The Belated Saints of Whitby Part 1

Such is the passion that has surrounded the Synod of Whitby (see earlier post) that most of its named participants are considered to be saints by one faction or another — St. Wilfrid of York, St. Hild of Whitby, St. Colman of Lindisfarne, and St. Cedd of Lastingham/Essex. Yet, they all really became saints in spite of their participation at Whitby, the great unpleasantness of their day . The real saints to come out of Whitby — St. Cuthbert and St. Theodore — are not listed among its participants and one was certainly not present.

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is a stealthy saint of Whitby. I say stealthy because most people don’t realize the importance of Cuthbert in enforcing the changes ordered at Whitby. When Eata became the first English Abbot of Lindisfarne, his protégé Cuthbert became prior of Lindisfarne. The job of the prior is to administer the monastery and enforce discipline. The prior was the chief operating office to the abbots chief executive officer who spent much of his time dealing with the world outside the monastery, the king and other monasteries/bishops. So from 664 until about 685, Cuthbert was the prior of Lindisfarne. How he handled bringing the customs and rites of Rome to the heart of the Celtic church is what really made him a saint. It was a difficult task that at times drove him to preach in the countryside or retire to a hermitage to seek peace and rest. It is what drafted him into the position of bishop, even though his poor health had driven him to a hermitage on Farne Island where he could get some peace.

Scholars often refer to Cuthbert as the ‘politically correct version of Aidan (of Lindisfarne)’. That is true and exactly what made him revered by his contemporaries. He managed to enforce the changed demanded by Rome while retaining the Irish lifestyle. We should expect nothing less from the former prior of Melrose, where he had the position of enforcing the Irish lifestyle.

I’ve called Cuthbert Eata’s protégé, but recall that Bede considered the Irish prior of Melrose, Boisil, to be Cuthbert’s teacher. A few years ago Colin Ireland [1], I believe convincingly, showed that Boisil is an Irish version of the name Basil, probably a name taken in religion. It makes sense that when Bishop Aidan chose Eata to be the first English abbot (at Melrose) gave him an Irish prior to ensure that the rule at this new monastery was correctly kept according to Iona’s standards.

By the time of the Reformation, St. Cuthbert was the most popular native saint in England. His relics survived (a story for another day) and still draw pilgrims to Durham Cathedral today. Through the role model of St. Cuthbert, the Irish values survived into the modern Anglican church, even if many no longer recognize them as “Celtic” or Irish.

As this post has grown long, I’ll look at Theodore and why he is a belated saint of the Synod of Whitby in the next post.

[1] Ireland, C.A., 1986. Boisil: an Irishman hidden in the works of Bede, Peritia, p. 400-03.


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