Metaphysics Course

This blog is a collection of essays and lesson comments from several of the Universal Life Church courses on Metaphysics. We have a Spirit Quest Course and one on A Course In Miracles.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Christian History

Christian History - An evaluation of the Synod of Whitby  (AD 664)  with reference to the political and historical context of contemporary Northumbria.

Rev. Graham Louden,  M.A., Dip.Ed. (Oxon), B.A., A.C.P.,  (Hon.) D.D.

It has long been traditional amongst historians of the period to  represent the Synod of

Whitby and its outcome as a momentous event in English history and a  definitive 

turning   point in the identity and allegiance of the English church.   This  inter-

pretation of  the Synod has endured  over   the centuries to the extent that, only

recently,  the historian  Patrick Wormald expressed  his frustration trenchantly in

the  following paragraph  written in 2005,

      'From the days of George Buchanan, supplying the initial propaganda for the

      makers of the Scottish kirk,  until a startlingly recent date,  there was warrant

      for  the anti-Roman,  anti-episcopal and, in the nineteenth century,  anti-

      establishment stance  in the Columban or 'Celtic' church…..The idea that there

      was a 'Celtic  Church'  in something of a post-Reformation sense,  is still

      maddeningly  ineradicable  from the minds of students.'

This enduring interpretation may well be due to the limited scope and intent of the

source material available  and also to the desire of ecclesiastical historians over the

centuries to  give primacy to the overarching theme of the  evolution of the church

universal and its relentless expansion.  Any detailed account of the Synod derives

almost  exclusively from that provided by the Venerable Bede   in his  Historiam

Ecclesiastical  Gentis Anglorum  completed in 731  supplemented by a hagiographical

Life of Wilfred  written by  Eddius Stephanus  (Stephen of Ripon)  around 710.  Both 

of these works were written at some distance although Bede   did have access to  the


the work by Eddius and is also said to have   known     surviving participants in

the synod such as Acca of Hexham whom he described as the 'dearest of all prelates

upon earth',   It is also possible that Bede's reputation and stature as  an historian, to

an extent the 'father' of history,   has come to overshadow  and repress   informed

scrutiny of the Synod.  Bede's  insistence on  the importance of accurate chronology

wherever possible,  his  elegant and stylish deployment of the Latin language,  his

faithful attribution of sources and his  ability to blend homiletic material seamlessly

into the narrative  all mark him out as  a  biblical scholar and historian of  renown but

his work was  intended as an 'ecclesiastical' history and it would not be surprising if

he had been minded to  give additional prominence to those  events which he 

considered  important staging posts in the advancement of the church.  The  Paschal

controversy was,  indeed, an issue in which Bede, as  a biblical scholar, especially

interested himself  and had addressed in  his works,  De Temporibus  (703) and  De

Temporum  Ratione  (725). 

A corrective to the assumption that Bede's account of the Synod  is accepted as being

an accurate record of the proceedings may be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,

prepared around  891  in the time of Alfred which, curiously, makes no mention of the

Synod;   instead, both the  Parker Chronicle and the Laud Chronicle  include the same

entry for the year 664, viz.   'Colman with his companions went to his native land' but

provide  no explanation for this happening although interestingly,  the year 671 was

noted as the year of  'the great mortality of birds'!   Given the quantity of material

pertaining to  Northumbrian history that is detailed in the Chronicle,  this omission

does appear odd if the Synod was contemporaneously regarded as a pivotal moment. 


In general, historical events involve a complex mixture of antecedents,  motivation

and personalities.  The Synod of Whitby needs to be studied and understood against a

background of  political instability in Northumbria and   parallel  uncertainty  in the

sphere  of  shifting   religious allegiance.  The  kingdom of Northumbria had come

into  being  after the victory of Aethelfrith at the Battle of  Degsastan.  After his death,

he was succeeded by Edwin of Deira (a Roman  Christian) and the Bernician dynasty

founded by  Aethelfrith was forced to take refuge in  Pictish and Scottish territory 

where many were baptised into the 'Celtic' Christian  faith  practised by their hosts. 

In 633,  the Bernician prince Oswald regained the throne and turned to Iona for help

with the conversion of his people.  Aidan  and a small band of monks responded and

founded a monastery at Lindisfarne; later they were joined by many more  Scottish

monks and began to extend their missionary activity into Mercia (where the baptism

of Peada in  653 was a signal success)  and  the East Saxon lands.  Their work was

zealous and  effective  and it is well nigh impossible to say  how much of  the 

conversion of the   English was achieved by Roman or Celtic missions.  The pure and

ascetic life style of the Celtic missionaries was greatly admired and contrasted 

strongly with the  organisation and panoply of the Roman church  with its growing

desire for universal authority.  The Celtic church had been largely isolated from Rome

for  150 years and was possibly offended by the assumptions and perceived arrogance

of the papacy as indicated in the attitude of Augustine towards Celtic bishops  whom

Pope Gregory had  described   (probably out of ignorance)  as  'unlearned, weak and


Nevertheless, by the mid-seventh century,  the Roman church had come to realise the

value of uniformity and of a universal church ruled from Rome  and  felt that the


existence of a powerful group of Christians who did not acknowledge papal                                                                

supremacy could no longer be tolerated    Already, too, some in the Celtic church 

were beginning to realise that they could not ignore indefinitely   the benefits of                                        

closer linkage with Rome and an emergence from their isolation.In addition,   Roman

practices were steadily advancing northwards as a result of the activities of Augustine

of Canterbury.   In 633, the southern Irish  had accepted the Roman method  for

calculating Easter  while  these practices were  often introduced into the Celtic  sphere

of influence  as a result of trade, travel and exile.  A prime example of this was the  

wife of King Oswiu,  Eanfled,   who had been removed to Kent  during the reign

of  Oswald but returned on her marriage to Oswiu with her Roman entourage and

customs.  This precipitated a crisis at court  where it became necessary to celebrate

Easter twice at different times.  By this time, the saintly Aidan was dead and, without

the constraint of his presence,  it seemed appropriate to  resolve this anomaly  by

means of a Synod at which advocates of both  persuasions would argue the case

before the king after which he would  rule on the issue.  The occasion was the

Synod of Whitby in 664   (or 663 according to  Stenton  chronology). 

Bede's account of the proceedings at Whitby suggest a stylised and  highly civilised

debate  which is not altogether convincing given the controversial nature of the

issues and the  heat which such matters could generate.  One has only to study the

records of debates involving Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation to  discern

the passion and  polemic that they could engender.   At Whitby, the Celtic persuasion

was represented by  king Oswiu,  bishop Cedd of the East Saxons,  the Abbess Hild at

whose monastery  at   Streanaeshalch the meeting was held and Colman, bishop of


Lindisfarne who  acted as their spokesman.  The Roman party comprised  Alchfrith                                                         

son of Oswiu and sub-king of  Deira,  Agilberht , bishop of the West Saxons,  James

the  Deacon and Wilfrid of Ripon  who was then ruling a monastic community at

Ripon.   Alchfrith's motives in playing a prominent role in the summons of the synod

are not touched upon but it is,  perhaps,   legitimate to speculate that he wished to

enhance  his power within the kingdom and  considered that closer links with Rome

and the patronage of the ambitious Wilfrid  would  forward his ambitions.

In the course of the debate as contained in Bede's historical narrative,  the two

principal advocates,  Colman and Wilfrid,  both argued forcefully that their method of

calculating Easter was  based upon  worthy precedent.  According to Colman, the

Celtic practice  could be traced back to  the apostle John   to which Wilfrid retorted

that the Roman practice  had been handed down by  both Peter and Paul  and had been

followed from the outset by their churches.  He also argued that, even if it were the

case that John had  used the Celtic practice, this would have been only a provisional

dispensation  to suit a particular   congregation at a particular  period in the evolution

of the church.  From the historical perspective, it is quite clear that both practices had

co-existed for some centuries but that the tide was already turning in favour of the

Roman method.   The calculation of Easter involved a complicated  system intended

to reconcile the solar and lunar years  by means of  a cycle of  years.  At various

times, cycles of  8,  11,  19  and 84 years had been used for this purpose and it seems

probable that the tables based upon an 84-year cycle had been  brought to Britain by

Celtic bishops who had attended the Council of Arles in 314.  In  455,  Rome accepted

and  ordered the use of the 19 year cycle  as advocated by Victorius of Acquitaine and

this was  implemented by  those parts of England controlled by Canterbury and, after


633, by the southern Irish.   Clearly, by the time of the Synod,  there was absolutely                                                               

no possibility that the Celtic tradition could supplant the Roman within the wider

church  and this  was  underlined by Wilfrid in the speech attributed to him when he

stressed the folly of  resisting the authority of St.Peter  and  refusing to follow the

example of all the rest of Christendom.  Although Bede  states that the only point

at issue in the Synod was  date of celebrating Easter  (and the tonsure issue),  the fact

that  he  records Wilfrid as  emphasising this wider context and  significance, 

suggests that he was fully aware of the implications of   any decision on the  Celtic

branch of the church.  Wilfrid's   'triumph'  was based upon two main points:  firstly,

he  referred  to contemporary practice and    pointed out that  even the followers of

the apostle John  now celebrated Easter according to the Roman fashion and,

secondly,  he rebutted Colman's  question as to how such holy men as  Columba

and  Anatolius  could have erred so greatly as claimed over the Easter dating  by

stating that  Peter,  as the rock on which the church is built and the keeper of the

keys,   must  be a superior authority.   Oswiu reportedly  turned to Colman  and

asked whether he could say properly attribute any similar authority  to  Columba;

Colman's   'nihil'  was conclusive and   Oswiu  ruled in favour of the Roman

practice saying that he  would not risk  a hostile reception from Peter himself at

the gates of heaven.   After a brief  visit  to Lindisfarne  to  bid farewell to his

community,   Colman and his fellow monks returned to Ireland where they could

still practice their religion according to their preference.   The 'Roman' victory was


 The scale of this victory, however, is debatable  as Oswiu's  decision applied only

to Northumbria and  many decades were required for the complete implementation


of the Roman ways.  At the centre,  York immediately supplanted  Lindisfarne as                                                             

the episcopal   centre of Northumbria  with Wilfrid as its bishop  (664-78)  but  even

within  the kingdom and  more so beyond the borders, the process of Romanisation

was slow and painstaking.   Britain was a complex patchwork of  shifting kingdoms

(twelve existed around 600 AD)  with   disputed boundaries and   frequent  changes of

ruler.   Strenuous efforts  and reforming zeal were required to extend the Roman

mandate throughout the lands and much of this  work was carried out by Wilfrid,

Theodore of Tarsus  and Benedict Biscop.   Their especial concern was the lack of 

effective leadership  at a time  (669) when only three men were known to have been

in bishop's orders in the whole of England.   The Synod of Hertford, summoned by

Theodore in 672   issued a number of canons relating to the conduct of bishops,  in

particular enjoining them to remain within their sees  and concentrate on their duties.

After 669,   Theodore  appointed a number of new bishops  (initially to Winchester,

Dunwich and   Rochester and then proceeded to create new sees  at North Elmham,

Worcester,  Hereford and  Lindsey  to supplement the existing ones.   This work was

the key to disseminating the messages of Whitby and Hertford and the broader thrust

of the Roman  establishment.   Paradoxically, it was in  Northumbria  that the task was

most difficult due to the stubborn stance of Wifrid who opposed any  diminution of

his immense power as sole bishop of Northumbria.   A  love of pomp and panoply

which  would not have disgraced  Cardinal Wolsey  centuries later,  did not  endear

him to his contemporaries and he was twice expelled from Northumbria  (in 677 and

691) and only half-heartedly  supported  by the Pope to whom he appealed on both

occasions.    The work of  Romanisation   proceeded, apace despite the distraction

posed by Wilfrid who was often his own worst enemy;   his  first  expulsion, for


example came about when he persuade the king's beloved wife to retire to a convent,                                                         

a  triumph which, unsurprisingly was not pleasing to  Ecgfrith  !   Nevertheless, by

the second decade of the eighth century, when Nechtan,  king of the Picts  enforced

the  recommended  Easter tables on the Pictish  Church  after consultation with 

Ceolfrith, abbot of  Monkwearmouth and Jarrow   (Bede's home  monastery),  the

authority of Rome was almost universally acknowledged, except for some areas of

the north of Ireland.  Iona, itself, had capitulated  around 716   due to the efforts of

Adamnan and Egbert.

The importance of Whitby, therefore, lies not so much in an immediate  and wide-

spread change of allegiance but in the  clear message that it gave to the Celtic church

that the tide was turning against it  and that it faced a future of isolation and retreat

accompanied by increasing pressure from the Roman church.  Over the next fifty

years,  the Celtic church became more peripheral and, by its very nature,  it was

unable to organise itself with the same flair and  zeal  that was second nature to the

Roman church.   We cannot easily say what was the most important  issue at the

Synod of Whitby;  to some, no doubt, it was the  embarrassing schism  at court, to

others such as Alchfrith, it  involved political manoeuvring,  for many it did focus

upon the  central  issue of the celebration of Easter and, by extension, the  universalist

aspirations of the  Roman pontiff. 

Bede, himself, seems quite clear that the Easter controversy was the  fons et origo of

the Synod  despite the fact that his own account  alludes to  the wider issue of   a

uniform doctrine and  papal authority.  Even his most distinguished  editor,, Charles

Plummer, in the  introduction to his  magisterial  edition of 1896,  professes himself


puzzled by Bede's  insistence on this point and  a degree of unwonted asperity in his                                                           

style.  He writes,

            'And yet we cannot help feeling that the question occupies a place in Bede's

            mind  out of all proportion to its real importance.  It is sad that he should think

            it necessary to pause in the middle of his beautiful sketch of the sweet and

            saintly character of Aidan to say that 'he much detests'  his mode of keeping

            Easter;   it is strange that he should apply to this question the words which

            St. Paul used with reference to   such  infinitely more important matters,

            expressing the fear  lest he 'should run or have run in vain'…..But the holiest

            men   have their limitations, and questions even less important have divided

            Christians  ere now.'

Bede is a wonderful literary and historical source  and starting point for any study

of the Synod of Whitby  but, as ever,  it underlines the need, wherever possible, for

the widest possible array of sources in order to arrive at a balanced   verdict.   The

spread of the early church in Britain followed by the  imposition of the Roman

dispensation  is a long and complex  story  further complicated by the  plethora of

kingdoms,  the  paucity of  source material   and the  fragmented nature of  society

at the time.  Without  Bede, however, we would lack  an introduction to this event,

couched in  impeccable Latin and  underpinned  by  an unwavering desire to  write

truthfully for the benefit of posterity.   At the very least,  his account of the Synod

is  exactly how we would wish the event to have proceeded,  in the spirit of Christian

humility and  informed debate.



Baedae Opera Historica,   Plummer,  Oxford  1896

Anglo-Saxon England,     P. Hunter Blair,  Cambridge  1962

Anglo-Saxon England,      F.M.Stenton,      Oxford  History of England   vol. II

Life of Bishop Wilfrid,       B.  Colgrave,     OUP  1969

Rev. Graham Louden


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