Occasionally you will hear that the Church of England has not been in such a crisis since Whitby, and that may indeed be true. The Synod of Whitby occurred 1343 years ago and interpretations of what happened and its legacy are still controversial. For Canterbury, Whitby is the vital synod that united the church in England under the Archbishop of Canterbury. So the current crisis threatens to break a unity that has held (in theory) since Whitby in 664. I say in theory because this unity selectively avoids the many schisms in the Church of England that began with the Reformation. The monarchy’s recognition of the Church of England has allowed them to retain continuity of their property and the claim to be ‘the’ Church of England no matter how many splinter groups, like the Baptists and Methodists, have left them, and the Roman Catholics in England who endure.
I wonder how many people outside of England really know very much about the Synod of Whitby? Not many in my part of the US… so I’ll give a little summary of the synod and its back story here.
England was primarily converted by two missions coming from opposite directions. Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to England in 596 and his mission field was limited to Kent, Essex, and East Anglia. They temporarily extended their mission to York but this fell apart when King Edwin of Deira (Yorkshire) was slain by a British Christian, King Cadwallon of Gwynedd (North Wales). From then on, Canterbury’s missionary field remained south of the River Thames and its estuary. After Edwin’s death, Oswald left his exile in Scotland (Dalriada) and took the northern kingdom, Northumbria, back from Cadwallon at the battle of Denisesburna (the morning after events at Heavenfield). Oswald then invited Iona, where he had been baptized, to send a missionary to his kingdom. Iona, like many of the Irish (and Scots and Welsh) did not recognize the authority of Rome. Aidan arrived by about 635 and Oswald gave him Lindisfarne (Holy Isle) for a monastery and missionary base. From Lindisfarne, Irish missionaries fanned out over England. When the synod of Whitby was called in 664, the church of Iona via Lindisfarne controlled all of England north of the Thames and had expanded to at least three bishops — Lindisfarne (for Northumbria), Litchfield (for Mercia), and one for Essex.
The cause of the Synod of Whitby was three fold:
- Iona and Rome used different Easter calculations, so they occasionally celebrated Easter on different days.
- Tonsure and baptismal rites differed.
- Iona refused to recognize the authority of Rome.
Ironically, it is known as the Easter controversy because all parties claimed that the calculation of Easter was the most important point. How the Irish came by their calendar is unclear but they at least believed that it was based on the teachings of John the Evangelist and the Eastern Fathers.
The great controversy came to a head at the Synod of Whitby where King Oswiu would decide for his kingdom and his hegemony who would lead his church, Iona or Rome. It is not accurate to say that it was only a Northumbrian affair because the Bishop of Lindisfarne functioned as a Archbishop for Mercia, Lindsey, Middle Anglia and Essex as well. Abbess Hild was the hostess (ie. administrator) of the synod and Irish trained Bishop Cedd of Essex acted as interpreter.
The accounts we have of the synod, from Bede’s History and Life of Bishop Wilfrid, both present a slanted version of the outcome that basically came down to who was a greater saint, St. Columba of Iona or St. Peter of Rome. Supposedly, King Oswiu was too afraid to side against St. Peter because he held the keys of heaven. Ultimately, the simplicity and poverty of the Irish lifestyle did not compare well with all that Rome could offer. Like so many Germanic nobles before them, Oswiu (and Wilfrid) saw Rome as the road to civilization, glory and wealth. By deciding for Rome, King Oswiu united all of the English church under the Archbishop of Canterbury.
What followed the synod ripped society apart probably in ways that no one anticipated, including King Oswiu. Bishop Colman refused to accept Oswiu’s decision. Colman, all of the Irish clergy, and 30 English men they trained left England for Iona and ultimately Ireland. (For this early in the conversion period, this was a large percentage of the total clergy in northern England.) This tore the heart and soul out of the northern church. At Colman’s suggestion, the Irishman Tuda was chosen as the next Archbishop of Lindisfarne and Eata was chosen as the next Abbot of Lindisfarne. King Alhfrith pushed his father to allow Abbot Wilfrid, the Roman spokesman at the synod, to be ordained Bishop of York. Wilfrid was sent to Gaul, because they claimed there were no worthy bishops in England to ordain him. The bishops of England had been ordained by the Irish and were therefore contaminated. The Romanists went so far as to insist that all Irish ordained clergy be intensely re-examined and re-ordained, at their discretion. Imagine being a bishop and being told that you have to be re-ordained as a deacon, then a priest and maybe a bishop — that happened to St. Chad, Bishop of Litchfield (brother of Bishop Cedd). Former Episcopal priests still go through this process today when they join the Roman Catholic Church. However, the actions of the Synod of Whitby didn’t give individual priests and monks a choice. If they were to remain in their homeland, they had to convert.
As the effects of the synod rolled across England, so did another equally grim crisis. The plague had reached Kent early in the year. It killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King of Kent first (probably before the synod) and then rolled north where it killed Bishop Cedd as he visited his monastery of Lastingham in Yorkshire and then claimed Tuda, the new Irish Bishop of Lindisfarne. The loss of Tuda and Cedd meant that there were no sympathetic bishops left in England to protect the lifestyle of the Irish trained clergy. At some point within the next two years, King Alhfrith rebelled against his father and is not heard from again. Wilfrid conveniently came home after the plague and his patron Alhfrith were both gone. The conflict continued for the rest of this generation and Wilfrid was a problematic prelate for the next 40 years.
I hope this has given you a taste of what the Synod of Whitby was like, but I don’t think I’ve really captured the passion. Keep in mind that most churchmen of the time lived in monasteries, and this profoundly changed the Rule of every monastery. Men and women who lived very ordered lives where forced to change and remembered this period as a very brutal time. It also submitted abbots to the authority of bishops, where under the Irish the abbots and monasteries had been independent of bishops.
Changing to a new calendar and accepting the authority of bishops may not seem very earth-shaking. There were other changes in various rites and changes in monastic rules that were stiffly resisted as well. Consider some of the tension now about adopting the Revised Common Lectionary when you think of the calendar adjustments (my diocese still doesn’t use it), or arguments over a new prayer book. Part of our controversy today is over increasing authority of the primates (and accepting the decisions of synods and current primates!). The change this brought in 7th century England would be like forcing today’s Presbyterians to accept bishops again (or turning the Archbishop of Canterbury into a Pope).
It is instructive for today that most of the harm after Whitby occurred because the Irish clergy and so many Irish trained Englishmen abandoned their churches and returned to Iona when they lost their case. To be fair, Colman left Tuda and Cedd as sympathetic bishops, but the plague carried them away. The protection they left behind was too thin to protect the lifestyle of those who would not abandon their homeland. The rest of Ireland (outside of Iona’s network) accepted Rome with much less hassle and pain because their basic lifestyle remained intact. Meanwhile, Iona had to be stripped of all its missions and the loss of most of its prestige within Ireland before they were eventually converted to Rome in c. 716 by Egbert, a missionary English bishop. By then its network was in tatters, they had been reduced to a network barely larger than when St. Columba died in 597.
So much changes and yet so much remains the same. Today again, bishops who refuse to accept the will of their national synod/convention are tearing the heart out of the church. They could draw some lessons from Iona’s fate.