Belated Saints of Whitby Part 2

[This post builds on previous posts: Not since Whitby and Part 1 of The Belated Saints of Whitby]

As I mentioned in part 1, the real saints to come out of the Synod of Whitby were not among its participants. They are the ones who picked up the pieces later and brought reconciliation. One of Bede’s heroes was St. Theodore of Tarsus, first Archbishop of Canterbury to control all of England.

Theodore of Tarsus

Theodore of Tarsus seems like an odd choice to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the Synod of Whitby. He was Greek by birth and training. Considering the difficulty of travel, he was also very old, 66 years old. Indeed, he didn’t make it to Britain without a major illness in France. He was accompanied by the even older African monk Hadrian. Some have thought that the Pope was clearly out of touch with England in his contemporary dealings with Bishop Wilfrid and, perhaps, in his choice of Theodore.

Anyone who thought of Theodore as a placeholder because of his age was soon proven very wrong. Theodore would remain an active and able administrator until 690 when he died at the age of 88. He had been archbishop for 22 years.

There was more wisdom and consideration behind the choice than appears at first glance, and not just because he was a very able administrator. Theodore was so immersed in the customs of the East that the pope was reluctant to choose him and demanded that the African Hadrian go along to be sure that Theodore didn’t introduce too many Eastern customs in contradiction to Rome into England. Theodore could empathize with the Irish trained clergy’s irritation with Rome rite and customs. He had to wait four months in Rome for his hair to grow so that he could wear a Roman tonsure.

When we think back to the arguments at Whitby, Theodore was really a smart choice and perhaps a concession to the Irish-trained clergy. Recall that the Irish claimed their practices were that of St. John and the Eastern Fathers; they were also interested in the Egyptian Christian tradition (Anatolius and Anthony of Egypt). So here the Pope sends them a real Greek archbishop and an African assistant, Hadrian. Theodore and Hadrian were able churchmen who accepted Roman customs, but they also placed a high value on the same church fathers as the Irish. Bede was delighted that Theodore established a school to teach the Greek language to the English.

Once the English saw that the Greeks, like their new archbishop, accepted Rome’s Easter calculations, they embraced Rome the a relish and made converting their former Irish teachers a priority. Indeed,the Englishman Egbert’s conversion of Iona to the Roman rite was the climax of Bede’s History, the sign that the English church was truly mature and accomplished in its own right.

Who will be the saints of today’s great unpleasantness? No doubt each faction will continue to hold their leaders as heroes, but history has other lessons to teach us — blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Who will be our peacemakers?


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