British Church History

By Fr Michael.

 

The history of the Church in the British Isles is fascinating.  For many years it has been almost totally misunderstood and many mistakes were continued through the last hundred and fifty years. However in recent decades computerisation of library records and large scale archaeological work has caused us to radically re-write the early history of the Church in these islands. The following is a brief outline only of the Church in the British Isles in the first millennium when it was part of the universal Orthodox Catholic Church.

 

The Beginning

Tyre was a great trading port on the Mediterranean, while pagan it had believers from Jesus’ own visit there and so the Church was there right from the very beginning. Tyre was one of the ports from which ships sailed around the Mediterranean and beyond to France and the British Isles. They could trade for the highly regarded British pearls (from the Bristol channel), gold, glassware, tin and copper. A healthy trade between these Mediterranean ports and the west of Britain had been carried on for nearly five hundred years. Saint Dorotheus, Bishop of Tyre in his Acts of the Seventy Apostles testified that the Church at Tyre had sent one Aristobulus as Bishop to Britain in AD 37. He was named by Hippolytus of Rome as one of the Seventy Disciples, and the first bishop in what became Roman Britain. 

 

Haleca, Bishop of Saragossa, attests: “The memory of many martyrs is celebrated by the Britons, especially that of Saint Aristobulus, one of the seventy disciples (Halecae Fragments in Martyr.)” The Adonis Martyrologia of St. Ado, Archbishop of Vienne in Lotharingia, under March 17 reads, “Natal day of Aristobulus, Bishop of Britain, brother of St. Barnabas the Apostle, by whom he was ordained bishop.  He was sent to Britain, where, after preaching the truth of Christ and forming a Church, he received martyrdom.”
 
Saint Aristobulus (Aristibule in English) gave his name to the mediaeval British kingdom of Arwystli (which continues to this day as a cantref within the county of Powys, Wales). His feast days are celebrated on March 29th, on November 13th  (with Saints Amplias, Apelles, Stachys, Urban, and Narcissus), and on January 17th with the Seventy Apostles of which he was one. Saint Aristibule’s departure would probably have been some months prior to Saint Paul’s conversion, and Paul did not commence his missionary work until some years after his conversion. One can speculate that Joseph of Arimathea (known to us to have been a rich merchant) either owned or hired ships and would know Britain personally, and that it was beyond the Roman Empire and open to evangelisation.  So one way or another Joseph may have facilitated Aristobulus’ journey but that is just speculation.
 
The Church therefore arrived here within just a few years of the crucifixion of Christ, in fact the Church here is probably the earliest national Church in the world, predating Saint Paul’s Greek  and Roman Churches.  This is because it stemmed from an entirely separate initiative, possibly an initiative of the Church at Jerusalem. 
 
The Resultant Church
For a thousand years thereafter, from AD37 to AD1066, the people living in the British Isles believed and worshipped God as an integral part of the undivided Orthodox Catholic Church. That Church was governed world wide by five Patriarchs, those of Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarch), Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. The Church in the British Isles was a local expression of the common Orthodox Christian Faith held throughout the world – using its own local Divine Liturgy – the Liturgy of Saint John the Divine. The great saints of the British Isles were all members of that Orthodox Catholic Church in the British Isles which continued for a thousand years. 
 
It was led for the first six hundred years by bishops in the West Country-Wales, culminating in the primacy of the Archbishops of Menevia such as Saint David and Saint Padarn. It is interesting to note that Saint David and those bishops looked not to Rome – but rather to Jerusalem as their patriarchate, travelling there, bypassing both Rome and Constantinople. Whether this stemmed from some knowledge they had of the origins of the initiative of sending Aristobulus’ or whether it was merely a conception that Christ had been in Jerusalem we don’t know.
 
In the beginning, Aristibule and his assistants needed to convert the people that they found.  We believe that he started working in the West Country, best guess is that he based himself somewhere within a twenty mile radius of Gloucester. The Druidic colleges seem to have been converted to Christianity fairly easily because their theology of God was not totally dissimilar to that of Christianity.  There was a Druidic trinitarian god known as Beli, Taran, and Yesu. When the incoming Christians taught of Jesus as God, it was using the familiar Druidic name of its own Deity and the name ‘Jesus’ was never used in the Greek, Latin, or Hebrew style, but remains as the Celtic/ Druidic Yesu.  There were other similarities, although none as telling as Yesu as part of the Holy Trinity.  The Druids of the whole Celtic arc had a prophecy that the five hundred year era would end around the year that Christ was born, and that a great king would appear, hence the Galatian Wise Men visiting the infant Jesus.  The Druids in Britain would have had that prophecy as part of their teaching. The conversion of the Druids seems to have been largely successful, and their colleges seem to have turned to Christianity, becoming quasi-monastic from the beginning.
 
Saint John was the earliest patron saint of Scotland and was cited in the seventh century by the British Church to justify its Celtic traditions when confronted by the supporters of Rome. The British Church always claimed that it got its earliest liturgical beginnings from Ephesus at the time when Saint John was still living there.  It could be that they got a copy of the Didache from Ephesus which gave them the beginnings of liturgical worship, hence their referring to their Liturgy as the Liturgy of Saint John the Divine (theologian).

 

 

 

 

Saint Ninian was a Briton who established his monastery at Whithorn (hwit aern – the white house) in Galloway (Bernicia) in AD 397. He built there a stone church (unusual among the Britons) and had his episcopal see there. He preached to and converted the southern Picts.  That’s what we know about Saint Ninian, but he is certainly the Apostle of Scotland, the first to bring Christianity this far north. 

After Saint Ninian, the next great name for Scotland is Columcille (Columba) who in 563 with his twelve companions crossed from Ireland to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new monastery almost certainly converting an existing Druidic college known to have been there as a base for spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms. While all this was happening, the Church was developing amazingly throughout the country. The Church in Wales had a number of very large monasteries by the AD 400s, some exceeding 1000 monks.  

 

 

The Church had earlier spread to Ireland and Cornwall and well into central England.The Church had developed in a peculiarly monastic way, with, in many cases, the abbot being the central figure of authority, often being the bishop as well.  The Church had established a primacy for the country, with the bishops of Menevia being the Primates, Saint David holding the post just after Saint Ninian had established himself in Scotland.

 

We know now (just in the last two years) that Britain actually had a series of stone paved highways predating the Romans and that these roads facilitated travel right across the country.  With such infrastructure, the Church like everyone else could move freely and establish new outposts with comparative ease.

 

In later times, when the original Celtic Church had built itself throughout the west, south-west and into the north, the invading Germanic people in the east were pagans and the Church was repeatedly driven back as it tried to advance.  Augustine and his monks from south-eastern England eventually drove up the east coast to Yorkshire by the AD 600s.

There was a clash between the Augustinians and the British Church over practices and a great meeting was convened by Saint Hilda at Whitby to argue the case.  The result was an apparent victory for the Augustinians which, however only really held true for the area they controlled, the British Church bishops failing to agree for up to two hundred years after.  After the meeting, Saint Colman, the bishop of Lindisfarne left and went back to British Church territory.

 

The acknowledged Primacy of the Church gradually shifted to Canterbury, with the Anglo-Saxon Church now dominating the whole east and centre of the country as well as most of the south, eventually right up to the marches of Wales.  Continual invasions through the next two centuries set back the Church in the east, with it eventually regaining lost ground, but producing many martyrs along the way.  Great monasteries were set up throughout the land, continuing the earlier practice of the monastery being the centre of authority.

 

The last pagan king in Britain was Arwald on the Isle of Wight who was killed in AD 686.  By AD 695 the kingdom of Wessex prescribed fines for failing to baptise children.

 

The Church gradually became totally identified with the nation and developed quite independently from the Church abroad.  Of course they were aware of and visited the Church in Brittany, Italy, Rome and Constantinople.  The British bishops had been attending Councils of The Church since the fourth century and are recorded as being there or ratifying their canons.  While the British Church took part as a local Church, it remained independent despite that many of its clergy looked outside for some form of leadership.  This became an issue so much so that twice in the eighth century the Witenagemot legislated that the Head of the British Church was the Archbishop of Canterbury and that appeals and funds went as far as him and no further. 

 

 

The Church had earlier spread to Ireland and Cornwall and well into central England.The Church had developed in a peculiarly monastic way, with, in many cases, the abbot being the central figure of authority, often being the bishop as well.  The Church had established a primacy for the country, with the bishops of Menevia being the Primates, Saint David holding the post just after Saint Ninian had established himself in Scotland.

 

We know now (just in the last two years) that Britain actually had a series of stone paved highways predating the Romans and that these roads facilitated travel right across the country.  With such infrastructure, the Church like everyone else could move freely and establish new outposts with comparative ease.

 

In later times, when the original Celtic Church had built itself throughout the west, south-west and into the north, the invading Germanic people in the east were pagans and the Church was repeatedly driven back as it tried to advance.  Augustine and his monks from south-eastern England eventually drove up the east coast to Yorkshire by the AD 600s.

There was a clash between the Augustinians and the British Church over practices and a great meeting was convened by Saint Hilda at Whitby to argue the case.  The result was an apparent victory for the Augustinians which, however only really held true for the area they controlled, the British Church bishops failing to agree for up to two hundred years after.  After the meeting, Saint Colman, the bishop of Lindisfarne left and went back to British Church territory.

 

There is no doubt that as far as the regular inhabitants of the Anglo-Saxon half of the country were concerned, the Church was by the AD 700s, a deeply ingrained part of their life.  Nevertheless, right up until the AD 900s there were invaders, pagans who attacked Britain and sometimes managed to establish themselves but became Christianised quite quickly.

 

When the Great Schism occurred  between the smaller Roman church and the other four Patriarchs, the British Church was hardly affected, effectively remaining Orthodox.  However, from a geopolitical point of view the pope had to do something.  He could not rely on the British Church not siding with Constantinople.  Worse, he had to his north the great Byzantine city of Vineta on the Baltic coast of modern Germany, and to the south the Byzantines in southern Italy and Sicily. So the popes embarked on a series of wars using the impoverished Normans to invade these places and bring them into the papal realm. Britain was the first to be invaded, the pope financing William of Normandy on the understanding that William would replace all bishops and abbots with the pope’s men, which William did.

 

After the Great Schism between the Eastern Church and the smaller Western Church, the Western Rite of worship continued on within the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Mount Athos for nearly three hundred years. It was re-introduced into the Orthodox Church by the Holy Synod of Russia in 1870 specifically for use in the British Isles.  Nearly thirty years later the Holy Synod again moved in favour of Western Rite for westerners in other parts of the world.

 

The Church in the British Isles had thus existed for a thousand years within the universal Orthodox Catholic Church, participating in its great councils and converting the people of its country.  It seems that the origin of the famed devotion to Saint Mary post Schism had its beginnings well and truly in the pre-Norman Church in the British Isles, however with a concentration on the real Saint Mary rather than an imagined version, consistent with the writings of the Fathers.

 

 

Three of the 100+ surviving pre-schism churches in Britain and Ireland.

 

 

Escombe Church, Yorkshire