Michael Fisher reflects on the life and legacy of Saint Chad
On St Chad’s Day, 2 March 2017, the Diocese of Lichfield adopted a new motto: ‘Come follow Christ in the footsteps of St Chad.’ More often than not, St Chad’s Day occurs during Lent, and it is not in any case observed as a major feast outside the Lichfield diocese, of which Chad was the first bishop. This year is an exception as it falls very conveniently on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, and there are good reasons why this seventh century bishop should be more widely celebrated in our own day and age. Chad lived at a time of conflict and controversy within the English church—a time of political division, instability and uncertainty—and there was urgent need of grass-roots mission, evangelism, reconciliation and pastoral care. These issues are still very much alive in our own time, and Chad’s example of humility, prayerfulness and self-giving love may be as relevant now as ever they were.
One of many tales surrounding the larger-than-life figure of Dr Stretton Reeve (Bishop of Lichfield 1953–74 and 95th in sequence from St Chad) concerns a mother who, having made an appointment to see him, marched her thirteen-year-old son into his study and said, ‘Now then, bishop—this son of mine thinks he wants to be ordained, so what can you do to stop him?’ Though possibly apocryphal, this story contains at least a grain of truth in that while most Roman Catholic families might rejoice at the prospect of having a priest in the family, a good many Anglican ones would take an opposite stance and react in similar way to that boy’s mother. Might Dr Reeve have recalled that the mother of his seventh century predecessor had produced not one but four sons, every one of whom was called to the priesthood? We may never know, but two of those boys—Cedd and Chad—were later raised to the episcopate: Cedd as Bishop of the East Saxons, and Chad as Bishop of York and subsequently of Mercia where he established the See of Lichfield in 669.
After the departure of the Romans from Britain in the fifth century and the subsequent invasions of the heathen Angles and Saxons, what remained of the British church became confined to the western fringes of Cumbria, Strathclyde, Wales and Ireland. It was from there that missions to the tribal kingdoms of central and eastern England were launched by Celtic bishops such as Aidan, ‘the Apostle of Northumbria,’ who founded the island monastery of Lindisfarne. It was here that the young St Chad studied. Then, after Aidan’s death in 651, he completed his education and training for the monastic life, and the priesthood, in Ireland.
Chad lived in turbulent times. Saxon England was divided into several kingdoms, including Northumbria which had become Christian under its saintly king Oswald, and Mercia which covered the Midlands under its heathen king Penda. War broke out between them. Oswald was killed by Penda’s forces in 642, and Penda—the last great pagan warrior of the Anglo-Saxons—was himself defeated and killed by Oswiu of Northumbria in 655. There were also deep divisions and controversies within the church. Cut off from the rest of western Christendom for a century and a half, the ancient British church treasured its own distinctive customs and liturgical practices as established in the mission centres of Iona and Lindisfarne. Unaware that the western church as a whole had adopted a new calendar and method of calculating the date of Easter, the Celtic church remained faithful to the old lunar calendar which meant that it was out of step with the now more centralized Church of Rome. This, and other differences, came into sharp focus following St Augustine’s mission sent from Rome in 597 and the subsequent founding of the See of Canterbury. The fundamental question was which local customs and practices might be considered acceptable and of no great consequence, and which were universal and pertaining to the catholic Church as a whole. Were the holy orders conferred by British bishops during the years of separation valid or not? Although the Synod of Whitby (669) settled these matters in favour of Rome, and marked a further step towards the establishment of Canterbury as the headquarters of the English church, controversy rumbled on as some within the Celtic tradition refused to conform.
Chad himself was caught up in this controversy when in 664 he was called from his cloistered life as abbot of the Yorkshire monastery of Lastingham to be consecrated bishop for Northumbria. The bishop-elect for this area, Wilfrid, had gone over to Gaul for consecration by bishops whose orders were not in doubt, but he stayed away for several years, leaving Northumbria without effective episcopal oversight. Having been chosen to fill in the gap, Chad received consecration at the hands of three British bishops of the Celtic tradition, but when Wilfrid came back to Britain four years later, Chad humbly resigned the see and returned to Lastingham. It was but a brief respite, for the new archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, saw him as the ideal missionary-minded bishop for the vacant diocese of Mercia, parts of which had not yet been converted, so in 669 Chad arrived in Mercia, establishing his see first at Repton, and finally at Lichfield. His episcopate was to be a short one, for he died on 2 March 672 during a plague epidemic.
Chad’s terms of office as a bishop, first in Northumbria and then in Mercia, totalled little more than seven years, yet such was his reputation as a man of prayer and tireless missionary zeal that, according to the historian Bede, he was venerated as a saint almost immediately after his death. He was buried initially at the church which he had built at Stowe, on the east side of Lichfield, where the holy well of St Chad may still be seen. Then, about 30 years later, his relics were translated to the new cathedral. During the several rebuildings and extensions of the cathedral between 1085 and 1385, the shrine of St Chad was progressively enlarged and embellished as a major place of pilgrimage. Meanwhile, some 33 medieval churches came to be dedicated to him in various parts of the Midlands and the north of England. Today there are very many more, some as far afield as San Antonio (Texas) and Huapi (New Zealand).
How does one account for this widespread devotion to a seventh century bishop whose tenure of office was so brief? Among his virtues as listed by Bede are temperance, humility, self-denial, fervour in teaching, prayer, voluntary poverty, and above all, fear of God. His humility is evidenced by his willing surrender of episcopal office when Wilfrid returned at last to Northumbria, and also by his agreement to re-consecration on his appointment as Bishop of Mercia to remove any doubt about the validity of the orders he already had. Though brought up in the Celtic tradition, and treasuring the spiritual heritage of Iona and Lindisfarne, Chad understood that in fundamental matters of faith, order and governance, the local church must conform to the practice of the universal Church: quod ubique, quod semper, et ab omnibus—what is believed always, everywhere, and by all.
In other aspects, the Celtic heritage remained a powerful force within the English church alongside the new impetus from Rome, and there is evidence of ‘mutual flourishing.’ For example, the Lichfield Gospel Book, dating from a little after St Chad’s time, is embellished with magnificent illuminations in the Celtic style, and the Latin text is annotated in Old Welsh.
St Chad understood that to win people’s hearts, he had first to love them, and to love them he had to know them and spend time amongst them. It is therefore as the tireless missionary that he is best remembered, traversing his vast episcopal areas on foot (until Archbishop Theodore personally sat him on a horse) taking the gospel of God’s love into those areas of Mercia still waiting to hear it. Doubtless Chad encouraged his clergy to follow his own example, and so helped to plant the seed of the parish system with communities gathering around their local priest. A former Bishop of Ebbsfleet once told the story of how, not long after his appointment, a certain diocesan bishop had written to him, kindly enclosing a list of the clergy of that diocese who would come under his pastoral and sacramental care, with helpful notes about each one of them. One particular comment caught his eye: ‘Father X is faithful to Mass, he says his prayers, and visits his people—but does little else’; and he couldn’t help wondering what ‘else’ might reasonably be expected of a parish priest whose life was so focussed upon the altar, upon the daily routines of prayer, and of giving pastoral care to his people—a sentiment that St Chad would heartily have endorsed!
Pilgrimages to Lichfield ended abruptly amid the upheavals of the sixteenth century when the shrine was destroyed and the saint’s relics were dispersed. Some of the bones were, however, secreted away, to be re-discovered in the 1830s at Aston Hall near Stone in Staffordshire just as a new cathedral—the first Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation—was taking shape in Birmingham. It was to be dedicated to St Chad, and its architect, A.W.N. Pugin (1812–1852) constructed the high altar ensemble as a shrine to accommodate a new reliquary in which these precious remains were placed. Though it was later embellished with gilded pinnacles and kneeling figures of angels, Pugin modelled the reliquary simply on Bede’s description of the original: ‘A wooden coffin in the shape of a little house with an aperture in the side.’ In recent times the bones have been scientifically examined, and some at least are known to date from the seventh century.
In death as in life, St Chad has been—and remains—a focus for unity and reconciliation among Christians of various traditions. There is a Russian Orthodox church in Nottingham dedicated to St Aidan and St Chad, and a Greek Orthodox community of the Ascension and St Chad in Rugby. In 2015 the Dean of St Chad’s cathedral was installed as an ecumenical canon of Lichfield, and plans are in hand to return a fragment of one of the saint’s bones to Lichfield in a specially-designed reliquary. Most importantly, the example of St Chad continues to inspire mission and evangelism in a country where ignorance, false spiritualities and superstition are no less potent forces than they were in Saxon Mercia.
When launching the new diocesan motto, Follow Christ in the Footsteps of St Chad, the 99th Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, commended the following prayer for our use: ‘Almighty God, from the first fruits of the English nation who turned to Christ you called your servant Chad to be an evangelist and bishop of his own people: give us grace to follow his peaceable nature, humble spirit and prayerful life, that we may truly commend to others the faith which we ourselves profess; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
Fr Michael Fisher is a priest in the diocese of Lichfield and a member of the Fabric Committee of St Chad’s cathedral, Birmingham.