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.

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