Church foundations

Daily Reading for September 19 • Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, 690

It would, of course, be naïve to assume that the Synod of Whitby settled all differences in favor of Rome. Few immediate changes took place, and there was no immediate large-scale submission of the Celtic Church to the Roman. But the balance had been tipped in favor of the Roman party. Over the next few decades the Roman Easter date took precedence over the Celtic, as did the Roman tonsure over the Celtic. . . . It was not a total victory, however, for the Celtic form of penance was eventually coopted by the Anglo-Saxons, most notably by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus. Accompanying Anglo-Saxon and Celtic missionaries, it gradually permeated the churches of the newly converted Continental Germanic tribes, eventually gaining acceptance in Rome and finally becoming mandatory for all Western Christians at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, long after the Anglo-Saxon era ended.

In Book IV or his Ecclesiastical History Bede recounts the appointment of Theodore of Tarsus as archbishop of Canterbury shortly after the Synod of Whitby. Since Pope Gregory’s days, Western Europe had been suffering from an outbreak of bubonic plague. Archbishop Deusdedit died of it, and his successor, Wighard, contracted it while in Rome for his consecration. Pope Vitalian thus nominated Hadrian, a north African then serving as abbot of a monastery in Naples. He declined in humility, suggested the scholar Theodore, a Greek-speaking cleric of his acquaintance, and agreed to accompany the sixty-six-year-old Theodore to England. This unlikely choice for archbishop was, in retrospect, the wisest choice the pope could have made.

When Theodore and Hadrian arrived in England, they set in motion some basic changes in the Anglo-Saxon Church, ones that would propel England to the forefront in church organization, missionary work, and scholarship. Theodore, in fact, deserves as much credit as his predecessor, Augustine, for founding the English Church, for during his archepiscopacy he laid the foundations on which the English Church in some sense still stands. . . .Even more important, perhaps, than this ecclesiastical reorganization, Theodore with Hadrian’s help established centers of learning and encouraged scholarship. . . .Theodore embodied and thus encouraged the scholarly life, even, it seems, introducing some knowledge of Greek to the island. . . . The greatest of all the scholars trained in the new learning Theodore and Hadrian brought to Anglo-Saxon England was, of course, Bede (d. 734), the Northumbrian monk who dominated Anglo-Saxon scholarship in the next generation.

From Anglo-Saxon Spirituality: Selected Writings, translated and introduced by Robert Boenig, in the Classics of Western Spirituality series (Paulist Press, 2000).

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