A Conversation About God

With Actor Jonathan Jackson & Dr. Norris Chumley

While Jonathan’s views about Art in his book The Mystery of Art: Becoming an Artist in the Image of God are quite controversial, as two opposing book reviews below indicate(*), the narrative of his conversion and finding the true Church in “A Conversation About God” is captivating.

Watch a fascinating conversation about God, Conversion and Art, with Actor Jonathan Jackson and Dr. Norris Chumley:

Orthodox Christian Network


(*) Moses Benjamin Cabe (Ben Cabe) is praising Jackson’s views here, while  Richard Barrett (Orthodox Arts Journal) urges caution in

The problem of art in Anglophone Orthodoxy: a review essay” .

As for me, I am undecided yet and still studying the matter. Jackson invokes Dostoyevski‘s  quotation “Beauty will save the world.” and quotes Elder Porphyrios’ words in Wounded by Love“Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”, both  central in my life and this blog.

Indeed, you do not have to be a Christian to create true art.  In fact, it may be that you have to become an artist before you are able to truly become a Christian. Jackson adds  that, when someone is drawn to the beauty of a certain piece of music or painting, he is really being drawn to Christ.  Far removed from Christ is anyone who does not, and cannot, appreciate beauty.  “It is an incredible thing to discover that Christianity is an experience of saying yes to what is truly beautiful. …  From the beginning, the pure and ancient faith of Christ, which is still alive today, proclaims that God is beautiful!”

While Jackson is surely right in all this, there are other claims he makes in this book which may be problematic and will hopefully be addressed in future blog posts, when this whole matter is clearer in my mind…

Divine Providence in a Convert’s Journey

Divine Providence in a Convert’s (*) Journey


A talk with Marilyn Swezey, the secretary of Bishop Basil (Rodzianko)


My interviewee has had an extremely interesting and unusual life for an American woman. Charming, intelligent, she looks some 15 years younger than she really is. And behind her there is a long life full of the hard labors of a noble, self-sacrificing person who seeks to see Divine providence in every turn of her life. Here she is: secretary of Bishop Basil (Vasily) Rodzianko, assistant to Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen), an expert in the Russian literature and arts, honorable parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey.

    Marilyn, how did you happen to get interested in Russia, in our country’s art?

—In the 1960s as a young woman I studied at a small Catholic college for women in New York. I studied classical art. Apart from the compulsory program we were to choose some optional subjects. I did not know why but I chose the Russian language course. That was the starting point for all the subsequent events in my life.

The paths we choose… Did you enjoy learning Russian?

—Yes, I had a wonderful teacher—Olga Constantinovna Voronova (1894-1981), former lady in waiting to the empress. She was a daughter of the councilor of state and master of the hunt of the court of His Imperial Highness, Count Constantine Petrovich Kleinmichel and Yekaterina Nikolaevna Bogdanova—the daughter of the marshal of the nobility of Kursk province.Olga Constantinovna’s husband, Pavel Voronov, a navy officer, served on the imperial yacht, the Standart, with the royal family for four years. The blessed memories of his service with the royal family remained with Pavel forever. The little Tsarevich Alexei loved him dearly—once the empress told Olga Constantinovna that the tsarevich used to keep her husband’s photograph at his bed. And, undoubtedly, Pavel Voronov was entirely devoted to the boy.

Olga Constantinovna testified: “I think it was impossible not to come to love this child who, besides his natural charm, gained the hearts of everybody by his kindness, his sympathy for others’ troubles—he was always the first to help and console—and by the patience with which he endured his illness, which at times made him a real sufferer.”

Before the departure of Pavel Voronov to war the Grand Duchess Olga gave him and Olga Constantinovna icons—one icon for each of them. From that day on they always had these icons with them—it was the only material remainder of the royal family that the couple managed to preserve during the years of the Revolution.

Let me cite you several extracts from the reminiscences by Olga Constantinovna:In January 1917 my husband began to have heart problems and he was returned from the front to St. Petersburg, or Petrograd, to be more exact. After the council of physicians at Maritime Hospital he was sent for two months to a spa resort in the Caucasus for treatment. Before our departure we were invited by the Empress to spend an evening together with her and the children. I had not seen them for a while and found a great change in Grand Duke Alexei. When I had visited the palace the previous time, the empress received me in one of its nurseries and the Tsarevich was delivered there to his bed. At the time he was recovering from a fit of his terrible disease and looked very pale and thin. All tried to cheer him up, and it was so moving to see the tender love with which his sisters played with him and cared for him. The Tsarina was knitting something for the Committee of temporary assistance to wounded soldiers headed by Grand Duchess Tatiana; from time to time she smiled to her son, though her look remained sad and anxious.

But I had never seen Grand Duke Alexei in such good shape before. He had grown up appreciably, transparency disappeared from his face, he had ruddy cheeks and looked absolutely healthy. Every time when the empress looked at him, a happy radiant smile lit up her face. The Tsarevich stayed near her all the time, sometimes kissed her face and hands, stroked her hair. This scene of the close, united, happy family remained in my memory forever. I was seeing them thenfor the last time.

The Nativity and New year of 1918 went of without joy, but quietly. I was melancholy but very delighted to receive a letter from Grand Duchess Tatiana in Tobolsk, Siberia, where the imperial family had been exiled…

Two days before the murder of the royal family, a priest was allowed to celebrate a Divine Liturgy in their prison (they had been deprived of such a consolation for a long time). Later he remembered how much he had been impressed by the depth of their spirit and the spiritual level the royal family had reached. He said he felt that they did not belong to this world any longer…

The memory of them will always support me on the path I have been walking in my life.”

—Yes, Olga Constantinovna was a wonderful person. She spoke such beautiful Russian… Her English was fluent and with a slight accent, and her French was excellent.

Our college was small, and the girls who learned Russian in the group numbered only six or seven, so we had a close communication with our teacher. Not only did Olga Voronova teach us Russian, but she also taught culture and history, especially the history of the Imperial court. And she loved the royal family—sincerely, faithfully. She passed this love on to us! I began to feel that the royal family became very close to my heart as well, as if I knew them personally! Later I gave my own children the names of the Holy Royal Martyrs.

And this is all thanks to Olga Constantinovna! Then I did not very clearly understand what a person I had met by Divine providence. I came to understand it later, after many years… Olga and Pavel Voronov were genuine Orthodox people. My acquaintance with Orthodoxy began precisely through them.

The stories of Olga Constantinovna about Orthodox Russia contained such a beauty and spiritual depth, that I wanted to become familiar with this country.

And did you succeed in this?

—Oh, yes! After being taught for a year by Olga Constantinovna, I set off travelling around Europe and spent three weeks in Russia. Russia and America were officially enemies, but the Russian common folk turned out to be such open-hearted people. I visited Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev… When I came to Moscow, I was a Protestant. But that trip changed my life radically!

What happened to you in Russia?

—I travelled with my friend. We were both aged 19. Now, when we freely travel from Russia to the USA and back, it is hard to imagine what an unusual experience it was for two American young ladies to travel to the USSR in the 1960s… My friend’s parents recommended us to visit a Catholic priest in Moscow. There were few of them in the capital—only for English-speaking and French-speaking diplomats.

    I remember Fr. Louis Dion very well. He served at a chapel attached to the embassy in Moscow. And he advised us that we should visit the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. He said it was necessary for us to do it. He explained us the route. So we took a suburban train to Zagorsk, now Sergiyev Posad. There were four of us. I could speak little Russian, while all my companions did not know a word of it. The stations flew past the window and the train hurried through the little Russian halts. We thought, how do we know when it’s Zagorsk?

I asked an elderly woman, a babushka, who was sitting next to me, and she understood me and replied: “Of course, I will let you know. Don’t worry!” And she told us the right station. We alighted and found ourselves alone on a platform with no people around. Then we saw a handsome young officer nearby. He gave us a smile and I asked him in broken Russian, “How can I get to the monastery?” He answered, but I understood only half of what he said.

We started our way and were soon helped. We met a young man who led us up to the monastery’s gate. We looked around and saw amazing churches. I will remember forever the moment we entered the Holy Trinity Cathedral—I found myself in another world! Then I knew nothing of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh

There was nobody inside the church, except for a hieromonk who was reading an akathist to St. Sergius. We stood for a long time, listening to prayer, which was heard in total silence. I began to feel that wonderful atmosphere, which was not of this world. There was deep love and warmth. Peace. It was a gift of the Holy Spirit.

At that time I was already aware of the persecutions against the faithful in the Soviet Union, of the repressed and murdered clergy, of those who were left to rot in jails and mental hospitals. And—such beauty of Orthodoxy!

I don’t know how, I thought by myself there, before the relics of St. Sergius: “If I have an opportunity to help the faithful in Russia, then I must become Orthodox.” At that moment it was just in my thoughts. And even these thoughts were odd for a young American woman. It was many years later that I came to understand that St. Sergius heard my thought, my desire and helped it to come true.

And how did it happen?

—At first I decided to master my Russian and to study the Russian literature and history more thoroughly. After four years at college I enrolled in a two-year course at Harvard University. We studied Russian history, Russian literature; it was Prof. George Florovsky who gave us seminars. There were only 20 students in our course, which was very intensive. We read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, compared the legal systems of the USSR and America. Two years later I received a Master of Arts degree. We were trained as specialists who would work for the American government and they were going to offer me a job. Pending the invitation, I went to visit my parents, and soon I indeed received an invitation, but it was not a job offer—it was an invitation to the annual dinner party at Harvard University. My year of graduation was 1965—it was the year when women first acquired degrees at Harvard. That invitation was obviously God’s Providence for me, because it was at that dinner party that I met my future husband Robert Swezey.On the day of our engagement I finally received an invitation for work for the U.S. government in Washington, but it was too late: I was going to get married and live with my husband in Chicago and so could not work in Washington.

Although we did move to Washington with my husband—only four years later. It was there that I met Vladimir Tolstoy. We talked about Russia with him and everything at once came alive in my memory: the dreams, desires and prayer before St. Sergius’ relics. When Vladimir invited me to join the Christian Committee in Defense of the Rights of Persecuted Orthodox Christians in USSR, I accepted it without hesitating.

What can you say about the work in that Committee?

—The Committee’s chairman was Archpriest Victor Potapov, and I worked as its secretary: I helped, translated materials, organized meetings, and prepared articles for publication in defense of the persecuted. We gave coverage to cases of persecution of believers, raised and sent money, wrote protests to the Soviet embassy, did our best to inform the world public of the persecutions against the faithful in USSR. I think my trip to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra was the crucial moment in choosing my path of life.

One day Vladimir Tolstoy asked me to become a godmother to his son Nikolai. And I answered: “But I am not Orthodox.” He said in reply: “So the time has come for you to become Orthodox!”

Maria Potapova, wife of Archpriest Viktor Potapov, was an active member of the Committee. She was the only Orthodox woman I knew at that time and so I asked her to be my godmother. She introduced me to her uncle, Bishop Basil (Rodzianko).

    In 1981, Bishop Basil received me into the Orthodox Church. And I became one of those who were concerned for Orthodox Russia with all their hearts. The Lord provided meetings with wonderful people for me, and it was the grace of God for me. I also became the secretary to Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) in 1981 and remained such until his repose in 1999. He introduced me to the world of Orthodoxy.

The bishop was experiencing material difficulties and I wrote a letter to my father: “Dad, could you possibly help Bishop Basil?” And in 1986 my father bought a flat for him where he lived and worked all his subsequent years. And this is the very flat—which later became a museum—where you and I are now.

And what did your parents think of your work and Orthodoxy?

—My parents were cradle Catholics but as the years went by they became Protestants. They were surprised with the path of life I chose and could not understand why they had such a “Russian” daughter! But they loved me very much and trusted my choice. Dad met with my dear teacher—Olga Voronova—and was deeply impressed.

Once, during one of my trips to my parents’ home in Florida, I advised them to have their house blessed according to the Orthodox rite—to call for an Orthodox priest, to celebrate a prayer service… My parents had no objections. At that time Bishop Basil was staying in Florida, too. I called him and he along with Fr. Michael blessed my parents’ house together with my parents themselves, as they were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.

My father was very impressed by the blessing of the house. He was moved by it and told me: “This was like a baptism of our house!”

    A month later my father had a heart attack; he was 75. I believe it was the Lord Who had given me the idea to have my parents’ house blessed, because my father was thus prepared for what was to happen with him soon afterwards, during his illness. And this is what happened to him: he became Orthodox!

I asked him at hospital: “What if I invite an Orthodox priest, Fr. Michael, who together with Bishop Basil blessed your house?”

And my dad agreed! He was received into the Orthodox Church, took Communion and six hours later passed away. He reposed in the Lord very peacefully. I was at his bedside and saw his eyes shining with joy! Before the end he seemed to have seen someone near him—and his eyes began to shine! He wanted to greet joyfully the one whom he saw at the final moment of his life. Then he had another sigh—and passed on.

I think Bishop Basil prayed for him. Mom wanted that a funeral service be performed for dad in Washington. She knew she would move there to live close to me. And Bishop Basil performed a funeral service for him.

Did your mother become Orthodox as well?

—A wonderful story happened to my mom as well. Several years after my father’s death, also at the age of 75, she was taken to the hospital. A surgical operation on her stomach followed, with liquid in the lungs, and a grave condition… I asked her permission to call the same priest, Fr. Michael, and she agreed. Inspired by my father’s example, she too became Orthodox and took Communion. Fr. Michael, looking at her after Communion, said, “Your mother is like a flower which suffered from drought and now feeling the influence of life-giving water!”

Indeed it was so, and one could even see it with physical eyes—not only spiritually. After Communion mother began to feel better at once. An instantaneous relief! I believe Bishop Basil prayed for my mother as well.

Soon she was discharged from the hospital and lived for twenty-one more years, reposing at the age of 96. And all those years she was an active parishioner of the Orthodox Church! And one more amazing thing! Bishop Basil continued to care for my parents even after their death! My father died in 1990 and was buried in the cemetery, in that part of it which belonged to the St. Nicholas Church. When the bishop reposed, the cathedral provided him space there and so he was buried next to my father’s grave. My mother was buried beside them.

    I feel the providence of God, telling you all this, Olga! One thing follows another! Everything is interconnected!

Yes, Marilyn, I feel this too. Your story touches me to the heart!

—My father’s Orthodox name is Vladimir, my mother’s is Elisabeth.

Eternal memory to Vladimir and Elisabeth!

Marilyn, can you tell us about your years spent near Bishop Basil?

—You must know that he hosted programs for the faithful in Russia on the BBC. I recorded his sermons and helped him with everything. He was also my spiritual father. He led me to the Orthodox way of life, because Orthodoxy is a way of life!

    Every piece of furniture in this flat, except for these chairs, was brought here by the bishop from London. The flat is relatively small, but he arranged here a home church, a bedroom, and an office. Bishop Basil was very tall and used to sleep on a folding bed with his legs partly in the corridor… The kitchen was tiny but meals were arranged there regularly, and all visitors were accommodated with love. This flat reflects his way of life. It looks very simple, but it is filled with “treasures”: relics, writings of sermons, icons…

Many of the icons were painted in London by Tamara Elchaninova (widow of the famous Russian Orthodox priest and spiritual writer Fr. Alexander Elchaninov: 1881-1934, who emigrated to France). The bishop related that T. Elchaninova would spend summers in the 1960s with their family and painted these icons.

A cross is kept in the altar of the home church. This is the cross from the grave of the bishop’s wife (she was his wife when he was a priest). She was a very talented choir director, and she led the choirs of all the churches where he served.

Bishop Basil had been a married priest for many years. His wife died in 1978, and in the following year he became a monk. Then he was invited to the USA where he was raised to the rank of archimandrite, and then consecrated a bishop. It was the first and (to date) the only consecration of a bishop at the St. Nicholas Cathedral.

    There is a story associated with each photograph and each item in this flat. Here is the photo of the bishop’s grandfather, Michael Rodzianko, chairman of the Russian State Duma of the third and the fourth convocations (1911-1917). Here is photo of two grandsons who live in England. This is his niece, Mother Marina, who became a nun in Jerusalem. She is elder sister of Maria Potapova, the wife of Archpriest Victor Potapov. Maria Potapova is my godmother. Do you see how all is interconnected?

Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) weekly serves a Liturgy in the house church. Now I am helping Metropolitan Jonah—it appears that Bishop Basil has “passed” me on to him. When Metropolitan Jonah serves here, Bishop Basil invisibly serves too because he is spiritually with us. The people who never saw Bishop Basil come here, feel his presence and get moved, tears began to flow and you do not know why…

    Do you feel spiritually connected with Bishop Basil?

—Beyond a doubt! I feel his support! He is like a part of my mind!… I feel his presence when I pray and always understand his answer. He helps, comforts…

I had two surgical operations in 1994 and 2006 and asked for his prayers so that the operations would go well and not be too painful. And both operations went very well!

The bishop had a spiritual intuition, a pastoral intuition. He opened an opportunity for me to sense the other world—the spiritual world. Here, in the West, people do not understand this; awareness of the spiritual world is not characteristic of the Western way of thinking, it was lost centuries ago. When the bishop received me into the Orthodox Church on the feast of Annunciation, 1981, I began to feel a new, spiritual dimension beside me which had not existed for me before. He developed in me the awareness of this inner, spiritual dimension.

    Bishop Basil experienced many miraculous events in his life and he used to share them with me. He and his wife deeply venerated St. Seraphim of Sarov. In Yougoslavia bishop Vasily, then still Fr. Vladimir, was arrested by the Communists and sentenced to eight years in prison. In jail he once was very exhausted, despondent and fell asleep without prayer for the first time in his life. And in a dream he saw St. Seraphim of Sarov who consoled him and said that his situation would improve soon.

Fr. Vladimir wrote this to his wife and the latter was very surprised as she was praying for her husband to St. Seraphim of Sarov, felt his presence, and the saint predicted her speedy help. And Fr. Vladimir was released after two years instead of eight!

The bishop was a very intelligent man and highly educated; he was versed in European languages. He knew English, French, and some German. He had a beautiful voice. In 1955 he was looking for a job and so he offered to the BBC: “I am a priest and I wish to do programs for believers.” He was answered: “No, programs for believers are not a part of the BBC policy.” But he changed this policy! Already after the first program a great number of letters were received from around Russia! And people thanked him!

Was Bishop Basil a strict spiritual father?

—The bishop used to say: “A loving father is he who finds a path appropriate for each spiritual child.” And his attitude to each person was defined by their spiritual strength, understanding the context of one’s life. He possessed an excellent pastoral intuition in understanding the people who came to him.

One of those people was Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov). I first met him when he was still a layman, a graduate from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography called Gosha (a diminutive form of Georgy) Shevkunov. He also visited us as an archimandrite, while Bishop Basil was still alive. He also came several years ago with his book, Everyday Saints and Other Stories, translated into English.

I love his book very much! And love Bishop Tikhon himself. He is an extraordinary man. He was born to perform great deeds in the life of the Church.

Let me tell you this interesting story. Regarding the link between the spiritual world with our world.

    When Bishop Tikhon visited the previous time, still as an archimandrite, I wanted to give him something to remember Bishop Basil by. I am in charge of Bishop Basil’s archives, and I thought, “What will I give him as a present?”

I looked around in this flat-museum. I could give him an icon, a book, a photograph, any of the relics. But suddenly I felt something, as if Bishop Basil himself told me: “Give him my bishop’s miter.”

I came up to the wardrobe in which several bishop’s miters were stored. I chose a dark red one which was the most beautiful: Bishop Basil loved it and wore it often. And I gave it to Fr. Tikhon. He put it on. He could have worn it before, as an archimandrite, but nevertheless it was a bishop’s cap which had belonged to Bishop Basil…

Maybe you can remember any other episode from Bishop Basil’s life that you witnessed?

—One day Bishop Basil learned that his sister who lived in Russia was dying of liver cancer. He wanted to see her for the last time very much and tried to get a visa to Russia. But he was refused a visa for four times. At that time the Madrid visa treaty was signed: in case of an illness of family members visas were granted. I was aware of this and wrote a complaint against the violation of the treaty.

Two weeks passed and I was called from the consulate—they suggested I make an appointment with the ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin (1919-2010). I called to the USSR embassy and told them the bishop’s surname. “Oh, Rodzianko?” I heard the reply, and I was at once put through to the ambassador. This seemed impossible, but it did happen. The ambassador made an appointment through me as the bishop’s secretary.

And so I took Bishop Basil from New York where a meeting of the Synod was then beginning. When we approached the embassy I started looking for a parking lot, and the bishop asked me, “Will you join me? I do not want to go there alone.” “Sure,” I answered.

And we entered the embassy. The embassy workers saw the bishop: tall, with his fluffy white beard, in full monastic clothing: a cassock, black klobuk and veil, and was wearing a large panagia. He was a true Russian bishop!

    We were led to the ambassador. Anatoly Dobrynin served as the USSR ambassador to America for 24 years: over that time five General Secretaries succeeded each other in USSR and in the USA—six presidents. Dobrynin was an extraordinary figure and he played an important role in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis along with stabilization of relations between the Soviet Union and the USA. He met us and cordially greeted the bishop; the latter introduced me to him and I became a witness of this historic conversation.

They spoke in Russian for about an hour. Dobrynin said to the bishop: “I feel certain you will not do anything in the USSR we don’t want you to do.” He also said: “My mother was a believer. She always blessed me when I returned to Russia from America. And she prayed for me. But now she is dead.”

The bishop replied, “She is still praying for you in heaven.” A pause followed. It lasted several moments. The ambassador’s face completely transformed. It was clear that the bishop’s words impressed him very much. Dobrynin was silent for some time and then pronounced in a changed voice, “Of course, I will grant you a visa.” And he personally gave the bishop a visa. It was evident that the words of Bishop Basil touched him deeply.

I was looking at these two mighty Russian men. And one of them really was stronger. I think the bishop was stronger.

    Were you together with the bishop until his final days?

—On the evening of September 16, 1999, I saw him alive for the last time. We drank tea together and talked. In the following morning I came back to him with the view of accompanying him to the migration service for the American citizenship ceremony (this event is usually fixed a month before). But by that moment he had already been granted another citizenship—the heavenly one. At night he had a stroke and died.

Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov) wrote a preface to the book by Bishop Basil, My Life. Reminiscences. I would like to cite a few words by Bishop Tikhon from that preface:

On September 17, 1999, Russian Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) reposed in Washington. The bishop had reached the hour from which he would embark on a journey for which he had been seriously preparing all his life… He was a true bishop and master (in Russian: ‘vladyka’)! Indeed he infinitely ruled over human souls. His unforgettable and inimitable kindness, faith and love were his indestructible and wonderful power that even today reaches over those who were vouchsafed to know Bishop Basil personally.

Thank you for your marvelous talk, dear Marilyn! What would you say in conclusion to our website’s readers?

—May the Lord help and keep you, my dears!

Source: Pravislavie.ru

*In truth, aren’t we all converts to Christ, and received into His Church?





Bede’s World

Yesterday, I met Fr. John Nankivell at my hometownduring a pilgrimage in Greece! He spoke in fluent Greek! What a kind, gentle, most erudite Father, with such a fine sense of humour! May we have his blessing! Below follows a most interesting (and subversive) interview of his on Early Christianity in the British Isles.


Fr. John Nankivell, pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Walsall, West Midlands, spent over thirty years teaching chemistry and religious studies before retiring as principal of Joseph Chamberlain College in Central Birmingham to take on a full-time ministry. His first book, Saint Wilfrid, on Wilfrid of York was published in 2002, and he has served as chaplain on a number of occasions to the annual Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona pilgrimage. In co-operation with other West Midlands parishes, the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God houses the St. Theodore of Canterbury Study Centre, running theology courses that lead to University of Wales [Lampeter] qualifications.

RTE: Fr. John, you’ve written a fascinating book on St. Wilfrid and the world he lived in. While Venerable Bede portrays him as an able advocate of the seventh-century universal Church, modern accounts of “Celtic” versus “Roman” Christianity seem far more ready to cast him as a villain. Wouldn’t we be right, though, in saying that Wilfrid, in the eye of the storm, and Bede, our chief observer, are two pivotal figures in any discussion of early Christian Britain?

FR. JOHN: There are so many exceptional figures from the sixth and seventh centuries on these islands that it is difficult to isolate one or two of them. Without Bede, ‘the first scientific genius of the Germanic people,’ as R.W. Southern calls him, we would, of course, know very little about any of them.

His homilies on the Gospels stand beside those of St. Gregory the Great as a monument of patristic writing. He was a monk and a scholar. But his scholarship was the servant of his love for the truth and the Gospel. This is why his writings were of such value to the missionaries from these lands to Germany. And it is why they endure as devotional reading to this day.

St. Wilfrid left no writings. Like Bede, he was a devout monk, whose greatest joy was to pray continuously in his cell, singing the psalms. But his abilities and his times required of him a life of ceaseless activity as a bishop, an abbot, a missionary, and someone at the forefront in dealing with matters of Church order and organization. One physical monument he has left to our day is the crypt at Hexham. It gives us some idea of his great buildings at York and Ripon, which would have inspired generations of Christians. His foundation work as a missionary in Sussex and Frisia inspired his successors and lives on in their continuing Christianity. The great monasteries he founded in central and northern England were centres of the Christian life for generations. His Vita, the first Anglo-Saxon ‘biography,’ remains an inspiration to those modern Orthodox Christians who seek to establish and nurture the faith in our multi-ethnic, multi-faith and often hostile world. But there are so many gigantic figures from these times: Columba, Aidan, Theodore, Finan, Cuthbert….

RTE: Before we delve into the world of Venerable Bede and St. Wilfrid, perhaps we should begin at an earlier point. The notion of an Orthodox Celtic Christianity co-existing in pre-schism England alongside a more “continental” model has been embraced by quite a number of Orthodox believers over the past decades. Who were the original peoples we think of as Celts, and where did they live?FR. JOHN: As I understand it, the term “Celtic” was first used in the eighteenth century to refer to language groups. In this linguistic sense, both the inhabitants of Ireland and the inhabitants of Britannia (the “British”) were people whom we now speak of as “Celtic” folk. They were bound together by similarities in language, in which there were two distinct strands: the Gaelic Goedelic branch, and the Brythonic. The Irish and the Scots (who are Irish in origin) use the Gaelic, and the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons (of Brittany in France) use the Brythonic form.

Many people know that it was the Celts of Asia Minor, the Galatians, for whom St. Paul wrote his Epistle. There were also Celts in Galicia in northwest Spain, which had connections with the British Church. There are still many place names referring to Celts in central and western Europe: Gaul itself, Gallia, and the Pays de Galles, the French name for Wales. The name Gall (Celtic) turns up all through Europe – even today the Turkish football team Galatasaray owes its name to the Galatians.

Dates are complicated though, as there were large movements of Celtic peoples before the Romanization of Britain. No one knows when they arrived on these islands, but it was a long time before the Christian period of Venerable Bede and St. Wilfrid. Here in England we had the native British, the Irish (the Scotti) both in Ireland (Hibernia) and in northern Britain, and the Picts further north. The term Scotti came eventually to refer only to the Irish settled in north Britain. When these Scots were eventually united with the Picts, the whole area became known as Scotland.

The Picts may or may not have been Celtic. We don’t know what their language was. About the Picts themselves, very little is known, and nearly every assertion made about them is open to challenge. Their lands were never part of the Roman Empire, and the great walls of Antoninus and Hadrian were built to keep them at bay.

So, when the Romans came here to Northumbria where Bede later lived, the peoples they found were these British peoples. Although the Romans obviously structured the local government around their own cities, they also accommodated these tribal areas and some of the British names were kept by the incoming Anglo-Saxons, such as Bernicia and Deira, the two parts of Northumbria.

Roman Britain

RTE: Many of us have an idea of Roman and post-Roman Britain as being cut off from the rest of Europe, and rather wild.FR. JOHN: This is a common idea, but it’s not true. From 63 BC to 410 AD the Roman roads were open and well-traveled, and Britain was solidly a part of the Empire. A couple of hundred years ago there was a view that once the Romans withdrew, society fell into shambles and chaos under Pictish invasions. In fact, there’s evidence for marauding Picts, and also marauding Germans. There is good evidence that the British invited the Germanic tribes to help them fight the Picts in the north, and that is one way in which they came. But, there is a lot of debate about this, and some speculation that Germanic peoples came not only as military mercenaries, but also as agricultural settlers, motivated by rising sea levels which forced them to look for new land.

Of course, the Roman troops themselves were multi-ethnic, and many of them would have retired here. They would have been pensioned off with land, and married local British women. Along Hadrian’s wall you have evidence of all the religious life that was current in Rome at that time, quite substantial Mithraic temple remains, as well as Christian elements.

RTE: When the Romans withdrew in 410, did Christianity leave with them, or was there a recognizable tradition left?

FR. JOHN: Not only were things left, but Christianity was well-established.

The Romans had been in Britain about 500 years. We don’t know when Christianity arrived here, but it was certainly aided by the fact that this was part of the Roman Empire, and there is no reason to believe that it was very different from any other part of the Roman Empire, or much further behind in its Church development. We simply don’t have the names of those very early Christians and missionaries; we can’t say that a certain person is the “Apostle to Britain.” Of course, by Orthodox tradition, Aristobulus, one of the seventy disciples of the Lord, is given that title in the Orthodox Menaion, but we don’t have British sources for this, nor does Bede refer to it. It is a Greek Orthodox tradition.

RTE: Then St. Alban, the first martyr of Britain, would be one of our earliest known Christians?FR. JOHN: Yes. Some date St. Alban as early third century, some as mid-third century, some as a victim of the early fourth-century Diocletian persecutions.

A case can be made for each of the three dates, as there was an early Christian persecution in the 220’s, then the 251 Decian persecutions centered in northern Africa, followed by Diocletian’s. The weight of scholarly opinion shifts back and forth over the most likely date of Alban’s martyrdom. Presently, the later date seems to be favoured.

We also have Julian and Aaron, the martyrs of Caerleon, in what is now south Wales, who are mentioned by Bede as being martyred in the same persecution as St. Alban. Some people take the fact of the name Aaron to suggest a Jewish presence here, saying that Christianity may have come through the Jewish communities, as it did in much of the rest of the Roman Empire, but the only evidence for this is the name.

The real archaeological and historical evidence for early Christianity begins in the third century, and there are important fourth-century finds. The archaeological work that has been done in the past fifty years has very much increased our knowledge.

What is certain is that by the time of the Council of Arles in 314 there were three British bishops. We don’t know where these bishops came from, although it is possible that one came from York. We can say, though, that by the early fourth century, shortly after Constantine embraced Christianity, there was probably a full ecclesiastical and diocesan structure here, most probably based on the twelve Roman provinces.

In Ireland things were more complex and unclear. In the fifth century Pope Celestine sent Palladius to be bishop of the Irish. He appears to have been active in the South. At the same time, the Briton, St. Patrick, carried out his work in the North. By the sixth century there was an extensive and vigorous series of monasteries, around which the Church was largely organized. According to Bede, the bishops were under the authority of the abbots, and this has led some to assert that Ireland had no diocesan structure.

There were probably differences across the country, and a full traditional structure came into being only over a long period.

Evidence of Early Christianity in Britain

St. Bede
St. Bede

RTE: When you speak of archaeological evidence for early Christianity, what has been found?FR. JOHN: There are some very important things in the British Museum. From Lullingstone, a village south of London, the museum now has Christian frescoes from a house church. These excavations show an active and growing Christian community; the frescoes portray figures standing in prayer, and the Chi-Rho in plaster. It’s in an amazing state of preservation and has been moved to the British Museum.

Another important find was from Hinton St. Mary, in Dorset, a fourthcentury mosaic: the Lord with the Chi-Rho, also now in the British Museum. Other work has been done, for example, at the site of one of the main Roman cities, Uriconium in Shropshire near the Wrekin. Wrekin itself is a British pre-Roman name. It was one of the four or five largest cities in Britain and, although there is not much left above ground, recent surveys seem to show major building having been undertaken in the fourth century – either a large basilica or a Roman building turned into a basilica, which suggests the presence of an important British bishop in the fourth century.

The written evidence is actually later, in the fifth to sixth centuries. One of our earliest sources is Gildas (+c. 570), called the Wise by the Church, who is commemorated in several western Orthodox calendars. As an historical source Gildas is very frustrating because his chief concern is to berate the Christians of his time. He was a British author writing for a British audience – in Latin, of course, which was the written language of communication. Most of his work consists of Old Testament quotations, including quite a lot from the Prophet Jeremiah, that Gildas freely applies to the kings of his time, saying what terrible people they are and how destruction will come upon them. He also attacks the bishops, and the impression you get from Gildas is of a wellestablished, middle-aged, flabby church that needs sorting out. So it seems to have been a long established church by the fifth or sixth century.

St. Aidan.
St. Aidan.

Bede says that his History of the English Church and People is an attempt to give good examples of good men to improve us, so there is much there to admire, but in a private letter to Egbert, the Bishop at York, two or three years before Bede’s death, Bede, like Gildas, speaks of a similar sort of corruption and lack of interest on the part of some of the clergy for their people. This was a major source of concern for Bede, and when he writes to the bishop all these things come out. He doesn’t wash his own era’s dirty linen in public, but he makes use of Gildas’ in his history.So there was an established British Church rather early, but when we talk about what it “was like,” we are talking about a church that was the same in fundamentals as the Gallic Church or the Spanish Church, the Italian Church, or the Church in Asia Minor… What was the difference between them? What was the difference, for example, between Irenaus of Lyons and anyone else in the Christian world? Obviously there were distinctive characteristics about Irenaean theology and his link with Asia Minor, but it was all part of the universal Church.

Another thing about the British Church that shows the extent to which things had developed, was the response to the Pelagian[1] heresy. Pelagius (the only British person to turn up in early patristic literature) spent much of his time in Rome, and in fact I think it’s Jerome that talks about him being “stuffed with Irish porridge,” which has misled some into thinking that he was Irish. Bishop Germanus of Auxerre in Burgundy (+448) was sent to Britain twice to help sort out the heresy. British representatives had participated in earlier councils, as well as in the reaction to the heresy, so Britain was obviously part of the main-stream Christian world.

RTE: You have said that Bede’s History of the English Church and People is so rich that it can be read over and over again, and is our basic text for the period. By Bede’s lifetime, were the original British inhabitants still there, had they been pushed out, or did they simply intermarry with the new Angle and Saxon settlers?

FR. JOHN: The Germanic peoples settled in Britain in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, from tribal groups that had settled along the coasts of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands. They came first as mercenaries and economic migrants, but increasingly as adversaries and invaders. The Welsh, Scots and Irish called them Saxons or “Sassenachs”.

The rest of the world now knows their descendants as the English. Angles and Saxons formed the major groups and “Anglo-Saxon” is the term generally used to refer to them.

In the mid-nineteenth century there was a view, sparked by a quote of Gildas about the “ferocious Saxon,” of militarily superior Germanic peoples coming in and driving the local people (the British) west into Cornwall and Wales, leaving the Angles and Saxons (the “English”). There was bitter warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the British, and many of the British who fled before the Northumbrian sword would have seen their churches taken over by the newly converted English. Even when both the British and the Anglo-Saxon (“English”) kingdoms were Christian, there are late seventh-, early eighth-century letters showing that they so distrusted each other that they wouldn’t eat off of the same plates.

There was also a general British move westwards to the mountain fastnesses to live separately, but the situation was more complex than this. There was probably a much stronger British presence left in Northumbria than is usually assumed, and Bede himself may be partly responsible for this under-representation of the British in the development of the Church. Although he consistently attacks them for failing to evangelize the English, there is every evidence to show that the Anglo-Saxon tribes were steadily being Christianized, but we don’t know by whom. All that Bede tells us about the Hwicce people of the Severn valley, for example, is that Wilfrid consecrated Oftfor as their bishop at Worcester. So, if they weren’t yet Christian, why did they need a bishop? This is one area where the silent evidence is very strong for a British Christian presence, strong enough to lead to the conversion of the incoming Angles.

Bede leaves us with the impression that the British were pretty much gone, and that the British churches had been taken over by the English Anglo-Saxons, as they were baptized. My guess is that there were British still around and that there had been a lot of intermingling. There is also some evidence that some of the British, including a bishop, were going to Galicia. This may have been on pilgrimage, but there were also people emigrating because of the Anglo-Saxon presence.

Formative Missions and Early Liturgies

RTE: So, in the sixth to seventh centuries in which Bede is writing, it seems we have a few very visible missionaries: St. Augustine of Canterbury sent by Pope Gregory the Great from Rome to southern Britain, and St. Paulinus who, as part of that same mission, baptized in Northumbia as well; St. Columba who left Ireland to found his monastery on Iona off the west coast of Scotland, and whose disciple, St. Aidan of Iona, in turn founded the great monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast; and St. Wilfrid, who having received his monastic formation under Aidan, went to Rome and brought back more of the practices of the world-wide Church, founding influential monasteries in Northumbria and later becoming a bishop himself.

St. Cuthbert
St. Cuthbert

FR. JOHN: Yes, and it’s important to remember that these were all strands of one intermingled Church culture. The Irish Aidan, for example, arrived in Northumbria without a knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, and in the early days the Anglo-Saxon King Oswald (who had been exiled on Iona) would interpret for him. In time, the Irish became bilingual and some of the English monks became fluent in Irish. Many Angles, including St. Chad of Mercia and his brother, St. Cedd, who brought Christianity to Essex, retained a great love for Irish ways and carried Ionan Christianity well beyond the boundaries of Northumbria. Wilfrid, who is often portrayed as an opponent of the Irish, is a more complex example of the same tradition.There is really almost nothing in the first 700 years that we can point out now that is specifically Irish or British, other than individuals. If you pick any passage from one of Bede’s sermons, for example, without knowing who had written it, you could be reading any of the Greek or Latin fathers.

Another remarkable Northumbrian Angle was St. Benedict Biscop, who was a great traveler to the Mediterranean world, where he collected books, icons, and relics for his monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, Bede’s own monastery. He persuaded both cantors and icon painters to come to Northumbria and teach his monks, and Biscop created one of the West’s great libraries at Jarrow, where Bede, among others, gained encyclopedic knowledge. St. Wilfrid not only went to Rome, but was also the first missionary to Frisia (northern Holland), and his disciple St. Willibrord came after him to establish Christianity there. A century later the well-known St. Boniface of Crediton was active in Germany. There would be a huge demand for manuscripts from Bede’s Jarrow monastery by the Germans, and Boniface himself wrote saying, “Please send these, I need them.” They used Bede’s History quite extensively, and there is speculation about what its importance would have been in the Christianization of the Germanic peoples. Some of these manuscripts still exist and seem to have been done in haste, with mistakes in spelling, etc.

RTE: It’s quite common for Orthodox to speak of missionaries having consistently translated the gospels and service books into local languages, but, that wasn’t the tradition in the West, was it? There wasn’t a written British, Welsh, Breton, or Irish ecclesiastical language. The liturgy and services would have all been in Latin.

FR. JOHN: Yes, always in Latin. The many small scraps of British liturgical manuscripts that we have from those early centuries are all in Latin, and probably all follow the Roman usage. They are very recognizable: “Let us lift up our hearts,” “And with thy spirit,” “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus…” There is nothing here that is different or distinctive. They were part of the family of early western liturgies. The earliest fairly complete liturgical manuscript we have is from the eighth century.

In studying these fragments, liturgiologists may find small differences, but it is the same with our English Orthodox liturgies now. From place to place in the English-speaking world, we have small divergences of usage or expression, but there is nothing that shows a distinctive theology. We have no records of liturgical differences or of discussions about local usages, which indicates that, liturgically, everything was settled.

The earliest bit of non-Latin writing that we have is from the eighthcentury Lichfield Gospels. It is in Welsh. There is speculation that this manuscript originated in South Wales at Llandeilo Fawr, which means “the great holy place of St. Teilo,” and was probably a church. It is called Llantwit Major in English. St. Teilo had a big school there; he was contemporary with St. David of Wales, late fifth-early sixth centuries. The book is called the Lichfield Gospels because it is presently in Lichfield, England.

Seventh-Century Ireland

RTE: And what was the relationship of the Irish to the British, Anglo- Saxons, and the Picts at this time?FR. JOHN: The Irish influence in seventh-century Northumbria was profound. The relations between Ireland and Britain go back to the earliest use of the seaways between Ulster and Argyll, between Wexford and southwest Wales, but this influence went both ways and we know that the early British (and this includes the area that is now Wales) were quite significant as missionaries, particularly along the coast of Ireland in the fourth and fifth centuries. We don’t have many details about their actual activity, but we do have names from the dedication of churches. The best-known British missionary is St. Patrick, the deacon’s son snatched by pirates from Britain and sold into slavery in fifth-century Ireland, who later returned as a free man intent on winning his pagan masters for Christ. The evidence of early churches named after certain saints links St. Patrick with Ulster and northeast Ireland. We also know of St. Patrick’s connection with Gaul, and interestingly, near St. Germanus’ relics in Auxerre, France, is an early fresco that the local people like to believe is Bishop Germanus blessing St. Patrick. In fact, there are some textual links between the two.

There were also Christians in the south of Ireland from early times. In 431 the Pope sent Bishop Palladius from Gaul to Ireland to organize an already existing church. Church dedications link this mission with Wicklow and with southwest Wales; it’s from Britain that the southern Irish had received their Christianity and learned their Latin.

Having received their faith from Britain, the Irish church became the most flourishing part of western Christendom in the sixth century. People came to Ireland from all over Europe to pray and study in the numerous monasteries, and Irish missionaries carried the faith across Europe, particularly to the Germanic kingdoms that had come into being after the collapse of Roman rule.

The great missionary movement from Ireland began in the sixth century.

The most famous examples of this are the two saints Columbanus and Columba, both named after the dove and noted for their ascetic life, but both men of authority and deep learning. Columbanus’ mission was to the Franks of Gaul and the Lombards of north Italy; Columba’s to the Picts.

St. Wilfrid
St. Wilfrid

One of the reasons St. Columba left Ireland in 563 and founded his monastery on the tiny island of Iona, off Mull, was to be a missionary to the Picts, whom St. Ninian, working from Whithorn (now southwest Scotland) had first preached to in the fourth century. In fact, Columba was going to an existing Irish kingdom, Dalriata, of which Iona was a part. Next to it was a British kingdom, Strathclyde, and north of that was the Pictish Kingdom, both southern and northern Picts. By the mid-seventh century, the Picts were Christian, and as southern Pictland was part of Northumbria for a time, St. Wilfrid served as bishop for Picts in the north of his diocese.Columba’s Iona became the centre of a major monastic commonwealth stretching from north Ireland, where daughter monasteries were founded at Derry, Durrow, Tiree in the Hebrides, Pictland and Northumbria. In 616, half a century after its foundation, the Northumbrian Prince Oswald came to live at Iona, and by Wilfrid’s time, there was no need to travel to Ireland, as Oswald had invited the Irish Aidan to Northumbria and it was at Aidan’s monastery at Lindisfarne that Wilfrid was first instructed in monasticism.

Besides the followers of Columba, such as Aidan and Cuthbert in Lindisfarne and Northumbria, there were already south Irish missionaries in Britain, such as St. Fursey in East Anglia, who were independent of Iona.

But, East Anglia was also influenced by clergy from Gaul, Northumbria, and Mercia and of course, the British, who are overlooked in all of the literature.

RTE: Authors who support the idea of very distinct differences between Celtic Christianity and that of the rest of England and the continent, often cite Egyptian and Coptic influences on art and monasticism in Christian Ireland. What do you think of this?

FR. JOHN: I think the evidence for artistic influence from the eastern Mediterranean is clear, and to be expected from the importance of the searoutes we discussed earlier on. The swirls on the cover of St. Cuthbert’s pocket Gospel book, buried with him in his coffin, are often linked with Coptic design. Monasticism had its origins in the wilderness of Palestine and the deserts of Egypt, and spread out from there. The influence of St. Athanasius’ life of St. Antony in its Latin translation was crucial in the spread of the monastic ideal to the West. Doubtless there were direct connections between the monastics of the East and the Irish, as there were with southern Gaul, for example. This is rather a point of similarity between Irish traditions and those of the Continent, than of distinctiveness.

RTE: In your book on St. Wilfrid, you mention several very influential Northumbrian women. Did the role of women in Northumbria and Ireland differ from the rest of the Church?

FR. JOHN: Women were of the utmost importance in the Church of seventhcentury Britain. I tried to bring this out in the book on St. Wilfrid. Queen Eanfled was very much St. Wilfrid’s spiritual mother in his formative years, and continued to influence him throughout her life. Queen Bertha probably did as much to bring the Gospel to the Germanic people of Kent as did Augustine. The role of these powerful queens in the policy of the newlyformed Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was substantial. Better known, of course, is St. Hilda, whose monastery at Whitby was a training ground for future clergy, including bishops; she was very much a teacher of the teachers. There are other examples of such ‘double’ monasteries, that is both a monastery for women and one for men, under the joint direction of an abbess. And it was always an abbess, not an abbot. These occurred in the Frankish areas of the continent. Other examples of such important women leaders were St. Mildred on the isle of Thanet in Kent, and St. Milburgha in Shropshire. This leadership role of women seems to have been a particular feature of the Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic Christians. They also played an important part in the Anglo-Saxon missions to Germany.

RTE: What can we say about the early Church in the area that is now Wales?

FR. JOHN: We know of St. Samson, St. Beuno, St. David, St. Illtyd and St. Petroc, and others who were active in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany (northern France) in the sixth to seventh centuries. When the Anglo-Saxon pagans arrived in Britain, they found a well-established British church with its bishops, martyrs, monastics, missionaries, its hermitages, monasteries, parish churches, liturgical traditions, relics and iconography.

This we discussed earlier. Increasingly, the centre of gravity of the ancient British church shifted towards the West. There was little Anglo-Saxon influence on Wales and Cornwall. But, as I said before, the British presence in ‘England’ continued.

Orthodox Rome

Lastingham Crypt
Lastingham Crypt

RTE: In your writing and talks you identify seventh- and eighth-century Rome as part of the Byzantine world, and have remarked that Rome was actually holding Orthodoxy in a purer form than in the East, where iconoclasm was steadily taking root. This is something to ponder, that Rome was guarding the Orthodox tradition…FR. JOHN: …as Rome always had to. Most of the heresies were eastern inventions, weren’t they? Rome might not have been as inventive as eastern Christendom, but it held a clear Orthodox traditional position.

Going back for a moment to the previous century, St. Augustine of Canterbury had come in 597, sent by St. Gregory the Great (+603). Gregory was an important and major figure, who reformed the whole of northern Italy after the Lombard invasions. Virtually all of Europe was under Germanic influence: the Lombards in north Italy, the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes in Britain, the Franks in France, and the Visigoths in Spain. Following the Lombard invasions came famine and plague; everything fell apart. It was St. Gregory, as pope of Rome and of patrician background, who was able to bring about the revival of Italy – through the movement of grain, the feeding of the people, the rebuilding of cities and churches. He not only gave all of his family wealth for this physical revival, but he took a very active interest in the liturgical and monastic life of Rome and the development of the Church’s mission.

The Persian invasions of the Holy Land (they took Jerusalem in 614) led to a large number of Syrian, Palestinian and Greek exiles seeking refuge in Rome, where they established monasteries and other institutions. Rome became a place of great ethnic and linguistic diversity, with a variety of liturgical and ecclesiastical traditions.

Also, 621 marked the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, which was the beginning of Muslim influence. Within a decade of his death, Muslims had moved through the Middle East and North Africa. This is when many Christians, including Theodore of Tarsus, the Syrian monk whom the pope named the first archbishop of Canterbury, fled to Italy. In 641 a Greek from Jerusalem became pope, and many of the popes of the following century were also Greek or Syrian. There were quite important Greek and Syrian monasteries in Rome at this time, and Greek elements were introduced into the Roman liturgy.

There were also theological exiles in Rome from the East. In his attempts to reconcile the Monophysite Christians of Egypt and gain their support in his conflicts with the Persians and Arabs, Emperor Heraclius involved himself in theology by attempting to impose an unorthodox, compromise doctrine known as Monothelitism[2] on the Church. He persecuted the doctrine’s opponents, such as the great theologian of the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor, and many of them also made their way to Rome. The Lateran Council of 649 in Rome dealt with the question of Monothelitism, which was condemned in 681 in Constantinople by the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Many of the seventh-century popes used their position to create impressive churches, such as St. Pancras. St. Peter’s was refurbished and great secular buildings like the Senate house were converted into churches. Much of the architecture and iconography of these new buildings was the work of Byzantine artists, and the city took on an appearance not unlike Ravenna and Constantinople.

When Wilfrid went to Rome in 702-3 to plead his case over his uncanonical deposition, he appeared in front of Pope John, a Greek. The Greek fathers of the council discussed the charges in Greek, in proceedings lasting over seventy sessions and four months. His appeal to Rome was fitting.

If Wilfrid had been in Asia Minor, he would have appealed to Constantinople; a bishop in his position in Syria would have appealed to Antioch. Protestant historians who posit an early British church independent of Rome and castigate Wilfrid for seeking to bring Britain into subservience to the pope are as far from the mark as those Roman Catholics who use Wilfrid’s appeal to Rome as evidence for a full-blown doctrine of papal primacy in the seventh century.

There was a unity of practice and understanding in the seventh century that’s difficult for us to appreciate now. It was possible for someone holding the office of bishop to be an Irishman in Gaul, a Syrian in Rome, or a Greek in Britain. For instance, Bishop Agilbert, a Frank who became a bishop in Gaul, then went to Ireland to study the Scriptures. From Ireland he went to England as bishop to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and later returned to Gaul to accept the bishopric of Paris, which he held from 664 until his death. His life is an example of the rich diversity of Christian influence on Britain – Irish, Gallic, Frankish, and Roman.

Agilbert was also the bishop who ordained Wilfrid to the priesthood in his own monastery at Ripon and brought him to the fore at the meeting often called the Synod of Whitby in 664.

The Synod of Whitby

Escomb Church
Escomb Church

RTE: That brings us to the Synod itself, which seems to be what most contemporary writings about a Celtic church call its “death knell.” What were the real differences between the Irish-British-Welsh churches and the Roman or Anglo-Saxon usage that were settled at the Council?FR. JOHN: They were two of the three things that Augustine of Canterbury had brought up at his meeting with the British bishops: the dating of Easter and the form of the monastic tonsure – that is, the way in which monks cut their hair after taking their vows. The completion of baptism by the bishop, probably meaning chrismation, was the third thing, but that was not raised at Whitby. The dating of Easter was by far the most serious issue.

In regards to chrismation, what is fairly clear from the texts we do have from the West, and in the Byzantine rite for baptism, is that virtually all of the churches allowed the priest to administer chrismation, in fact they expected it to be so. But Rome was distinct in saying that the sacrament should be given by the bishop.

RTE: As it remains today. A Catholic bishop administers confirmation parish by parish, to groups of young people around age 12-14.

FR. JOHN: Yes. The Anglicans follow this as well, and it’s quite easy to see how this came about. No bishop could attend every baptism, so they had to split the sacrament and put the chrismation off until he came around. Over the centuries, it was pushed further and further back.

That was the third point and interestingly, at the Synod of Whitby where the first two practices were decided, this third question was not even mentioned. Yet, we find Cuthbert, who is often claimed as an honorary Celt, going around and completing baptisms following the Roman practice. Ireland itself didn’t change to the Roman confirmation practice until the eleventh or twelfth centuries. This is another instance where the divisions between the “Celtic” and “Roman” contingents were not so clear-cut.

The main purpose of the Synod of Whitby was to resolve the question of the date of Easter. It was important that the unity of the Church should be particularly clear on the most important festival of the year. As it was, those who followed the “Irish” calendar – and they included King Oswy of Northumbria and the monastics of Lindisfarne and Whitby, whom his father King Oswald had brought from Iona – could be celebrating the Resurrection, while those who followed the “Roman” date, including Oswy’s queen, Eanfled, were still keeping the Lenten fast. This was bad for the unity of the Church, but it also caused political disunity in Northumbria.

Oswy summoned both political and religious leaders to the Synod, as Constantine and other Christian rulers had before him.

Bede gives us a rather full account of the proceedings, with St. Wilfrid acting as spokesman for the universal “Roman” date kept by the Church throughout the world, and St. Colman, Bishop of Northumbria, for the “Irish” date, which traditionally had the authority of the Apostle and Evangelist John, and was used by the northern Irish, St. Columba, and the Iona monastics. (Although, even within the “Irish” usage, there were a variety of observances.) Interestingly, this was not the practice of all of the Irish. The southern Irish had already changed to the universal Church dating of Easter. St. Wilfrid did not deny the sanctity of Columba, nor did he think that the Ionan way of keeping Easter was seriously harmful if they were unaware of the rest of the Church’s unanimity in observing the universal date. Once they were aware, however, that they alone were keeping another date, they should acquiesce.

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

Most of those on the “Irish” side agreed to use the universal date of Easter, including St. Cuthbert, St. Hilda, St. Bosa, Sts. Cedd and Chad. Only Bishop Colman and his monks (both English and Irish), out of loyalty to St. Columba and their tradition, could not submit to the decision and left for Ireland. This wasn’t a matter of ethnicity, but of where people stood on the calendar question.It wasn’t an issue after that. Even the northern Irish, to whom Colman and his monks went after leaving Northumbria, voluntarily changed their practice within fifty years. Iona itself adopted the universal dating of Easter in 716 and Whitby was only resurrected as an issue by Protestant reformers at the time of the Reformation.

It’s extraordinary how people now get so worked up about the Synod of Whitby. It would be understandable if it were about something fundamental, like the sermons that have gone on in Durham in recent years, with an Anglican bishop speaking of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones.” This is an important divergence from the fundamentals of the Faith, but how a monk cuts his hair is not.

RTE: Orthodox Christians who see the Council of Whitby as an Armageddon that stifled a great spiritual tradition often don’t know that after the Russian Revolution in 1917, one of the conditions set by the newly independent state of Finland to recognize Orthodoxy as one of its national churches, was that the Finnish Orthodox would exclusively use the Gregorian calendar.

FR. JOHN: Which is a radical change because the Gregorian calendar is now in conflict with Nicea, although that wasn’t done deliberately. Still, once or twice a decade, Pascha celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar falls either on or before the Jewish Passover, not after, as the Nicean Council decreed it must. Pascha must follow the Old Passover. It cannot coincide or precede it. Moving Pascha to the Gregorian calendar was a fundamental change, it broke the ancient practice of the Church, whereas Whitby brought all into unity.

The Idea of a Celtic Church

RTE: Why do you think people are so drawn to this idea of a Celtic church that had a separate, almost otherworldly, existence? Is it because we live in a technological age that we long for a more wholesome and natural way of life?FR. JOHN: I think there is a lot in that, and if you read the Frenchman Ernest Renan and the Englishman Matthew Arnold, they make a radical distinction between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons – the Celt being nature-loving, mystical, spiritual and the Anglo-Saxon being organized, efficient and technocratic.

They even talk about industrialization, but from the standpoint of their own nineteenth-century anti-industrialization movement, which they project back onto these two peoples. What’s even more bizarre, of course, is that St. Cuthbert is always presented as a great representative of the Celtic tradition, but in fact, he was an Englishman, an Anglo-Saxon…

RTE: …who was quite in agreement with the Synod of Whitby.

FR. JOHN: Yes. And Aidan, on the other hand, who was one of the “real Celts” from Iona, was running around the peninsula organizing: converting kings, baptizing people, setting up churches, like any good “Anglo-Saxon.”

If you adhere to this notion of “Anglo-Saxon” versus “Celtic” Christianity, then you also have to decide what to think about Irish and British Christianity. Are they, or are they not the same thing? There was a definite relationship between Britain and Ireland but the Irish practices weren’t always the same as the British, but they were both Celts…. So what is this “Celtic Christianity?” It’s a confusing and not very helpful term. Neither the Irish/Scotti, nor the British/Welsh/Bretons would have ever thought of themselves as belonging to a “Celtic church” that was somehow separate from the rest of the Church.

So this is partly unclear thinking, and partly a creation of Anglican reformers in the sixteenth century who had to demonstrate a pre-Roman Church in Britain of which they were the continuation, in order to show that the medieval Catholic period had been a disruption of that. So Wilfrid, who was the spokesman for the Orthodox Easter at Whitby, was seen as “Roman” and demonized. The Celtic overlay came later.

RTE: A strong affinity with nature, and a less austere, more “warm-hearted” approach often glosses our modern view of the Celtic-speaking monks, but when one reads the early penitentials and monastic rules, there was also a rigorous asceticism – monks standing in prayer through the night up to their necks in ice-cold water, arduous fasting and strict penance for sin.

And, their prayers and poetry often seem to be a request for protection against the forces of nature. It wasn’t an endless summer.

FR. JOHN: Yes. Some of the earliest poetry we have is British, from the eighth, ninth, tenth centuries, although it could be based on something earlier.

In this, there is a strong emphasis on nature, on the Incarnation and the Resurrection, all of which makes them particularly close to the Fathers of the East. But, there is nothing in the documents up to the time of Bede that tells us much about them. As you say, we have these monastic rules which are very austere, and say traditional sorts of things about humility and so on, just as you would find in the sayings of the Egyptian desert fathers. Also, you had the centrality of the office, and above all, the psalms.

In many monasteries and hermitages the entire psalter was said twice a day, often from memory.

All of these things differ from this modern view that they were rather relaxed about rules. Nor, of course, was St. Cuthbert, who is often held up as a prototype Celtic monk. In Bede’s life of Cuthbert, Bede describes his very firm treatment of the monks when he becomes abbot of Lindisfarne.

He expected the monks to follow a much stricter rule than they had up to that time and there was a great deal of animosity towards him because of the changes he was demanding. When things got very fierce in the chapter meeting, he just got up and walked out. And he did that every day – walked out of the meeting – until they capitulated. Although there is a great emphasis on his hermit life, he was quite an attentive abbot.It’s a little upsetting to find our own Orthodox people taking these passionate and one-sided views. It doesn’t really matter if a saint is Celtic, British, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, Greek or Syrian, if there is something in his life we can learn from. There’s a new book out, The Lost Saints of Britain by Ian Thompson, about the “Celtic” saints who have been lost because of the nasty Anglo-Saxons and a horrible Greek named Theodore who tried to destroy the Celtic tradition!

And why was it so important in this new book to vilify St. Wilfrid, for example, to the extent of putting a special appendix, a psychoanalysis saying he suffered from sexual repression as evidenced by his cold baths? Even if it were true, does this mean that everyone who takes a cold bath is repressed? The greatest cold bather was Cuthbert, standing up to his neck in freezing water. So did many of the Irish ascetics and one of the Jarrow monks who stood in the Tyne with ice floating around him.

RTE: Could you say a bit more about this horrible Greek? We often miss the point that possibly the greatest archbishop of Canterbury was neither British nor Roman, but a Syriac-speaking monk from Antioch – a highly educated and saintly eastern Church Father.

FR. JOHN: Theodore was born in Tarsus, educated in Antioch, probably studied in Constantinople and later emigrated to Rome after the Persian invasions. He was sixty-six or sixty-seven when he was sent by the pope to be the archbishop of Britain, and he died twenty-one years later. He was the expert in the west on Monothelitism.

The Lateran Council that dealt with the Monothelite heresy, had been called in 649, and the Pope assembled evidence from all over the western world. He asked Theodore to draw up a statement of faith for the council. He set up a famous school in Canterbury that Bede is very complimentary about, where he taught Greek and Latin.

We have fragments of some of his learned biblical commentaries and analysis. We are sure they are his because they were written by someone writing in Latin as a second language, who knew Syriac and the eastern Christian world. His geographical and horticultural notes about the Near East are unmistakable.

He had great authority with the Anglo-Saxon kings, and he created a diocesan structure here, to properly attend to people’s spiritual needs. In his twenty- one years as archbishop, he created a diocesan structure so well-tuned to the diverse cultural and geographical realities of the country that many of the dioceses he created remain in place to this day. He was the first primate of England to hold councils of the whole church to establish an ordered and common pattern of life in all the disparate kingdoms of the land.

RTE: And taking into account what Gildas, and later Bede in his letter to the bishop, said about the state of the Church, perhaps this was necessary.

FR. JOHN: Yes. Of course, you can also find evidence for some for the things people sometimes criticize, because Archbishop Theodore was trying to bring about a uniform ecclesiastical practice among these small kingdoms and diverse peoples, and there were quite strong rules and canons.

RTE: Going back to claims for a distinctly separate Celtic church, I remember Dr. Tarek Mitri, an Orthodox professor from Lebanon, saying that while we seem to be growing more alike in our tastes and preferences on a global level, we are actually breaking down into smaller and smaller groups as a way to locate ourselves, and this often results in a search for ambiguous “roots” or identities. For instance, now in the Balkans, there are ethnic groups which are trying to reconstruct their histories to reflect what they would like to believe about themselves.

FR. JOHN: And, of course, the internet makes it possible to create a substantial community of one or two thousand people without actually meeting them. Some people inhabit that world.

RTE: Also, after Protestant reformers minimized prayer to the Mother of God and the saints and prohibited the veneration of relics and prayers for the dead, it is understandable that some contemporary Protestants feel the need to compensate for this lost spiritual contact by emphasizing the “warm-hearted” and “green” aspects of early British and Irish Christianity.

We often don’t realize that early texts such as Bede’s History of the English Church and People, or the Life of St. Columba by Adamnan, are richer and more satisfying than what has been written about as “Celtic” in the past fifty years. Going back to these contemporary writings is a tonic, like refreshing oneself with the Gospel after a spell of cloudy theology.

FR. JOHN: I think you have touched on another very important source for these romantic views of the ‘Celtic church.’

RTE: Yet it is difficult to completely renounce this sense of “differentness” that many of us have felt in what we’ve thought of as the Celtic church.

Although the romantic view has been overstated, can you sum up the truly distinctive characteristics of Christianity in Celticspeaking lands?

FR. JOHN: I think most of them have arisen in our discussions: a love of the monastic life with all its rigours, its discipline, and its harmony with the created world; the centrality of a life of prayer, based on the psalms; a commitment to the spreading of the faith; an emphasis on the Incarnation and the Resurrection of our Lord; a devotion to learning; and a creative and open artistic imagination that was able to develop a rich harmony of its own traditions with those of the wider Christian world.

But I think that if one dips into those great illuminated manuscripts, they show the unity and harmony of the northern Christian world in Bede’s time. For instance, some of the wellknown “Celtic” pages in the Lindisfarne Gospel are not Irish, but Anglo- Saxon, and the monks producing these illuminated manuscripts in monastery workshops would have known and included earlier Christian styles, such as in the Roman mosaics along Hadrian’s Wall.

There was also a strong seventh-century Mediterranean influence on the texts that I mentioned earlier; some of this influence was from Rome and Gaul, and some from Middle Eastern and North African exiles who had gathered in Rome. Also, you’ve got the strange depictions of animals, elongated dogs and other creatures that are quite distinctly Germanic, and the threelegged, so-called, triskeles that are Irish. There was mutual influence here. There is uncertainty about where many of these manuscripts actually originated.

The Book of Kells could have come from a Northumbrian workshop via Iona. It contains an icon of the Mother of God that is pure Byzantine. So, in all these illuminated manuscripts you have the Romano-Greek Mediterranean influence, the Germanic influence, and the Irish influence, all beautifully synthesized. That is the reality and the beauty of the Church in this country – it had all of these elements.

30 / 03 / 2009

[1]Pelagianism: A heresy constructed by Pelagius, a fifth -century British lay ascetic, and Celestius, a priest, who denied the inheritance of the sin of Adam by his descendants, considering that each man is born innocent, and only thanks to moral freedom does he fall into sin. Pelagianism was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council, along with Nestorianism.
[2]Monothelitism: Monothelitism was a softened form of Monophysitism. While acknowledging two natures in Christ, the Monothelites taught that in Christ there was only one will – namely the Divine will. Adherents of the doctrine included several patriarchs of Constantinople who were later excommunicated (Pyrrhus, Paul, Theodore) and Honorius, Pope of Rome. The teaching was rejected as false at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.