Bede’s History of the English Church and People

One of the great pleasures of being a Flying Bishop is getting invited to patronal festivals. This stirs up the grey matter no end, when we are called on to preach on one of the lesser Apostles. Surely the congregation does not want to hear again “There is very little we can say with certainty about St. B., although tradition has it that …”? It is rather jollier when we are driven back to sources which can tell us something about the saint of the day, and especially good when the source in question is the Venerable Bede. If you are not already devoted to his History of the English Church and People, there is no better study, and especially at All Saints-tide.

Naturally I have a special devotion to Bede, since he mentions Richborough on page 1 of chapter one of book one of his history. He also gives blow by blow accounts of how Roman customs ( notably over the right date of Easter)) came to be established over the whole of England, despite Scots like Aidan and Colman being less well-informed, and wanting to maintain other customs.

Augustine’s mission had conformity with Rome as a major part of its agenda; perhaps we shall remember this next year, when we trek to Richborough (and possibly even to Ebbsfleet) to celebrate the fourteen-hundredth anniversary of his setting foot in England. It was also very much the theme of the Synod of Whitby, where the great Hilda ruled her abbey. Bede writes from the perspective of a good Romaniser, siding with Wilfred, the Pope’s man, against Colman. Some of Colman’s brethren returned with him to Scotland when King Oswy settled the matter in favour of Wilfred. Others like Bishop Tuda stayed and accepted Roman rules, not just about Easter but also about the other hotly-contended issue, how monks should have their hair cut.

It is easy to mock the things which our forefathers took so seriously. Maybe there will come a time when our present debates and disagreements will prove equally hilarious. What is much more important is to recognise the faith and the convictions of those men and women who first brought Christianity to our land and people. And when better than this season of All Saints? That day is given us to remember the great company which no-one can number, whose names have slipped out of memory. On every page of Bede you will find heroes without whom we might not have the faith at all. Queen Ethelberga, who was encouraged by Pope Boniface to work for the conversion of her husband. Egbert, who prayed for his life to be spared during the plague, so that he might make amends for his misspent youth – and who lived until he was ninety, reciting the entire Psalter each day in addition to the canonical hours. Oswin, the monk who had no special talent for meditating on the scriptures, but who entered the monastic life carrying an axe and an adze, to show that he was entering the monastery not for the sake of an idle life, as some do, but in order to work. He was so effective in this that he alone of the brethren heard the song of the angels when the great Bishop Chad was called to his rest.

At times our church has been very forgetful of the saints; but they have not forgotten us, for every time we make Eucharist we do so with them, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”. How good that Bede’s book has survived more than twelve centuries, to help us envisage some of the holy men and women who fought and died for the faith in our land. How helpful, too, that it’s still in print as a Penguin Classic, and in a readable translation. You will enjoy it.

Edwin Barnes is Bishop of Richborough