THE NORTHUMBRIAN CHURCH
I was at a lecture on Thursday by Professor Atkinson of Sheffield, talking about Martin Luther, and he pointed out that Luther was, at that stage, the last in a series of people who’d really sought to serve the Lord and follow Him whatever the cost. He instanced Wycliffe and Huss but he started with the Celtic missionaries here and in Europe, and I was encouraged by that.
Now we’ve got to start with some unavoidable history. I’m afraid; but Christianity is an historical religion in the way that almost none other is. They were always harking back to the great deeds God had done for their fathers; they had to rehearse them every year at various festivals; and I think it no bad thing that we should do the same.
As I see the Northumbrian Church, it consists of three strands, which we will dissect out for the moment, they all go back of course, to a single source – the Upper Room at Pentecost. And if I carelessly talk about the ‘Celtic Church’ or the ‘Roman Church’ forgive me. I don’t mean that; there is only one church – the Church of Jesus Christ. Now the foundational church is the British church, and by British I mean the original inhabitants, the Celtic inhabitants of this land, as far as we’re concerned the first inhabitants, who were British. So their country when it was incorporated into the Roman Empire was called Britannica.
– And, interestingly enough, Bradbruck studies on Northern Northumbrians in the present days has shown that the majority of them or the greatest percentage of their blood appears to be original British: this is where we all stem from.
Now excavations at the Hirschall, that’s Lord Hulme’s place at Coldstream, just up the road, have revealed graves; and when Prof. Cramp dug them, the earliest graves date from the Roman period (as you know archaeology is dated by bits of crockery that people have dropped), and there’s Roman pottery, Roman crockery round about.
But more interestingly, some of the graves have also got with the skeletons a white stone. And in the lecture I listened to, she said this is usually assumed to indicate they were Christians. Well we’ve explored this since, and it seems to me that the origin of that is in Revelation 2:17 where the Lord promises to the saints in Pergamum, a white stone, and that is the only thing of the various possibilities that makes the most sense, that that’s what they were doing. You remember in Exodus that the angel said. “I am going to go through the land of Egypt and I am going to kill all the first-born; but you Jews paint a bit of blood over your lintel,” and the angel passed by. I think these early christians, when their dear one died they put a white stone in his hand, in fact, in the Isle of Man they have been found actually in their hands, so that the angel coming will say:”This is one for the resurrection.”
Which, of course, gives three interesting points:
The first is that there were Christians, here in the Muss just on the Tweed in the 2nd and 3rd century.
The second thing is that they had access to the book of Revelation, which is not the most obvious one that you buy when you’re going round; and, thirdly, that they had got pastors and teachers who explained it to them. Now that I find very encouraging.
Now the other thing is that when the Anglo-Saxons came in, they found certain places, where there was a community of Christians, there was a church, (by the word ‘church’ I think I mean community rather than a building), and they called these places by a Latin word ‘Eccles’ which they’d only got access to through the people who lived here who of course would be British. So you get Eccles in Berwickshire, you buy Eccles Cakes from Lancashire, you get Ecclestone, you get the name here and there, all over England and South Scotland. This is a place where the pagans coming in recognised a community of Christians, and, as I say, we’ve got one not very far north of the Tweed, between here and Gorton. And it seems to me obvious that these Christians must have gossiped the Gospel.
We’re going to talk about the big names who evangelised this part of the world. But some of the parts of England weren’t evangelised by big names. I’m thinking particularly of Herefordshire, and that area. But there was a church growing around the Anglo-Saxons, and a most recent historian said this can only be because the British Christians taught them about the Gospel. The same must have applied, I think, up here.
So here, then, we had the church, the universal church represented in Britain in the days of the Roman Empire, and there were two Councils of the whole church, one at Arles in 314, and one in Italy 40 years later, at which British Bishops were present, so here we are the foundational, what I call the ‘original Romano-British strand.’
Then, of course, as you will remember from school-days, the whole thing fell to pieces just after 400, 410 when the Goths captured Rome, and the Roman Empire disappeared.
But at that time, we have a little evidence of what’s going on in North England, I’d be stretching the definition of Northumbria a shade, but the important place to think of is Carlisle. First is that in about 391 while the Roman Empire was still active a Christian went to Rome who became known as a bible-teacher and a commentator the first references to him by Augustine are commendatory, a chap by the name of Pelagius. Later on, of course, he was named as a heretic because he emphasised the importance of Christian works. But Pelagius is a Briton, we know that. Pelagius it seems came from northwest Briton, the last historian I heard talk on him said, probably Carlisle. So, in other words, you had here in this area a centre where people were being educated, and thinking.
And then, ten years later or thereby, we get the name of Ninian. Ninian, who also goes to Rome, becomes ordained a Bishop and then comes back and sets out on a missionary enterprise to the Picts. His base was in South Scotland. Well, he eventually died in the great church at Whithorn in Galloway, but Peebles may also have been his centre. But the interesting thing is his mission to the Picts: it wasn’t to South Scotland. In other words South Scotland was already Christian. This area didn’t need evangelising, he was going to a people beyond the frontiers.
A third name I want to mention to you is Patrick. St Patrick, now here is the chap who above all you’ve got to read. Rush out to the bookshops tomorrow, the only place I know you can get him is SPCK in Durham – The Confessions of St Patrick. St Patrick is not the kind of person you’ve heard about, who goes about cursing rivers because there aren’t enough fish in them, or that sort of thing – that’s later fiction. Patrick wrote his ‘Confessions’, which to me read like the prayer-partners’ letters from a missionary, in his story, the importance of his story being, of course, that the latest view is that he came from our area. He came in fact probably from Greenhill, that area, just this side of the Cumbrian border.
Somewhere in the west, whether it be there, or Dumbarton, or South Wales, he is captured and taken at the age of sixteen to Ireland. His father being a clergyman, his grandfather being a clergyman, this is a Romano-Briton. And he’s captured. Now, lets face it, he’s in the field, or he’s in the farmhouse, and the Irish raiders came, and he is whipped away to Ireland. He doesn’t have time to pack his suitcase; he doesn’t have time to pick up his NIV; he’s whipped away to Ireland, and he’s there without any contacts, and he’s there for a number of years. (I think it’s about seven.)
He said, ‘Sometimes I prayed a hundred times a day and a hundred times a night.’ Here was a chap who at the age of sixteen had got it together! and then it was said to me, “your ship is waiting”‘. What does he mean? – ‘it was said to me?’ – Here is a word spoken into his heart by God; it can have no other meaning. So he sets out, and as one historian said ‘probably more by good luck than good judgement’. We would not accept that. He sets out and gets to port. They refuse to get him on the boat; then they relent, he gets on the boat, and he gets over to – probably – Gaul and the people starve; they have no food. One day, he says, “Today, the Lord is going to give us food.” Now, that’s going out on a limb! Here’s a chap, in his early twenties by now, quite boldly saying ‘The Lord today is going to provide, even though he hasn’t had for the last fortnight,’ and, of course, shortly afterwards a herd of pigs runs across the track, and so they are into the roast pork.
So here as you read Patrick, his confessions, you will read the story of a godly young man who is prepared to go back to Ireland, back to the place he’s been a slave, to preach the gospel.
Bear that in mind, Ireland gets the Gospel if you like, from Northumberland. We don’t know much else about the Romano-British Church but if you go on another 130 years a chap called Gildas is writing to the British people who are now mostly the Welsh people that got pushed sideways. He ambassed them, he ambassed the kings first of all, but then he gets torn into the leaders of the church, for their worldliness, for their pride, for their this, that, and the other thing … but he never accuses them of a failure to evangelise, because as far as he’s concerned the whole country by this stage is Christian.
I won’t weary you with Gildas – its a very fascinating subject.
So by that time he’s writing, the Anglo-Saxons had come, probably not in big numbers, probably only about ten per cent of the population, that’s not a lot, probably taking over, rather like the Normans did, the positions of authority, and here in this part of the world probably doing it peacefully.
But of course they were pagans, and the influence of pagan overlords must have been strong, so we get to a situation where there are early Christian monuments in Tweed-dale in Gallowway in Cumbria but none in I? Something had happened: the thing seems to have gone dead, whether due to the pressure of the pagan overlords or what it might have been we don’t know.
Now, having got over that bit, (that is what you call over the historical horizon, we’ve no great dates.) Now we’ve got into Bede’s time, and we know what we’re talking about with dates.
So that by the year 600 we have a British Church that’s more or less faded out here. We’ve got Anglo-Saxon pagan overlords, and then there comes a great king, King Edwin, who defeats the existing king; (His family flee to Scotland. Don’t forget that family in Scotland!) and, who becomes overlord of almost all of Britain except Kent. So he sends to Kent for a princess as his wife, and her name is Ethelberg. And when you come to put up your board of honour, your stained-glass windows, have one for Ethelberg. She is a Christian princess and the condition laid down when he asked for her hand was that she must be allowed to practise her faith, and that she be allowed to have a chaplain, and Edwin, who was in a very expansive mood, said “and if I believe her I may become a Christian too.”
Which he does! and it’s interesting that the Pope writes to Ethelberg and says ‘Look, it’s your job to convert your husband.’ He doesn’t put it in exactly those words but he says ‘its your influence that’s so important’. He sends her a present, a comb. (Notice, he sends her an ordinary secular present he doesn’t send her relics) and neighbourly says ‘Here is a job you’ve got to do’ and she must have done that job well; because Edwin is converted. If his wife at home had not been a good witness, he would not have listened to the preaching of her chaplain Paulinus. So I think we should remember her name.
So Paulinus had come up as her chaplain. He was one of the missionaries who had come from Rome, part of a second wave of missionaries with Augustine of Canterbury. So you get the Roman Church coming in – the second Roman strand.
Paulinus goes round with the King. The kings in those days rotated round their various estates, and there is an estate at Yeavering. If you haven’t done it before, go on pilgrimage past Wooler, take the road marked Kirk Yetholm, eight – ten miles, resist the temptation to go northwards into Scotland, keep round the hill and you will see a great big stone monument. On this site was Yeavering, one of the capital cities of Edwin. And you will see a little sign as you pass Pallinsburg, (Paulinus’-burg).
Paulinus for thirty-six days catechised and baptised. How many hundreds is that? Where did he get them from? You see there weren’t many Anglo-Saxons. Somebody memorably said, “There’s so little anglo-saxon pagan pottery that one au-pair girl could make and break it all in a week.” So they weren’t Anglo-Saxon they were Brits, and you notice the word ‘catechising’, and baptising? I used to think that was preaching; I checked the words yesterday, and I was surprised, I think he was saying to these people, “OK, you are Christians, you came to be Christians, what do you know about it? Let’s hear if you know the basics of the Gospel,” and then if you did he’d baptise you, but he didn’t do anything more about it. Because there were no churches built they were just baptised and left. Then within five years Edwin was killed, Paulinus had gone back to Kent with the widow, and the whole thing had fallen into pieces in 633.
So we just start again and at this stage we remember the family in Scotland. ‘Among the Irish,’ says Bede, because remember there was an Irish colony in the west of Scotland Argyllshire today, Dalraida in the histories, with the religious capital on Iona, to which Columba had come sixty years before. It was there that these people had fled; it was there that Oswald and his brothers were converted and baptised. So they were in fact the first Northumbrians ever to be baptised.
So King Edwin dead, Oswald makes his thrust for the throne; and the crucial battle is at Heavenfield. Take the military road from Hetton-on-the-Wall, the back road that follows the wall, and as you dip down into the north Tyne you will see a great cross, beside the road on the right hand side, behind it in a field a little church, St Oswald Green. Walk over that bit of ground – its not big – that’s where the little force of Northumbrians were, and the enemy was in great cover, Cadwallon was the leader, and ‘I was born to kill Saxons’ was his motto.
There we are, and Oswald must have had a bit of cold feet, anyway, the night before the battle Columba appears to him in a dream, and says, “God has promised you the victory”. I was disappointed, when I read that I thought surely Christ would appear to him, but I think I understand it.
He’d gone to Iona as a boy, 12 yrs old. Columba had been dead for about 20 years. He must have heard hundreds of stories about Columba. Columba’s miracles, how held defeated the pagan king of the Picts etc etc. He must have thought – Corr! He’d sat open mouthed, listening to all these stories. In fact Columba’s life has been written by one of his successors a chap called Adomnan. It’s in three bits: Prophetic Revelations, Miracles of Power and Angelic Visions. (It’s a book well worth getting hold of: puts you back about £5.95).
So it was that Columba who appears to Oswald and says ‘God has promised you the victory’. So Oswald gets his soldiers to dig a hole, make a cross; and he holds it there while they dig it in, and they promise to be baptised if they win – hedging their bets! Well, he does win, and he comes to the throne and becomes, in fact, the Emperor of all Britain.
Let me read you some assessments, because now I want to tell you, having got the history mostly out of the way something about these people who formed our Northumbrian church. Because now we’ve got the third strand – we had the Romano-British, the Roman, and now the Celtic strand coming in.
This is Bede: ‘But it need cause no surprise that the prayers of this king who now reigns with God should be acceptable to him, since when he was a king on earth he always used to work and pray fervently for the eternal kingdom. It is said that Oswald often remained in prayer from the early hour of Lauds (about 2.00am) until dawn, and that, through his practise of constant prayer and thanksgiving to God, he always sat with his hands palm upwards on his knees. It is also said, and has since become a proverb, that his life closed in prayer.’
He sat with his palms upwards on his knees. Now, it is amusing to read the historians, they get themselves in an awful twist trying to work out what this means. Something to do with Germanic paganism ‘on the knees’ all sorts of things. About fifteen years ago, perhaps twenty years ago, when we got to know more about the work of the Holy Spirit. I suddenly found that people in the prayer meeting were beginning to sit with their hands palm upward on their knees, as they entered into an openness to God to the Holy Spirit. We thought it was new; Oswald had beaten us to it.
So I think we have got to grant that he was a Spirit-filled man. Another thing about him, he sends to Iona for missionaries, he says, ‘I want a bishop. I want people to preach the Gospel.’ Aidan is called, and while the Bishop ‘who was not yet fluent in the English language preached the gospel, it was most delightful to see King Oswald himself interpreting the Word of God to his Thanes and Leaders, for he himself had obtained perfect command of the scottish tongue during his long exile. Henceforth many Scots arrived daily in Britain and proclaimed the Word of God with great devotion, in all the provinces of Oswald’s rule, while those of them who were in priests’ orders ministered the grace of baptism to those who believed.
Churches were built in several places, and the people flocked gladly to hear the Word of God, while the King, of his bounty, gave money and lands to establish monasteries. And the English, both noble and simple, were instructed by their Scots teachers to observe a regular and disciplined life.’
So you get Oswald not only potentiating the Gospel by having Aidan in his entourage and so on, he causes things to happen, he translates, he gets involved in preaching, he’s wonderfully humble, we read, he has a life of prayer of generosity, he gets into evangelism and into church-founding and if you wander round the North of England you will find everywhere churches dedicated to Oswald, churches which I believe are ones that he originally founded, the ones in the north anyway.
Aidan, what about Aidan, the one who comes? this is the third strand, the Celtic strand. He had the grace of discretion. You may remember the story: When Oswald sent for a missionary they sent another chap who stuck it for a few months and then went back and said, “They’re so thick, those Northumbrians, they don’t want to listen. They’re so resistant to the Gospel; it’s a devils lot.”
A quiet voice pipes up from the back, and says, “Perhaps dear brother, you’re giving them the strong meat of the Word instead of feeding them with milk as befits babes; you ought to be quiet and gracious.” They said, Who’s that? – Aidan? Right you’re our Bishop. You can go.
He had the grace of discretion, all who accompanied him, we read whether monks or laymen, had to engage in some form of study, – this is while on the way – reading the Scriptures, or learning the psalms. So you get again this teaching strand coming in, now. Anyone who was with him had got to read the Scripture, or learn the Psalms. He cultivated peace and love, puritan humility. He was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit. This was written by Bede, remember, who belongs to the other school! Him praising Aidan! ‘He set himself to keep and teach the laws of God, and was diligent in study and prayer. He used his priestly authority to check the proud and powerful. He tenderly comforted the sick. He relieved and protected the poor. To sum up in brief what I have learned from those knew him, he took pains never to neglect anything that he had learned from the writings of the Apostles and Prophets and he set himself to carry them out with all his powers.’
Now he mentions the disagreement about the date of Easter: ‘but this in him I do approve, that in all that he breathed, worshipped and taught, his whole purpose was identical with our own, namely the redemption of the human race through the passion, resurrection and ascension to heaven of the man Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and men.’
So that is a testimony from one of the Romans: He laboured diligently to cultivate that faith, piety and love that marks out God’s saints.
He had twelve disciples, and from them and these other Scots that we heard came daily down from Iona, the Gospel went out. Those of you who tell you that England was converted by the work of St Augustine who landed in Thanet in 597, that’s the history of the propaganda of the victors. That isn’t the case at all. England was largely, three-quarters converted from Lindisfarne by the celtic missionaries in one flaming generation, under the guidance and authority and prayers of Aidan.
I will just mention two of these they were brothers actually. There was Chad, Chad who went to Lichfield. Truth, purity, humility, temperance and study are his. He travelled on foot, as had his instructor Aidan, so that when he met anyone on the road, he could invite them to read the Gospel. In fact, by this stage, a few years on, there is an archbishop who was so fed up with Chad insisting on walking that he physically lifted him up and plonked him on a horse and said, ‘Now ride, you can do more work that way.’
We read of Chad, he built a retired dwelling place not far from the church in which he could read and pray, privately or with seven or eight brothers. And you again get this story, you get it in St John of Beverley, and in Chad and in Aidan, himself they build a small place, as you’ve got one at the bottom of the drive, (here at Old Bewick) where they could retreat quietly for prayer and meditation.
His brother, Cedd, was Bishop in East Anglia, but he eventually came back, and they gave him land for a monastery at Lastingham near York, and he said, “I want to dedicate it to him. Before we start I want to spend the whole of Lent in prayer and fasting on that bit of ground… to make sure all evil spirits are driven out … cleanse the site,” he said.
But these couple I have mentioned and others were trained very largely after Aidan’s death by Hilda.
Hilda is another name you’ve really got to remember. Hilda was in the first baptisms at the time of Paulinus. As a girl she lived in the world as a princess; and then she desired to emigrate to leave her home and all that she had, and live as a stranger for the Lord’s sake, in a monastery in Gaul. Do you get this sense again. I will emigrate. I will go out, I will deliberately cut off myself from all the things that I count precious, in order that I can serve the Lord … ?
So she’s on her way to do that, she’s staying with her sister who’s a queen in East Anglia, when Aidan sends for her and says. “Oy, I’ve got a mission for you in Northumbria.” So, Hilda never makes it to Gaul. She comes back, and she’s given – you’ll be happy to know – in 647, land on the north side of the river Wear, I imagine, in which our own church, Enon, is situated at the moment. From there she went to Hartlepool: from Hartlepool she went to Whitby.
At Whitby she was known as the greatest, the most powerful woman in Europe. Her counsel was sort by kings; and she trained people; six bishops were trained under her. Some time ago there was a leading Christian wrote an article on ‘Leadership is Male’. And in my reply printed in the magazine I said held been in Southumbria too long he’d forgotten Hilda.
One of the gifts she had was the gift of knowledge. It can’t have been too rugged in her monastery, because they used to have what we would call Ceilidhs and passed around a harp and everybody in their turn sang a little song. There was one chap a cow herder, he’d got no gifts in this nature and he used to sneak off when the harp was getting near him and go back to the byres. And one night he was asleep in the byre having flunked the ceilidh, when God said to him “Sing,” and he said “I can’t sing”, and God put words into his mouth and they were the story of creation he versified it and the next day greatly ashamed he went and reported it to the powers to be, and they took him to Hilda and he sang this and she identified this is a gift God has given you teaching the history of the Old Testament. And so they taught it to him and he turned it into verse, and spent the rest of his life producing poems that people could learn and sing – Caedmon.
The picture we get is a people who exhibited grace, humility, who spent much time in prayer and study and evangelism, and so it was until we get to 630 when Wilfred was a young man. He goes to Lindisfarne he learns the psalms completely, by heart and he hears about Rome. And he says, “I’d love to go to Rome.” No Northumbrian had ever been to Rome, apart from in chains, in Roman days. So he and another person eventually get there, and of course he is just dazzled on the way in fact before he ever gets to Rome, in Gaul he is dazzled. A Bishop there offers his niece in marriage and he will make him a Count and give him land if he would like to stop. Bishops way back at home don’t offer you that sort of thing!
But there is a more serious aspect to it, he says, “I want to be considered to be orthodox, to be in, this is where it is all at. Rome this is where the whole thing is together, I don’t want to be thought of as somebody lost over a corner of the world.” So he comes home and I’m sure his aim is to reform the celtic church, that was what he was trying to do. He says “See the light, you’ve got your calculation of Easter wrong – I’ll explain to you mathematically. Your haircut is out of date, the way you do your tonsure now-a-days is not chopping straight across, and so on. But of course, he can’t persuade them or he persuades a few people.
Now I’ve got a picture that here you’ve got a keen little celtic church and the horrible great roman church down south pressurising it.
There was a tiny little roman church down south hanging on by their toe-nails in Kent, but far and away the powerful church in Britain was the Northumbrian church.
There weren’t in-come-rs pressurising them, there were people like Wilfred trying to reform them. But of course getting orthodox, he wasn’t going to be consecrated Bishop by these people so he goes to Gaul and he spends eighty months in Gaul getting consecrated, and he has six bishops carrying him in a golden chair carrying him to his consecration, and its great stuff.
It was said his territory was more extensive than that of his king and his wealth was more than that of his king. He was a very powerful man indeed and he didn’t like this being chopped down, so, we get an introduction of controversy. And as we heard last week, there is a Synod of Whitby hosted by Hilda, and the king decides they will follow the roman ways. Now I don’t really think this made a lot of difference to the celtic church. Now if you have a congregation who is told when Easter is next year at such and such a time, we’re not worried who calculated it, we just say Easter is then. I don’t think it mattered very much, OK the vicars haircut was different, I don’t think it made much difference in the churches and by this stage you have monasteries and churches.
There was a lot of contact still with Ireland, but eventually you get coming into Britain a new archbishop appointed from Rome. Theodore of Tarsus. Appointed at the age of sixty. (By the way, he was from the east and his haircut was the wrong shape and he had to stay in Rome so it could grow and he could cut it the right way.) He walks to Britain at the age of sixty, and gets down to twenty years work in Britain. A godly man and a scholar, who brought with him Hadrian the African, and they set things going and they got the church in England established systematically, they got councils, dioceses, and not all was bad. The Roman strand was back again. Something of the spontaneity was lost but there were some gains.
Lastly we come to Cuthbert and Bede, because they were the fruit of all these strands. Cuthbert had been a celtic monk, in the celtic monastery of Melrose. and then at Ripon, back at Melrose and then at Lindisfarne. In the roman obedience now, and a godly man, a man whose life was at one piece; whether he was being guestmaster at Ripon, or whether he was looking after the raw recruits at Melrose, or whether he was Abbot at Lindisfarne. Then he went into solitary just off Holy Island, the little islet and then he went to the Farnes. Not to give a sort of National Trust life watching the birds, but to fight the devil and he has to be dragged, the king and the archbishop have to go personally to beg him to become bishop. He comes and in two years he’s out on the hills preaching the gospel in the villages. Here you have a lovely man who has got all the strands together.
Then Bede himself, at the very end of his book, his history.
He gives a little bit of biography.
‘I was born in gangs of this monastery, ie between the Wear and the Tyne, and on reaching seven years of age my family entrusted me first to the most Reverend Abbot Benedict, and later to Abbot Chelforth, for my education. I spent all the remainder of my life in this monastery and devoted myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures. And while I observed the regular discipline and sung choir offices in church my chief delight has been in study, teaching and writing. I was ordained deacon at the age of nineteen, priest at the age of thirty, from the time of my receiving the priesthood and to my fifty-ninth year I have worked both to my own benefit and to that of my brethren, to compile a short extract from the works of the Venerable Fathers on Holy Scripture and to comment on their meaning and interpretation.’
Bede was known to be the greatest scholar in Europe. Bede’s Commentaries and books are found everywhere if you want the best manuscript of his History of English People it is in St Petersburg. He would have said his great work was the commentaries on scriptures.
Monkwearmouth, Jarrow was the lighthouse of learning in Europe as the shadows came down. Later on when you get Charlemagne, and the Carolinian Renaissance, it is to Northumbria that he sends for the scholar. Alkian who is going to lead his renaissance. So we’ve a lot to thank God for.
What are the things I notice? There is a whole-heartedness in their following Christ. There is prayer, there is quiet retreats, bible reading, bible memorisation, a band of fellow disciples. There is grace, humility, transparent honesty; and an awareness of heaven that I think we’ve lost. Cuthbert went to Melrose knocked on the door and said he wanted to be a monk, because that night while he would have been keeping the sheep on the hills above the Leider river, he had seen a great light going up to heaven, and he found the next day that it was Aidan’s soul. And he obviously thought if that’s the way it goes I want to be in on this. When Hilda died, two people in different places who didn’t know she was dying, saw her soul sent to heaven with choirs of angels. When Chad was at Litchfield, one of the junior members of the establishment saw a choir of angels land on his little chapel, and went round and said “what was that, Father?” He said, “Don’t tell anyone ’til I’m dead but next week they are going to come back for me.” You get this sense that they are not afraid of death, they are looking forward to glory.
If we look back to who you might call the ‘grandfather’ of the northumbrian church, Columba. Columba knew he was going to die, he knew he was going to die that day, so what does he do? he gets on with the job he was doing which was copying out the scriptures. The Thirty-fourth Psalm – this was what he was copying.
‘I will bless the Lord at all times
His praise shall continually be in my mouth.’
(What today when I’m dying)
‘My soul shall make her boast in the Lord
The hungry shall hear thereof, and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt His Name together.
I sought the Lord and He heard me
and delivered me from all my fears.’
(and there’d been plenty of problems with the Picts, with whirlpools
and with sea monsters.)
‘They looked to him and were lightened and their faces were not ashamed, This poor man cried and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angels of the Lord encamps
around them that fear Him
and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good
Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him
O fear the Lord you His saints
for there is no want to them that fear Him
The young lambs do lack and suffer hunger
But they that seek the Lord
shall not want any good thing.’
He puts his pen down. The next verse was going to be:
‘Come ye children, hearken unto me and I will teach you’
He’s not going to, he says the next verse is for my successor. Now that, is his testimony. ‘they that seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing’, and I think that’s great. When Bede’s turn comes. Bede wrote at the end of his History of English People,
‘I pray you good Jesus that as you have given me the grace to drink in with joy, the word that gives knowledge of you. So in your goodness you’ll grant me, to come at length to yourself, the source of all wisdom, to stand before your face forever.’
As he was dying he also was busy on scripture he was translating the gospel of St John into Anglo-Saxon, and his stenographer said this, as there was still a bit to do. “there is one more verse Master, can you manage it?” and he did. As he lay dying he said “I long to see Christ my King in all His beauty.”
These are the people used by God to found the Northumbrian Church, of which we are members, and of whose faith we should follow.