A Little History is a Helpful Thing

Once upon a time there was a Greek archbishop of Canterbury and a North African abbot of the monastery of St Peter and Paul, also in Canterbury. Theodore, the Greek archbishop, came from Tarsus, where as a boy he had experienced the horrors of the Sassanid invasions and been exposed to Persian culture. He is likely to have studied at Antioch before the Muslim conquest of Tarsus in 637 led him first to Constantinople, then to Rome. We know that he was familiar with Syriac as well as Greek and Latin and skilled in theology, languages, law, medicine and the liberal arts of his day. Adrian, his North African contemporary was a Berber by birth, immensely learned and the abbot of a monastery near Naples. Adrian was twice offered the see of Canterbury but refused, suggesting his friend Theodore instead. Pope Vitalian agreed, but insisted that Adrian should accompany Theodore to England.

Theodore was 66 when he became archbishop and served for 22 years, during which time he transformed the Church in England, appointing bishops to vacant sees, tightening ecclesiastical discipline at the synod of Hertford, and reforming the Church’s organizational structure, sub-dividing large dioceses and establishing the parish system still largely intact until recently. Adrian meanwhile established at Canterbury a school of learning second to none, which had a profound impact on the clerical and monastic culture of its time. Alfred looked back to Adrian’s day as a golden age, when scholars came to England to learn rather than the English having to go abroad to study.

A little history with our muesli is a good thing, is it not? Or is there something more substantial for us to think about? Today is the feast day of both Theodore of Tarsus and Adrian of Canterbury, so we know that to their intellectual and administrative gifts we can add virtue and holiness of life. We can also admire Theodore’s energy, starting a reform programme in a foreign country at the age of 66, and Adrian’s humility in refusing a bishopric, but, above all, I suggest we should think about what their appointment to their respective roles says about the international character of the Church — her catholicity in other words — and the way in which she is enriched by the sharing of peoples and cultures.

Anglo-Saxon England was very different from modern Britain, and in no way could we return to the kind of world that existed then. We can, however, learn some important lessons from it as it was at its best: openness to others, readiness to engage with different cultures, respect and welcome for the stranger, the valuing and cultivation of scholarship. As we appear to head towards another lockdown, with all that that implies by way of narrowing of experience and human interaction, and abandon our place in Europe and the world more generally because of decisions about Brexit and international commitments, those values may prove harder to sustain than once they were. The fact that they are harder to sustain does not mean that they are impossible, nor does it mean that they are unimportant. It does mean, however, that we will have to work harder at them. May the prayers of Saints Theodore and Adrian help us.


10 thoughts on “A Little History is a Helpful Thing”

  1. It’s wonderful that History is available now at the tap of a computer key. Not quite the Key to Heaven but maybe one of them. Thank you for enlightening us on this gem of History – and reminding us that we have work to do.

  2. Sorry to hear sister, that you are approaching, a loaddown again.
    Thank-you for that history. Just what I needed to hear, as I team up with my Healthcare
    Colleagues. You are smart! Blessings

  3. I found this absolutely fascinating, principally for the history, although I very much agree with your final paragraph. I had never heard of Theodore’s background and never, to my knowledge, heard of Adrian. Thank you.
    It is sobering to think that, in a time when our ability to learn about the rest of the world has never been so easy, we seem to be becoming more insular and xenophobic. As Catholic Christians, who (should) know how to feel at home in the wider world, we should have something to offer our fellow countrymen but does the Reformation suspicion still linger? Brexit as the unfinished business of the English Reformation? I wonder whether Catholics were less ready to vote for Brexit.

  4. I have just got the cake (boiled raisin cake) out of the oven and cut the first 4 pieces off it and delivered them to my elderly neighbour. While cooking the cake, the kitchen light keep coming on and off! Its night here, luckily I have a camping head light that the marketing company I worked for a few years ago sent me as I won it in a competition they run. The light is suddenly working now! In regard to sharing knowledge, I have found that the lockdown has forced me to do this with all the different cultural and social standards of others. We are all working for a common course in Healthcare. It has made me speak up and share my fourty years experience in a written form! (I did hate writing) but am enjoyed it now.

  5. What a brilliant post. If being a Catholic means anything, it means being truly universal, not having a hierarchy of nations or prioritising the culture or peoples of one nation over another. I can’t quite remember how many nationalities we have (in normal times) in our parish, but it’s well over thirty and is the most diverse place that I or, I suspect, most parishioners belong to. We all learn from each other and it’s a joy to know there’s a place where everyone’s welcome and equal.

  6. Sister, do you know of any good books on the Catholic history of Britain? I would be really interested in reading a good general history on the subject as all four of my grandparents were from Britain. Have you come across anything like that in your readings or the readings of your Abbey?

    • That’s a more difficult question to answer than one might think (I’m a lapsed historian myself, so my list would tend to be a bit dry and academic). I wonder if any reader can suggest something suitable? I know, I’ll ask on Catholic Twitter!

      • I’ve also remembered Roy Hattersley’s book called Catholics a large minority – I think. His father was a former Catholic priest ( at school with my father) so he has a good understanding. Easy to read too.

    • Anything by Eamon Duffy. He is a distinguished historian, and more importantly, has an accessible and engaging writing style. Start with The Stripping of the Altars.

  7. An excellent summary of the situation where the church was global in the known world and where individuals like Theodore and Adrian could be sent or find their way to another culture to their own and succeed in building up the Church and learning at quite an early stage in its history in the country.

    I had heard of Theodore, as he was someone we studied during my training, but I have to admit my ignorance of Adrian, I will now be going to find out more.

    I suspect in our “Separated” silo’s of Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox we miss so much of the richness of the lives and inputs of those who went before, unless we make a sustained study of Church History. So, it is actually wonderful to be reminded when the early church was one and not divided. And my prayers which are often raised for such a new unity to become the new, Christian norm, might yet be possible, because as we know. what is impossible for man, is always possible for God. I pray it could be so.

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