Christopher Johnson offers a challenge and inspiration for the Priest of Today


A few years ago, a friend from university visited me when I was curate of Pickering in the Diocese of York. He had read history at St Benet’s Hall, and when he left Oxford, he became a history teacher at a school in Chelmsford. During the course of his visit, and with his background and interests in mind, we decided that we were going to go out to Stamford Bridge to have a look round. Stamford Bridge was the site of a famous battle in English history, so I thought it was ideal as a stopping point for my friend and I on our little journey round that part of Yorkshire. However, I have to say it was a bit disappointing – there wasn’t very much to do there – basically the only thing of interest in the place was the church, and that was stuffed with all sorts of things which drove me rather mad. In particular, I remember that there was a basket in the building in which was a collection of pebbles. ‘What baggage do you need to put down first? What burdens do you need to lay aside?’ advertised the laminated sign in Comic Sans font. ‘To help you, if you feel you need to lay something down, take a pebble and put it at the foot of the cross.’ Whilst I do not doubt the sincerity of the vicar of this beautiful church, who was trying to encourage some form of penitential reflection in Lent, I take issue with the method chosen, which seems to me to be more pagan than Christian. Nonetheless, what interested me most, as someone who spent a few years studying the Anglo-Saxon church, is that this was actually something that was strangely very English.

In 598, Pope Gregory the Great, that great evangelizer of our nation, wrote a letter to Eulogius, the Bishop of Alexandria, in which he wrote: ‘The English race, who live in a corner of the world, still remain faithless in their worship of trees and rocks.’ And when you think about it, one only has to consider the sort of things that we hear in the course of our ministries, from both lay and ordained, churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike, to see that nothing has changed. I remember attending a service of the reception of a coffin prior to a funeral, where the priest in question had asked members of the family to bring something in to place on the coffin alongside the Bible and crucifix. Remarkably, the son-in-law of the deceased brought in a tree, declaring to the assembled crowd ‘my god is in the trees’. (What on earth had I come to?) But some Christian literature is not so far away from this. Clergy and lay faithful, would, on the whole, often prefer to look at an illustrated prayer book from Iona or Lindisfarne, which is full of pictures of stones and sunsets, than they would read a work of theology, however accessible we might tell them it is. The saintly Gregory was concerned about these inclinations which the English demonstrated, and therefore he was concerned about the state of the souls of the English people. We all know what he did as a result: he sent over Augustine and his companions to evangelize our nation.

Much has been written about the conversion of the English people, beginning with St Bede, but historians of the Anglo-Saxon period since Bede have really preferred to see the conversion of the English as the endeavour of monastic communities, i.e. monks and nuns. In fact, anyone with any understanding of the period will tell you this: that it was monks and nuns who made England Christian. But this is really a skewed version of what actually happened, and when you read the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great, together with Bede’s corpus, and material from other sources, what emerges is a picture, where at the centre of the evangelization of the English people, is the figure, not of the lay monk, but of the ordained priest.

In another letter, this time to Brunhilde, Queen of the Franks, written in 596, Gregory wrote: 


And so that their souls should not perish in eternal damnation, we have taken care to send there the bearer of this letter, Augustine… together with other monks, so that through them we might learn the wishes of the people themselves and consider their conversion, as far as is possible, with your support also. We have also warned them that they should take priests with them from nearby to carry out these things.


Augustine was a monk of Gregory’s own monastery in Rome, which one can still visit on the Caelian Hill – it now bears the name of the saint who once lived and prayed within its walls. And you can see why Gregory wanted him to lead this mission. You can see too why he would have taken monks from his own monastery. (I think of the parallel perhaps of modern church planting, where one takes a cutting from one church, and plants it in a new place for the church to grow there: the leader takes people he or she knows, people he or she trusts, people under his or her authority, and because of this, the mission is more likely, so it is said, to be successful.) But here in this letter, Gregory makes the point that monachi on their own (lay monks and nuns) cannot successfully carry out the work of a missionary. They need priests. But why?

In Bede’s account we learn a number of things about the process of conversion as understood by the saint. Firstly, when the original missionaries came over from Italy, the first thing they did – often passed over by modern atheistic or agnostic historians – is that they prayed. And so in Book I Chapter 25 of the Historia Ecclesiastica we read: on arrival in Kent, Augustine first ‘chanted litanies and uttered prayers to the Lord for their own eternal salvation and the salvation of those for whom and to whom they had come’. This priority of worship explains why very soon afterwards Pope Gregory responded to Augustine’s request for more missionaries by sending to Kent not only other men to aid the mission, but also, we read, those things necessary for the worship and ministry of the church too. The conversion of Northumbria, Bede tells us, took place in a very similar way. Æthelburh, the wife of Edwin, received advice from Pope Boniface stressing the essential role she could play as Queen in the conversion of her husband, and subsequently his kingdom. Her chief duty, so the Pope tells her, was not to teach articles of faith, but first and foremost to pray. Such prayer had a converting effect on the unconverted: King Edwin of Northumbria himself convinced King Eorpwald of East Anglia to abandon idols and accept the Christian faith and sacraments because of his devotion to true worship.  St Aidan too, later on, constantly engaged his travelling party, composed of both clerics and laymen, in the study of the scriptures and the recitation of the psalms. Prayer was the foundation of the plan for the conversion of England.

It was then followed, in Bede’s account, by preaching and here is where we start to glimpse the necessity of the priest in the conversion process. For preaching was (as it still is in the rules governing the Roman Catholic Church, and in the canons of the Church of England) first and foremost a priestly task. Christ was the teacher; and the priest, who ministers (to use more contemporary language) in persona Christi, continues His work. In the period we are considering, preaching was first aimed at the king and his noblemen, who would then (it would be hoped) grant permission for the priests to preach to the people. Famously, Bede tells us that these priests, having been granted permission, would frequently travel on foot to do their job, traversing ‘the whole kingdom’ in order to build up ‘a great church for the Lord’. They could even spend up to a month in a single place, where they would expound the faith to those who came to them from the surrounding villages, encouraging them to believe. (Paulinus, just to give one example, once spent thirty-six days at Yeavering instructing the crowds who ‘flocked to see him from every village and district’.)

Following preaching, Bede always suggests that there was a moment when the kingdom as a whole ‘converted’ to the faith. This moment happened when an individual or kingdom rejected its former idolatrous ways, and expressed its belief in the Trinitarian God of the Christians. Individuals would then have to undergo baptism. And as is still taught by the Prayer Book and the church catholic, baptism was understood in the period to constitute a regeneration of the individual’s soul – a concept understood not only by the clergy of the time, but also by informed laity as well – and those who were baptized at this time were clothed in a white garment following their baptism, to indicate this newly-adopted purity.

A further stage in the conversion of England was then the construction of churches. In the initial conversion period, priests would claim pagan shrines for the church and renovate them rather than destroying them, but later on, the foundation of new churches would be negotiated between bishops and secular rulers, and interestingly, in most, if not all cases, in Bede’s Historia, including the foundation of the churches at Canterbury, London and York, the foundation of churches preceded the building of monasteries, demonstrating again that conversion was a priestly rather than monastic task. Consecrating these churches was then, as now, an episcopal privilege: Bede articulated, that as a priest, Cedd ‘built up the spiritual body of Christ’; whereas when he were made a bishop, Bede tells us he ‘established churches’ – note the difference in the language attributed to the same person when a priest, and then when elevated to the episcopate. What this means is that by the end of the conversion period in each kingdom throughout what we now call England, working ecclesiae were scattered all over the landscape, acting as bases for clerics to continue the mission to the people through their prayer, preaching and the celebration of the sacraments.

So far then we’ve learnt that for St Bede and Pope St Gregory, priests were an essential component in mission and evangelization, because of their roles in prayer, but particularly in being the ordinary ministers of preaching and of baptism. Today, of course, we are used to lay people preaching – more so perhaps in other traditions within our church than our own, but it’s there. And, of course, we’re used to deacons baptizing too. As a deacon myself, my incumbent used to give me a lot of baptisms to do, but really the bishop, or in his absence, the priest, is the ordinary minister of baptism, and it’s interesting that the only record of a deacon baptizing in Bede’s Historia is when Paulinus ‘chickened out’ and fled the northern province, leaving St James the Deacon to face the pagan hoard, and run the church in York. In fact, Bede makes a point in writing that when Aidan came to Northumbria – in other words when Northumbria had a bishop again – only those amongst Aidan’s party ‘who held the rank of priest administered the grace of baptism to those who believed’. 

And baptism was important. In the anonymous life of Gregory the Great written by a monk of Whitby, the author comments: ‘without baptism none will ever see God’. Baptism therefore remained, throughout the period, the most important sacrament which the church could offer to the English people, being the single necessary precursor to attaining salvation and everlasting life.

This was followed closely by the Mass, which, for St Bede, was the sacramental act par excellence, connecting the sacrifice of Calvary to the present. Indeed, in a homily for ‘After Epiphany’, the saint wrote a most instructive comment: ‘Not only did he wash us from our sins in his blood when he gave his blood for us on the cross, or when each of us was cleansed in his baptism by the mystery of his most sacred passion, but he also takes away every day the sins of the world, and washes us of our daily sins in his blood, when the memory of his blessed passion is re-enacted on the altar, when a created thing, bread and wine, is transformed by the ineffable sanctification of the Spirit into the sacrament of his flesh and blood’ [I.15]. The Mass was important to the church of the period; the sacrament held in highest regard. Archbishop Theodore, the great reformer of Canterbury, wrote a Penitential, which barred communion to a heretic, and ruled that if a priest were to administer communion to a heretic, he too should serve penance, either for one year if he were ignorant of the church’s condemnation of the individual, or for longer if he were in full knowledge of the fact. This is no ‘Go say a Hail Mary’ here! Penance is harsh and demanding. Why? Because the gift that was being offered really was considered, so, so precious, and worthy of it. How the church of today could learn from that!

But if one did receive the Mass, as a priest or layman, its effects were understood to be miraculous in terms of its spiritual efficaciousness. Nowhere was this more powerfully told than in Bede’s narration of the story of Imma. Imma was a retainer who had been struck down in battle, but who recovered consciousness and set about finding shelter. In this search, however, he was caught by the enemy, and was tied and bound. Bede narrated that Imma’s brother, Tunna, was a priest, who, presuming Imma to be dead, said masses for him. And so in what is presented as a minor miracle, Imma’s captors found that his chains could not be bound, because ‘of these celebrations [of the mass]’ that were taking place. To emphasize the link further, Bede noted that Imma’s ‘fetters were at once loosed… at the [exact] time when masses were being celebrated on his behalf’. For Bede, the mass thus provided a powerful tool for Anglo-Saxons to be released from bonds: actual bonds in this case, but moreover, the bonds of sin, whether the individual has committed sin in this life, or whether mass was being celebrated for the repose of his soul – something else priests did with great fervour and frequency in the period.

The role of binding and loosing, is, of course, fundamental to the nature of priesthood, whatever our contemporaries may think. It’s there, right at the heart of the gospels, and it’s there, right at the heart of the priestly ordination rite in the BCP. And yet it is an aspect of our faith of which we as catholics are fast becoming the only defenders. There were none of these issues in Anglo-Saxon England: Bede believed, with the worldwide church, that binding and loosing were functions granted by Christ to his apostles, of whom the bishops were the successors – just read the account of the Synod of Whitby if you need to see how important this was. The Saint articulated this theology in one of his homilies: ‘Indeed,’ he wrote, ‘even now the same office is committed to the whole Church in her bishops and priests, so that when she has come to know sinners’ cases, she considers which are humble and truly penitent, and in compassion she may then absolve them from the fear of perpetual death. But she may suggest that those whom she recognizes to be persisting in the sin which they have committed, should be assigned to everlasting punishments’ [I.20].

Once infant baptism began to replace the baptism of adults as the normative expression of the rite, it is reasonable to believe that confession and penance became more widespread. The publication of Archbishop Theodore’s Penitential fits this picture: in a period of consolidation, normal priests on the ground needed to know what they had to do when someone came to them and said ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned’. And the Penitentials were all about helping the priest to navigate these tricky moral issues. Perhaps there is space for an updated Penitential today, particularly in the wake of the issues around the practice of confession that our church is considering, and the complete neglect of training given to clergy on hearing confessions in most of the Church of England?

We’ve seen, then, how priests are essential in the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England, because they are the ordinary ministers of preaching and baptism. We’ve seen too how they administered some of the other sacraments, and how their role in saying the mass, and administering penance, continued to give them a clear use and purpose beyond the initial conversion period of the English people. Nonetheless, after the conversion period itself, the role of the priest started to diminish somewhat. And this is interesting for us, as we live in what seems to be a predominantly Evangelical Church of England, the majority of whose members appear to us neither to understand nor care about the proper role of the priest in the economy of the Body of Christ. Indeed, whilst lay ministry is bolstered by central and Diocesan initiatives (no bad thing), parishes are placed in the hands of lay people to administer (more dodgy), and synod is experiencing calls for lay presidency at the Eucharist (aarrgh!), the fundamental question that needs to be asked is: where does that leave the priest? What is a priest for? If everyone is seemingly able to do everything, what is priesthood all about?

The Anglo-Saxon church went through a different but similar identity crisis. In that period, it was not due to the incursion of erroneous theology, but the accumulation of power in a particular place – and this takes me back to the role of the ‘monastery’. A ‘monastery’ in the period was a settlement which could include male and female religious, ordained men, and non-religious lay men and women, who perhaps worked in the communities. But two things were consistent. Firstly, the whole community was under the jurisdiction of a monastic superior. And secondly, these monasteries quickly acquired land and wealth, and were granted exemption from ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction. The overall effect of these two things was that monasteries began to be the places from which pastoral care was being exercised.

This was problematic in principle, because on more than one occasion, it put laymen in charge of priests – who, since Jesus’s time had been (to use modern language) the ‘leaders’ of the church – and it also undermined the relationship between the priest and his bishop. Thus there became two competing structures at work in England, diocesan organization focussed on the bishop, and the network of monasteria, focussed on the abbot or abbess, and for a time, the monasteria were winning the power game. There was also a growing practical problem, which was that the pastoral needs of the people began to be neglected. Some monasteries had even become corrupt – read Aldhelm or Bede if you want to find out more. Needless to say, that from the beginning of Theodore’s archiepiscopate, the bishops decided to do something about this. And so they began meeting in councils, they started to properly distinguish the role of an ordained priest from the role of an un-ordained monk. Tensions continued to rise, however, until all of this culminated in the Council of Clofesho, convened by Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury in 747.

By 747, the Archbishop had had enough of priests evading his control, monasteria ruling the roost, and the laity, as a result, receiving poor pastoral care. And so he convened the Council. The Council would assert his authority as archbishop, re-claim pastoral care for the episcopate, emphasise the catholicity and unity of the church against the individualism of the monasteria and individual sees, and contextualise an insular Christianity in the wider framework of the catholic faith, which looked to Rome as its centre. In 747, the church in Anglo-Saxon England was on the brink of really quite major reform, and its priests were to be the vehicles whereby pastoral care would be delivered once more to the people of God.

Amongst the thirty canons produced by the Council, seven were therefore about the authority of bishops, five were about priestly ministry, six were about the liturgy, and six were about monks, and right at the top was the notion that the pastoral cure of the people belonged to the bishop. That meant that bishops were in charge of monasteria, and now had new powers to visit them and exhort their abbots and abbesses. Furthermore, priests residing in monasteria, whilst clearly owing obedience to both bishop and abbot, were now clearly told, they owed their obedience to their bishop first and foremost. Moreover, priests were to be the prime vehicles of the spiritual care of the people, because, the Council said, priests alone could reconcile the people to the Lord through the workings of the sacraments. This meant that priests were to be diligent in reading, prayer, saying the mass, reciting the psalms, baptizing, teaching, and visiting. The Council ruled they should know Latin and be able to translate and explain the Lord’s Prayer, Creed and the words used at the mass and in baptism, to the people.  And the people, in their turn, were urged by the Council to come to church. Interestingly, no longer were priests to be wandering clerics: they were to stay in their location on Sundays and the people were to come to them, to hear the mass, scriptural readings, and sermons, and to communicate as frequently as they were able.

Bad pastoral care had led to the people lapsing. Theodore had seen it in the latter part of the seventh century, Bede saw it in the 730s, and now Cuthbert was seeing as the middle of the eighth century approached. And the solution was not to do something new or novel. It was not to change the content of the faith to make it more palatable to the culture. It was rather to heighten the level expected of the people, to require them to come to mass and participate in the sacrament of confession, which alone would reconcile them to God, and to encourage them to understand and take seriously the faith which they possessed and so live it out in their lives. For the priests’ part, they were to enable this: they had to pray, preach and teach, baptize, say the mass, and offer opportunity for confession. The fundamental problem Clofesho was addressing, was a spiritual one, and it needed a spiritual solution. The sacraments provided that, and the priests, as ministers of the sacraments, were the only ones who could do what was necessary – enact that reconciliation between God and the English people – by the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary in sacramental form.

Today, I would venture to say that we are in a not-too-dissimilar position to the priests of post-conversion Anglo-Saxon England – numbers of pastoral offices are falling away, the numbers of confirmation candidates is hideously low, people simply aren’t coming to church, preferring to spend their time doing other things, rather than worshipping God. Modern missionary tactics teach us sociological methods to address this: create a messy church, found a toddler group, find some form of stepping stone to help people on their journey of faith. And that is absolutely fine: people say faith is often ‘caught not taught’, and these are great ways to do that. But the problem of course is not just a sociological one. The reason our churches are not brimming on a Sunday is actually because of sin. The problem is sin, and it can only be addressed by bringing people to the foot of the Cross through the sacraments of the Church, which connect them in a real and tangible way to Jesus Christ. Café Church, if done well, could perhaps be morally and religiously instructive, like a well-designed collective worship in a Church of England school, but it fundamentally does not reconcile a sinful people to their Creator and change their soul. Messy Church might help attract families to our doors, but unless it includes some form of Eucharistic celebration, does not engender an actual and substantial meeting between our maker and ourselves, it does not place the individual at the foot of the Cross and bring them salvation. And much modern so-called worship is the same – anthropocentric and not doxological.

The title of this talk was ‘Learning from the Anglo-Saxons: Challenge and Inspiration for the Priest of Today’, and I hope what I’ve done so far is sketch for you some of the similarities between the conversion and post-conversion church in England with the church of today. I hope some of the evidence I’ve explored, which shows how priests, and the sacraments they administered, were central to mission and conversion, might encourage you to continue in your own ministry, knowing that we’ve been there before, and God has been faithful, resurrecting His church from what seems to be ashes, through the ministry of priests, who are absolutely and fundamentally essential in this process. But I want to finish by talking about one final source, and that is Bede’s commentary on the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. Much of that book echoes what I’ve already said. For instance, it’s there that Bede says very explicitly ‘All who desire to join the community of the Holy Church must be washed in baptism and consecrated to the Lord through the hands of priests. Equally, those who by sinning have been drawn away from the Church’s fellowship into the devil’s servitude, and who by remaining in their sin have fallen into the captivity of the King of Babylon, must be reconciled to the Holy Church by doing penance through the office of a priest.’ So it’s clear – the restoration of the priestly cult was central to Bede’s conception of mission and conversion, how the people would be won back for God – but an uncompromising correlative of this is Bede’s understanding of priestly character and behaviour.

Bede understood priests to be set apart for their work. He links this setting apart to the priestly office in his commentary on Ezra, and when describing the role of the pontifex says: ‘The pontifex… stands out above all the people when he who received the rank of teacher rises above the activity of the crowd by the merit of a more perfect life; but he stands on a wooden step that he had made to speak upon when he makes himself higher than the rest through exceptional imitation of the Lord’s passion.’ For Bede, then, the bishop and priest must configure the whole of his life through the ‘exceptional imitation of the Lord’s passion’, or as we might say gathered here today, as members of the Society of the Holy Cross, ‘Through the saving power of the Cross impressed inwardly upon our lives and revealed outwardly in our work…’ This imitation of the Lord’s passion, as Bede described elsewhere, involved the offering of oneself, body and soul, for the Lord, as Jesus gave up his life for his fellow men. All Christians can partake of it through the offering of perfect thoughts and deeds to the Lord, as all are priests within the priesthood of all believers. Nonetheless, as Bede says, ordained priests have a duty to ‘make their own actions worthy more than others through a special sanctification, and to do this earnestly, so that those who are joined with them might sanctify the Lord’s name in themselves by living well’. This exhortation would find expression in 747 in the eighth canon of the Council of Clofesho: priests should, the canon says, ‘remind themselves of what purpose they are promoted above others, by divine ordination, that they are called “God’s ministers, and stewards of the mysteries of Christ,” and then that “it is required of stewards, that a man be found faithful:” therefore let them know, that it is necessary for them, in regard to God, to desist from secular business and causes, so far as they can, to discharge their duty at the altar, and in divine service, [and] with the utmost application.’

What can we learn, then, for our own time, from the early Anglo-Saxon England priest, as he faced the similar problems of his own day, in the conversion of the people? Firstly, the priority of worship and prayer in all we do. Secondly, the need to teach and preach the faith, with high standards and expectations of all Christian people. Thirdly, the need to trust in the power of baptism to cleanse from sin, and the desire to bring as many unbaptized to that sacrament as possible. Fourthly, confidence in the necessity of bringing the lapsed to the mass and penance as the ways in which they are reconciled to God and his church. And finally, we can learn that all of this must be pursued in lives that are sacrificial, lives that remain faithful to the demands of the faith, whatever the cost we have to bear.


Fr Christopher Johnson SSC is parish priest of St Peter Horbury. This article is a version of a talk given to a chapter of the Society of the Holy Cross.