The story in brief is that the Anglo-Saxon tribes began to develop their kingdoms in Britain in the mid-Fifth Century after the effective loss of Roman governance and protection. We no longer imagine invading hordes driving all the Welsh back behind their mountain walls and replacing them in what is now England with Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The reality was more complicated than that. But within a hundred years or so, English-speaking kingdoms stretched from the south coast all the way to the Firth of Forth. And while most of the Romano-British people may be supposed to have stayed where they were (and were learning Old English), certainly their church structure had largely collapsed in the new, heathen kingdoms of the English. Only a few bishops of the old Romano-British church managed to keep up their ministries, mostly in Wales and Cornwall. Given the circumstances of their displacement, they were not inclined to evangelize the English, nor were the English interested in being evangelized by them.
But missionaries came from two different directions to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. And both came at approximately the same time. In the southeast, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) sent a team of missionaries to the kingdom of Kent. Their leader was an Italian Benedictine monk named Augustine (early 6th Century – 604). They landed at Thanet in 596/7 and were received by King Ethelbert of Kent. The King had already accepted Christian clergy in attendance upon his Frankish queen. He gave Augustine a now-deserted church to operate out of, and the first Archbishop of Canterbury set up shop. In 601, Gregory sent more missionaries to assist Augustine. One was Paulinus (mid-6th Century – 644), who traveled north to convert King Edwin of Northumbria in 616 and became the first Archbishop of York. He also baptized Edwin’s great-niece Hilda (of whom, more later). After Edwin’s death in battle, the mission collapsed and Paulinus ended up as Bishop of Rochester in Kent, but the seeds of Christianity had been planted in the north.
The north, however, was already being evangelized from another direction. St. Columba (521-597) had established a monastery on Iona and begun evangelizing the Scots of Dal Riata. (The Scots eventually merged with the Picts to form the Kingdom of Alba.) Followers of his founded an abbey at Melrose in what is now southeastern Scotland. The exiled royal family that Edwin had displaced from the Northumbrian throne had taken refuge in the area and had received the Faith from these Irish monks. After Edwin’s death, the brothers Oswald and Oswy returned to claim the throne. They welcomed monks from Melrose, including Aidan (c. 590-651), who founded the monastery at Lindisfarne.
Eventually, those wishing to follow Roman customs as they had been taught by Paulinus and those used to following Irish customs as taught by Aidan caused trouble for King Oswy. So in 664, the Synod of Whitby met under the presidency of King Oswy himself – at the convent ruled over by Abbess Hilda, great-niece of King Edwin. Wilfrid of Ripon (633-709/710) made a horse’s patoot of himself representing the Roman way, but he won the argument. Many of the Irish monks withdrew back into Scotland. But one of the monks stayed and reluctantly accepted the abbacy of Lindisfarne and, later, a bishopric: Cuthbert (634-687), trained in Irish ways but open to Roman ways, acted as the bridge that made it work. He traveled about his diocese with a portable altar, preaching and evangelizing. He preserved the fragile work of both sets of missionaries and helped make Northumbria the shining beacon of Christianity it soon became all over Europe.
And it wasn’t just a fusion of Roman and Irish piety that helped make the 7th Century the stable starting point of English Christianity. Following upon the heels of the Synod of Whitby, a vacancy occurred in the Archbishopric of Canterbury and the Pope filled it rapidly with one of the great scholars of the age: Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek. So Greek scholarship now joined Irish devotion and Roman order. The English Church bloomed. Fits and starts gave way to settled order. Before sending delegates to the Third Council of Constantinople to settle the Monothelite controversy, Pope Agatho sought advice from synods convened in the West to discuss the matter. One of these regional synods was held at Hatfield under Theodore’s presidency in 680. The English Church was no longer a backwater, but participating fully in the theological development of orthodoxy.
Within a generation or two from this point of fusion, the English Church was sending missionaries to other nations, excelling in church music and scholarship (cf. Bede [c. 673-735], the greatest scholar in Europe in his day, and Alcuin of York [c. 735-804], Charlemagne’s education minister), evangelizing the people and establishing monasteries and churches, living a disciplined life with many devout laity. The English Church was among the first to translate the Scriptures and liturgy into the vernacular. And while the kings and nobles led the way to the font, there were no forced conversions.
I do not go into all this to say that the Global Methodist Church should invest itself in antiquarianism. But if we want to find secure footing to build upon, I think we will only find controversy in trying to develop a novel way to do church. All truly great reform and renewal movements have looked backward. But looking only a little way back -- to the Holiness movement, or the Second Great Awakening, or the Reformation – leads to nostalgia, which is not a solid enough footing. I don’t want to fight those old battles again. We need to clear the rubble away. Methodism is an evangelical form of Anglicanism, which is a reformed kind of Catholicism, and the Catholicism it looks back to is the English Church of the Seventh Century, to which Irish and Romans and Greeks all contributed to give us our start in the Faith. At bottom, it’s where we come from and who we are.