Distinctive Patterns of the Old English Church
From the beginning, the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons was envisioned as an organization capable of great expansion. Gregory sent Augustine to Aethelberht of Kent armed with instructions to set up two Archbishoprics, each eventually to have twelve subsidiary bishops. This is a profound organizational commitment, when not a single sermon had yet been preached, nor a single baptism celebrated.
The original Archdioceses were to be at London and York (the two Roman administrative capitals of old Britannia, and the two most prominent towns there). Augustine landed in Kent, and was welcomed by Aethelberht, a powerful king currently recognized as Bretwalda (overlord) by most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Aethelberht had a Frankish wife who was already a Christian. Success attended this mission, but the price was an Archbishopric in Aethelberht's capital of Canterbury -- not London. (For a time following the conversion of Mercia, a third Archbishop was elevated at Lichfield, but this did not last.)
The missionaries acted independently of each other, but they followed an agreed-upon plan for constant expansion. The leading bishop would enter a region, seek permission of the king to work there, and proceed to preach and baptize. As members were recruited, new leaders would be trained and new parishes were formed. The same was going on throughout Europe. The Celtic and Old English Churches were among the best at reaching new populations with the gospel, but the parochialization of the countryside was pursued everywhere with great vigor. This was one of Roman Christianity's greatest achievements.
At the start of what we call the Dark Ages -- the days of Patrick and the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain -- Christianity was largely confined to the cities and towns of the old Roman Empire. In the countryside and the villages, traditional religions still flourished, even in the Empire.
Bishops did most baptisms because there was, as yet, no great rush of them to do. The fashion in Italy even up until about AD 800 was for free-standing octagonal baptisteries to be built adjoining cathedrals. Baptism was a very big deal in those days. As the volume of baptisms increased, bishops could still do them all, because most Christians still lived near the big towns. Mass baptisms could also be done by bishops (with assistants) as whole peoples converted (as they were beginning to do); but even bishops could not be everywhere at once.
As more and more parishes were formed in village after village, each with its own priest serving a congregation of Christians, baptism became a parochial service. Bishops held onto confirmation as long as they could, but had to let baptism (and eucharist) be performed by ordinary priests. Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops today still try to do many confirmations on special visits, but let parish priests confirm on days like Palm Sunday, when there is a great demand to make one's profession of faith.
The idea that Roman Christianity of the second half-millennium wasn't growing is simply wrong. It was growing in two directions: wider, as more peoples were evangelized; and deeper, as more parishes were formed. The conversion of the countryside took five hundred years, but at the end of it, there was a parish church in every little village across Europe. This is a staggering achievement. Rural folk are conservative folk; they were the last class of people to receive the gospel, but receive it they finally did. In our modern world, in many parts of America, only the innately conservative rural folk still hold onto it.
The missionaries to the Old English started out with a solid organizational plan for expansive growth in both directions. Kingdom after kingdom was contacted, new bishoprics were organized, newly-appointed preachers started congregations. Often, the priest would hold service in a field somewhere. A wooden or stone cross might be erected at frequently-used preaching stations. After a while, the priest would built a small, three-sided structure to shield him and the altar table from the rain. His growing congregation would decide that standing out in the rain wasn't very comfortable, so they would build the nave of the church to suit themselves onto the chancel built by the priest. And so the old Anglican tradition that the pastor had free rein over what was done in the chancel, while the laity controlled what was done in the nave, was begun.
A thousand years later, when the Puritans complained to Queen Elizabeth I that the parish churches of England suffered from too many uneducated and unworthy priests, she told Archbishop Whitgift to take care of it; Whitgift "pointed out that it was impossible to have learned ministers in all of England's thirteen thousand parishes" [J.E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, italics mine]. Many of these parishes were direct descendants of Anglo-Saxon establishments. They represent how thoroughly England had been converted.
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Each Archbishop had great freedom to act and adapt to conditions without referring every question to Rome. Instructions and advice were frequently sought, but only because the better missions gurus were in Rome. The best of them all was Pope St. Gregory himself.
Gregory authored the standard handbook of pastoral care used in the Middle Ages, the Curia Pastoralis. But he also sent many letters to people in England and elsewhere, and answered a steady stream of questions about the best way to handle local conditions.
It was Gregory's advice that pagan sites that people were used to frequenting should be taken over and adapted to Christian use. He advised that folk customs capable of a Christian interpretation should be allowed, rather than having missionaries fight battles over issues not worth winning. He advised his missionaries to be tolerant, adaptable, and humane.
Gregory was an exceptional leader, and he managed to instill such a culture of leadership in his organization that for a long time, Rome was a synonym for the authority that comes from success, rather than the authority demanded by a tyrant. The popes, bishops, theologians, and abbots in the West were leading a huge missionary enterprise to all the barbarian nations that had torn the old Empire apart and created the kingdoms that we now begin to recognize as Europe.
As the only Christian Patriarchate in the West, situated among the ruin of the Empire, Rome was a symbol of stability and continuity with the Church of Jerome, of Ambrose, of Augustine of Hippo -- and with the Churches of the East. During the days of the great ecumenical Councils, Rome had acquired a reputation for orthodoxy. That reputation now reaped rewards of loyalty from those who could discern an unchanging allegiance to Christ amid rapidly changing political and social circumstances.
So the rule was, adapt to what was best in organization and method -- do what works -- but do not compromise the faith. It was a recipe for success. So successfully were the Anglo-Saxons converted -- and so willingly -- that we can now reconstruct only such fragments of Anglo-Saxon paganism as we know from linguistic remains. A "shaw" was a grove of trees, associated with pagan sacrifice; "Tuesday" was named after the god Tiw; "Easter" is named after a goddess associated with spring, Eostre; and so on.
The Old English Church developed a number of distinctives. It retained an ancient liturgy -- the Sarum Mass originally received from Gregory -- when other national Churches adopted newer forms. Married clergy were tolerated, despite the advice of monastics and the decrees of Continental bishops and popes, all the way up to the Norman Conquest. (The Normans' stringent views on property led them to champion clerical celibacy with a vengeance. It allowed for younger sons to gain power through education, and it kept ecclesiastical wealth from being inherited.)
The Old English Church was also known for its use of the vernacular. Alfred the Great translated -- or ordered translated -- the Bible and much of the Latin learning available in Europe at the time into Old English. Many Anglo-Saxons could read, and there was a strong tradition of religious alliterative poetry, of hymns, of prayers, of Scripture, and even of high philosophy (Alfred himself helped translate Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy into Old English). At a time when many Christians in the West could not understand the Latin of the priests, Anglo-Saxon priests could offer their people the word of life in their own language.
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Monasticism played a large part in the consolidation of the Anglo-Saxons' conversion. It played a fundamental part in how the Anglo-Saxons then turned around and evangelized their near neighbors, the Frisians and the Germans. St. Benedict had launched a new, less severe, form of monasticism in the West about midway between Patrick's mission to Ireland and the new mission to the Anglo-Saxons. This accounts for many of the differences between Celtic and Roman monastic usages.
The English took to the Benedictine form of monasticism immediately. Wilfrid was especially forceful in founding new monasteries and reforming old ones according to the Rule. When Winfrid and Willibrord went abroad, they used monasticism to implant the Church in their target populations.
Monasticism offered a life commitment for those who took the vows. This meant that missionary monks left home permanently, and thereafter identified with the indigenous people they were to serve. New members came mostly from the target population; therefore, within a generation or two the target population would completely "own" the mission. The sending house might supply some needs for a while, but independence and equality for the new organization came rapidly.
Latin was the language of business (though not of everyday use). We are likely to misunderstand this. Today, Roman Catholics who prefer the Latin mass (like Mel Gibson) look upon Latin as a "relic" -- in the sense of a physical remainder of a holy person or event. To use Latin in church, to them, connects them with the Church of Peter and Paul, of Augustine and Jerome. In the same way, touching a saint's bone in a gold case was seen as making contact with someone who could connect you to God.
It is important to remember that Latin was not a "relic" in the days of Wilfrid or Bede. Latin was still a major European language, and was still often mutually intelligible with the dialects that were becoming French, Italian, and so on. Becoming fluent in Latin meant that one could participate in a real trans-national community of faith and learning, which strengthened the enterprise and kept a check on variant teachings.
Oddly enough, the artificiality of using Latin meant that missionary and convert could meet on more equal terms. Regardless of which language or mode of expression was more natural to either, both could adopt Latin culture and avoid some of the problems of culture clash modern missionaries must deal with. Of course, outside the monastery, everyone spoke as the surrounding population did.
Monasteries contained many people who were not under permanent vows. They provided the equivalent of today's seminary training for many future leaders. These leaders were sent out to serve the indigenous Church throughout the organization. They also served in many diplomatic or administrative posts in their kingdoms. Both at home and on the mission field, monasteries developed leaders that were sorely needed.
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The missionary impulse was as strong among the Anglo-Saxons as it had been among the Irish. Within two generations after having received the gospel, the Old English Church was sending missionaries to the Frisians and Germans. The Germans used the same methods to begin the evangelization of their near neighbors, the Danes.
When Charlemagne was looking for someone to help him organize his empire and train its future leaders, he sent not to Ireland or to Italy -- but to England. The deacon Alcuin of York acted as his minister of education, helping to lead the Carolingian Renaissance.