The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Church

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Christianity has a long history in Britain. There is evidence to suggest that it first came to these shores as early as the third century, long before the English arrived. The English were pagans, and the British churches were badly affected by the English invasions. There is no conclusive evidence to show that British Christianity survived in English areas, or that the invaders were affected by the British Christians. In retreat, the British clergy seem to have made no attempt to convert the invaders. Indeed, the hatred of the British clergy for the invading English pagans was such that they refused to associate with them in church, or even eat with them.

The first determined attempt at the conversion of England came from Rome in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory I sent Augustine to Kent in 597. The monks who accompanied Augustine were unhappy about their mission and became discontented on the way. Eventually, they landed in Thanet, and there met Æthelbert, king of Kent. Æthelbert, though a pagan, was married to Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish king (a Christian). It may be that the king agreed to meet Augustine and his companions at his wife's insistence. Aethelbert was convinced that Augustine was an honest man, and though he would not give up his own beliefs, he allowed them to settle in Canterbury, his capital, and preach their religion. Within a few months, Æthelbert accepted Christianity, and Augustine and his companions were able to start restoring ancient churches, and building new ones.

The establishment of Christianity elsewhere was less straightforward. In Northumbria, King Edwin accepted the new faith in 627 and Paulinus became Archbishop of York. Unfortunately, Edwin fell in battle against Cadwallon of Mercia in 632. Paulinus was forced to flee to Kent, leaving York without an archbishop for some time.

Despite such setbacks the conversion of the English continued. In addition to missionaries from Kent the Celtic churches in Ireland began their own conversion programme, using Lindisfarne as a base. Soon, they too were having success amongst the English kingdoms in the north, even returning Northumbria to Christianity. The existence of both missions created problems. The Celtic church had been out of touch with Rome for centuries, and many of Rome's new theological ideas had passed them by. In particular, they used an older and different way of calculating the date on which Easter was to be held.

Easter is a moveable feast, the date of which is determined by the phases of the moon. Leading up to Easter is Lent, a period of penance lasting forty days during which only one meal a day was allowed and flesh and fish were forbidden. Since the Celtic Church and the Roman Church had different dates for Easter, this led to the king of Northumbria and his court feasting because they used the old Irish date, while the queen was still in her Lenten fast in accordance with the new Roman date.

There were other problems and something had to be done. At Whitby in 663 the two Churches met with Oswiu, king of Northumbria, and asked him to choose between them. Both sides put forward their case, bringing forward their best scholars. Oswiu chose Rome.

The conversion of the English was now practically complete. All the kings had accepted Christianity, and their nobles were endowing land and buildings to the Church. The practices of the Roman Church dominated England and soon replaced the old Celtic practices in Ireland, Wales and elsewhere, though elements of the Celtic practices continued in remote areas of Scotland for some time.


Original article by Mike Farmer 1992