One of the classics of ancient Christian writings is Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People[or, Nation]). Bede (673-735) was a learned monk who resided in a monastery on the northeast coast of England. A prolific writer of biblical commentaries, histories, and other works, Bede is best known for writing the first account of the history of Anglo-Saxon England, and he is considered to be the father of English history.
While Ecclesiastical History of the English People is an indispensable source for constructing the early history of England, Ireland and Scotland, Bede’s work is also a compelling account of the life and mission of the Christian church. Bede intended his account of the historical development of the church in England to be a source of spiritual inspiration for his readers as he described heroes who were models of saintly behavior.
Reading this book makes one think about how the church can evangelize a population that is not Christian, which will be a main concern of the church in the new era following the collapse of Christendom in the West. Bede tells the story of the evangelization of pagan tribes who invaded and occupied the British Isles, and of course the strategies used by the church then cannot be directly employed by the church of today to evangelize the generations who have emerged out of a fading Christendom with no relation to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the church. Nonetheless, it is provocative to listen to Bede’s account of the church’s evangelization of early England and consider how what the church was and what it did might stimulate our thinking about our mission today.
Rod Dreher proposes a “Benedict Option” for Christianity in the West after Christendom, a proposal with which I am personally very empathetic. The main idea of the “Benedict Option” is that there are times when the church needs to withdraw from society in order to reform and strengthen its own life as a distinctive community with an alternative way of life so that it is able to recover its ability to make a transformative witness to society. A bit whimsically, I reflect on a “Bede Option” as a thought-experiment about the church’s life and mission now and in the generations to come. The main idea of the “Bede Option” is that the church has a responsibility for the evangelization of peoples, and the experience of the conversion of the English provokes our thinking about evangelizing people in the West following the collapse of Christendom. The “Bede Option” is not contradictory to the “Benedict Option” since effective evangelization is a fruit of a period of serious repentance and reform of the church.
Unity of the church through confession of the apostolic and catholic faith
The church cannot be effective in its mission of evangelization unless it is united in its confession of the apostolic faith as received in the catholic or universal tradition of the church throughout the world.
Many readers of Bede’s Ecclesiastical HIstory of the English People are puzzled why Bede puts so much emphasis on the date of Easter. The Celtic Christians, who were probably first converted by Christians in the Roman army and by visitors from Gaul, celebrated Easter by a different calendar than that used by the Roman Church. Bede gives much detail about how eventually the Christians in the British Isles finally agreed to use the same calendar as the Roman Church so that they would celebrate the resurrection of the Lord on the same day every year. While the authority of the Roman Church and the Petrine papacy were invoked by Bede in his arguments for a common observance of Easter, it is also the case that Christians in the British Isles needed to present a show of unity rather than confusion in order to persuade the pagan tribal chieftains and their populations to become Christians and to be baptized into one church.
Bede does also emphasize that, despite disagreement among Christians about the date of Easter, most of the Christians in the British Isles were united in their confession of the apostolic faith, so that the task of evangelization was shared among the Celtic Christians from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon Christians in England, and also Christians from the European continent, especially Gaul or France.
The evangelical zeal of the popes greatly contributed to the evangelization of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Celtic Britons who had not yet become Christians. Bede calls Pope Gregory the Great “our own apostle” because of his love for the English people and his commitment to their conversion by sending to them the missionary, Augustine of Canterbury. Bede includes in his history the story “handed down to us by the tradition of our forebears” which explains the passion of Gregory for the conversion of the English. Before he was pope, Gregory visited a market in Rome where he saw “some boys exposed for sale.” Their beautiful complexions, facial features, and hair enchanted Gregory, and he asked where they came from. He was told that these slaves came from the island of Britain and that they were still pagans. Gregory then appealed to the pope to send missionaries to Britain, and volunteered to be sent. Even though his requests were not granted, when he became pope he initiated his “long cherished project” of bringing the news of the gospel to the pagan peoples of Britain.
The evangelization of England began because the leaders of the church confessed a missional theology. Bede quotes from a letter in the early seventh century sent by Pope Boniface to King Edwin to persuade him to convert to Christianity. Boniface’s message consists of an evangelical appeal to worship and obey the triune God. Boniface urges Edwin to believe in the true faith in “God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–the undivided Trinity” who is worshiped by humankind “from east to west” and who is confessed by all as “Creator of all things and Maker of all men.” Boniface says, “Of His bountiful mercy and for the well-being of all his creatures, He has been pleased to warm with His Holy Spirit the frozen hearts of the most distant nations of the world in a most wonderful manner to knowledge of Himself.” The pope urges Edwin and his court to “renounce idol-worship…, and believe in God the Father, and in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. This Faith will free you from Satan’s bondage, and through the liberative power of the holy and undivided Trinity you will inherit eternal life.” He goes on to entreat Edwin to be baptized in the true faith by accepting “the sign of the Holy Cross, by which the entire human race has been redeemed, and exorcize from your heart the damnable crafts and devices of the Devil, who jealously opposes all the workings of God’s providence.”
Gabriel Fackre used to say of the gospel–God’s Story–that before you can get the Story out, you must get the Story straight. One of the essential tasks of the church after the era of Christendom, the long period of a domesticated and progressively compromised form of Christianity, is to recover the message of the gospel as it is received in the universal Christian tradition. Without knowing the gospel, the church has nothing to say to the world that the world does not already know. The neo-pagans of the West after Christendom are nearly as ignorant of the gospel as the old pagans of the past, and in order to speak to them the church must proclaim a consistent and confident message. In order to be effective in evangelization, that message must be the news from God according to the witness of the apostles received by the church with the illumination and guidance of the Holy Spirit as expressed in the church’s creeds and doctrines.
Respect for the people and their culture
A confident preaching of the gospel and teaching of Christian doctrine should go hand-in-hand with a respect for the people whom the church is seeking to convert. A letter from Pope Gregory to an abbot whom he asked to inform the missionary Augustine demonstrates the pastoral wisdom for which Gregory is renowned. In this letter Gregory explains how to treat a pagan tribe which has asked to be baptized. Gregory writes that he had given “careful thought to the affairs of the English” and had reached the conclusion that “the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed.” He clarifies that the “idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water” and adorned with Christian altars. By this strategy Gregory hoped that the people would more readily abandon idolatry and “adore the true God” because they would be worshiping in their accustomed places. Since they also had a custom of sacrificing animals in their pagan worship, Gregory suggests that feast days be appointed, such as commemorations of saints, so that the people would come and stay in “shelters of boughs” around the churches and slaughter animals for “devout feasting.” Gregory believes that “if the people are allowed some worldly pleasures in this way, they will more readily come to desire the joys of the Spirit.” Knowing human nature, Gregory observes that one climbs a mountain gradually step by step, and therefore one must find ways to gradually lead the people from their old ways into the new ways of the Christian life.
This kind of respect for people and their culture is essential in evangelizing people in any time and place. What should be noticed about Gregory’s counsel is how he urges finding creative ways to respect the customs of people while, at the same time, never compromising Christian belief and behavior. Compromising the church’s worship and practice in the name of cultural sensitivity is faithlessness, and it never results in genuine conversion.
Enlightening the darkened mind of unbelievers
As shown by the evangelical theology of the popes guiding the evangelizing of the English, genuine conversion of people entails enlightening their minds. Perhaps the most famous vignette in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a speech given by one of the counselors to King Edwin, the pagan high priest Coifi, as the king sought advice about whether he and his people in Northumbria should become Christians. Bede’s account of this speech is worth quoting. Coifi said, “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns [royal officials] and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while, but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.” After hearing much more about the teaching of the church, the high priest recommended conversion to Christianity, and on Easter, 627 C.E., Edwin, his nobles, and some of the common people were baptized. Their conversion came about because their minds were enlightened by the Holy Spirit as they perceived that the mystery of Christ is the answer to the mysteries of life.
The neo-pagans of today are not the same as the pagans of yesterday, but they also need spiritual enlightenment. They are as materialistic as the old pagans, reducing human existence to a short span of enjoying creature comforts and knowing nothing about their origin concerning their creation in the image and likeness of God nor their transcendent destiny in the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. The neo-pagans may embrace a Marxist version of a new order of justice, which gives them some sense of being a part of a cause greater than themselves, but this utopian moral vision is no substitute for discovering one’s spiritual identity as a child of God called with others into a new life of living according to the kingdom of God whose future is secured already by the reality of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Beyond baseness of life
When Pope Gregory sent Augustine to evangelize the English in 596 C.E., Augustine and his fellow monks lost heart along the way and considered going back to Rome. Bede says, “For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation, of whose very language they were ignorant.” From Gaul Augustine let their desires to return to Rome be known to the pope, who wrote them a letter to firmly urge them to continue their journey and fulfill their mission.
The hesitancy of the pope’s missionaries is understandable because the pagan peoples among whom they would work often practiced an uncouth and violent way of life. The Christians’ task was not merely to proclaim and teach the meaning of the church’s belief, but also to introduce the pagan rulers and their people to the different Christian way of living. The spiritual enlightenment that begins with the faith in the gospel will grow dim and eventually disappear unless believers grow in personal integrity and holiness of life. This liberation of the pagans from a baseness of life had a civilizing effect on the nation.
Among the evangelists whose work is reported by Bede were the Irish monks from the island of Iona. One of them was Aidan, a bishop in the first half of the seventh century who, like other Irish and Celtic bishops, did not oversee a diocese but wandered among the people preaching the gospel and teaching. Of Aidan, Bede observes, “he gave his clergy an inspiring example of self-discipline and continence, and the highest recommendation of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught.” Throughout his narrative, Bede emphasizes how England was converted because of the saintly lives of the evangelists who won the admiration of the people and who inspired them to ascend beyond a baseness of existence to a higher mode of being.
Bede’s account of holiness of heart and life among the Christians, especially the evangelists, is a warning to the church in the era after Christendom: there can be no effective evangelization of neo-pagan peoples without a demonstration of the higher Christian way of life, which requires self-discipline and a certain asceticism. The old cultural Christianity of the West consists of occasionally going to church for baptisms, weddings, and worship without any accompanying daily practice of the distinctive Christian way of living, which is quite counter to socially acceptable ways of secular society propagandized by the mass media and government. In the era following Christendom, by the illumination and power of the Holy Spirit, the church must capture a vision of holiness of life as one of its most essential gifts to the world. Of course, many will shun this higher way, but many others will be inspired and motivated by a vision of living according to nobility of mind and purity of body.
Signs and wonders
Bede’s narrative is replete with reports of visions and miracles that occurred in the lives of the saints. Usually Bede identifies the person who is his source for knowledge of a miracle except that on a few occasions he hands on traditions which were well known. He describes a number of remarkable events that occurred in connection with a convent at Barking which was established by Ethelburga, the sister of a bishop. After the deaths of the saintly Ethelburga and other devout nuns, their successors kept a book containing narratives of miracles that occurred at the convent. Citing this book as his source, Bede tells of the miraculous cure of the wife of a nobleman. She gradually lost most of her sight, and she decided to visit the place where the holy remains of Ethelburga and other nuns were buried. Bede says, “Professing a firm belief that she would be healed, she was taken by her maids to the near-by convent and guided to the burial ground, where she remained a long while on her knees in prayer. Her petition was quickly granted; for as she rose from prayer and before she left the place, her sight was restored.”
Modern scholars who comment on Bede’s narrative and other books of the era which emphasize the miraculous, such as Life of St. Columba by Adomnan of Iona, often rationalize these remarkable events as coincidences and psychological responses to the strong expectations of the people that miracles happen around the holy lives and deaths of saints.
It is quite plausible that there were numerous reports of miracles occurring during the era of the evangelization of the pagan tribes in England because there was a wide-spread expectation of miracles. While modern scholars consider that this expectation was a cause of psychological operations which effected cures, there is another way of viewing the same events. Our era is almost totally close-minded to the realm of the spirit. Nothing that can be explained according to natural causes and rational theories is considered to be real. Naturally, this is not an age when we hear of many miracles occurring. This does not mean that miracles are not occurring, but only that they are not taken seriously, being ignored or dismissed as coincidences and products of psychological operations such as auto-suggestion.
As the church withdraws from its role as the religion of the culture and reclaims its distinctive identity and life and then engages in evangelizing secular peoples, it is likely that evangelization will be accompanied by signs and wonders. Throughout the scriptures, signs and wonders accompanied great moments of revelation and salvation, such as the exodus of Israel from Egypt (Deuteronomy 6:22; Psalm 135:9), the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 4:23-25; John 20:30), and the witness of the apostles (Acts 2:43; 2 Corinthians 12:12). In the epilogue of his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis observes, “God does not shake miracles into Nature at random as if from a pepper-caster. They come on great occasions: they are found at the great ganglions of history–not of political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men.” One of these moments when miracles–biblical signs and wonders–are clustered is when there is a great movement of evangelization. Bede’s records one of those moments in the history of the conversion of the English people to Christianity. Another of those moments will occur on the other side of the demise of Christendom after the church has been chastened and reformed and engages in evangelizing secular and neo-pagan peoples who assumed that Christianity was dead and gone, but who are surprised to be spiritually enlightened by the ancient, but ever-new, gospel of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.