Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Apostolic Church of England and its Doctor

One of the convictions I have come to in recent years is that the beginnings of the Anglican church do not lie in the complexities of Henry VIII's mutually reinforcing desires for a beautiful wife and for a male heir. No our beginnings lie in the days of the apostles when slaves and soldier brought the gospel to Britain. Thus, like the Eastern Orthodox churches, we may claim to be continuous with the faith of the New Testament. What do you think?

Part of our heritage is somewhat ecumenical, enjoying the blessings of both Celtic and Roman Christianity for a season. One towering influence, beneficiary of both those seasonal blessings, was Bede (673-735), the only English Doctor of the undivided church.

"Bede once compared human life without faith to a sparrow flying through a banqueting hall in winter, where, as he wrote, “the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging”. Then “a sparrow flies swiftly though the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other . . . So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all.”

The image may chill us. It may seem all too likely. However, Bede was using the image to suggest that there is more to life than that brief flight through warmth and light from darkness to darkness. And his own life was devoted to exploring that deeper possibility.

In his monastery he gave himself up to scholarship. He has declared that he loved to learn, to teach, and to write. And he was fortunate that at that very time great monastic libraries were being assembled, placing at his disposal the resources he needed. So among his many writings there were commentaries on Scripture, lives of the saints, and in particular that Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which many regard as his greatest work because of the new standards it set: its sense of time, its instinct for a good story, its mastery of readable Latin, and the start it even made in using sources critically. And those three strands of writing can be seen as linked. What is brought out by contemplating and studying Scripture is made real in the lives of holy men and women, the people who come to be recognised as saints. And the saints themselves are not to be viewed simply as individuals; their lives are a part of the Church’s life, its complex, sometimes blemished, history."

This whole piece on Bede, by Monsignor Roderick Strange, can be read here.

Bede is buried in the Galilee Chapel in Durham Cathedral, a place of fond memory for me. There you may read this lovely prayer of Bede:

Christ is the morning star
Who when the night
Of this world is past
Brings to his saints
The promise of
The light of life
& opens everlasting day.

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