Spreading Christianity in England

The Spread of Christianity in England was one that had a few setbacks. Britain was part of the Roman Empire and Roman natives there were protected by Roman troops, until the 400s when they were forced to return to the continent when the conflicts with the Barbarians were intensifying. When the Roman army left the British, they were left unprotected and with the bother of coping with their territorial enemies.

Lacking war skills, the Romano-British hired the Saxons as mercenaries, who in turn, took land for themselves by dispossessing the Romano-British from theirs. The Romans were left with a small territory to live in known as Wales. Here, they were quite angry at the Anglo-Saxons for having taken their lands, that they did not feel the urge to convert them to Christianity. Evangelization would have to come from somewhere outside Britain.

Around the year of 600, missionaries from Rome and Ireland arrived to the Anglo-land to convert the people. Pope Gregory the Great (r.590-604) in Rome had lots of problems to struggle with. There was no temporal authority to handle Rome’s problems, there were famines, plagues, and the Lombards were invading the land. Therefore, Pope Gregory was almost obliged to make peace with the Lombards, which he did, and established hospitals and relief services while he was at it. In the settling of things, Pope Gregory realized that maybe the East would not be reliable any longer, so in the convenience of security, the papacy turned to the West and pushed for a more systematic evangelization.

Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries aided by St. Augustine of Canterbury to England. The Pope instructed them in saying that the missionaries had to try hard to adapt the Anglo practices to Christianity and be patient in their conversion for they wouldn’t do it instantly. He told them to not destroy their temples and maintain the outward ceremony of their rituals to use them to worship the true God and interpret things in a Christian sense. There were substantial conversions, including the one of their king’s (King Ethelbert).

Sooner or later the question came in knowing if the Celts (Romano-British) and the Anglo-Saxons could be reconciled or at least -if possible- lead the Celts to combine forces with the missionaries to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons, but they said something like this, “We will never, never preach the faith to this cruel race of foreigners who have so treacherously robbed us of our native soil!”

Meanwhile, there were two manners of practicing Christianity competing for dominance in England. The Irish monks, with their extreme religious rudiments and tough forms of asceticism were in the north and the Benedictine monks were in the south. These differences caused confusion among the Anglo-Saxons in knowing which was the correct form of practice. Controversy was resolved in the Synod of Whitby (664), a meeting where it was asked which form of dating Easter was correct, the Irish or the Benedictine. The Benedictines said that they were using the one the successor of apostle Peter was using, so the king preferred to follow the practices of the successor. This Irish-Benedictine interaction yielded the Northumbrian Renaissance.

The Northumbrian Renaissance brought biblical illuminations, epic poetry, and other things that emerged from the monasteries. The key monastery was the one of Jarrow, which was home to the Venerable Bede of Germanic ancestry. Bede wrote the ecclesiastical history of England. By Bede’s death in 735, the Northumbrian Renaissance will begin to fade, but Northumbrian learning will continue to be spread in Europe by St. Boniface. The Frankish kingdom will be the cultural center of Europe by the eighth century and Charlemagne’s advisor, Alcuin (student of the Venerable Bede), will be a major factor in accomplishing this.

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