by Pius IX in the nineteenth century. Was it not Gregory the Great himself who denounced the title of 'Universal Bishop' as a blasphemy against God, who declared that in arrogating this title the Patriarch of Constantinople treated the whole episcopal order with contempt, and who maintained that the Apostles themselves—even Peter, the chief of the Apostles— though heads of their own particular branches, were only members of the universal Church?

Our act of dedication this day is a tribute to a memory which ought to be very sacred to us all. Nor will it stand alone. Already one new parish on the south, and another on the north, of the Tyne have been created, bearing this same honoured name". The cloud which so long has obscured the renown of this saintliest of saints and truest of evangelists is passing away. 'The glory of children are their fathers.' We English Churchmen have a spiritual ancestry great and glorious, such as few Churches can boast. Of all the famous names of saintly heroes of the past, none shines with a brighter or more heavenly lustre than Aidan, the founder of the family. Pouring out our thanksgiving to God to-day, we will remember the debt which we owe to His faithful servant who claims our homage.

There is first the most obvious obligation to him as our first evangelist. He laid the foundations of the Northumbrian Church deep and strong. In sixteen years he accomplished for Northumbria and for England a work, which in less devoted hands might have demanded the labours of many generations.

Secondly, he is a true type and symbol of the freedom of the Church of England. Through the long ages of Roman domination the English Church was the least enslaved of all the Churches. Her statute-book is a continued protest against this foreign aggression. Her ablest kings were the resolute opponents of Roman usurpation. When the yoke was finally thrown off, though the strong will of the reigning sovereign was the active agent, yet it was the independent spirit of the clergy and people which rendered the change possible. Hence there was no break in the continuity of the English Church. Of this independent spirit which culminated in the Reformation, Aidan, our spiritual forefather, as we have seen, was the earliest embodiment.

And our thanksgivings are due not less for the splendour of a great pattern. No example is so potent as the example of a famous ancestry. It is a strength and an inspiration to their descendants. The fine old maxim reminds us that nobility obliges. The baseness of degenerate sons becomes all the more base by contrast with the worth of their fathers. You have acknowledged the obligation to-day by the dedication of this church. Henceforward Aidan's name and example will be ever before you. Year by year you will hold your parish festival; and what fitter time can you select for this purpose than the last day of August—the anniversary of 'Aidan's rest'? Thus year by year the lesson will be set vividly before your eyes. On this bright joyful day, when months of labour and anxiety are crowned by the consecration of your church, what better prayer can I offer for you, and you for yourselves, than that you all—clergy and laity alike—may tread in the footsteps, and be animated by the spirit, of Aidan your saintly forefather? With your larger opportunities, and your wider intellectual range, what may you not achieve, if you reproduce in your lives the humility, the holiness, the unbounded self-devotion, the unfailing sympathy and love, of this ancient servant of God? Believe it; 'the glory of the children are their fathers.'