Sunday, 12 April 2009

Easter Tale

There’s something poignant about the image of the Roman Legions folding their tents and leaving Britain in 410 to meet the Visigoth threat to Rome, while the British had to face their own Barbarian invasions alone. It feels like a story of painful loss, even though I know that when all's said and done, the Roman Empire was really just a highly effective army and some excellent administrators: merchants of death and pen pushers, not what I would normally count among my objects of nostalgia.

In any case, the Anglo-Saxon invasions set us on the route to the development of cricket, a vast improvement over gladiatorial combat in that it delivers suffering and humiliation over far longer and with far more devilish sophistication.

At the time, however, Britain lost a cultured civilisation. The language vanished without trace. Where the French still speak their Gallo-Roman Latin modified to meet the strange accents of the Franks, in England we speak a language developed from our Germanic ancestors. The Latin words it contains are mostly later incorporations from the French of the Normans.

Christianity too took a huge step backwards. There’s evidence of Christian presence as far north as Manchester in the late second century (amazing how quickly these new religious fads can spread). However, real conversion got going only after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in the fourth century.

And the legions were gone less than a century later.

In poured the pagan invaders (invited in, initially, by Britons to fight their neighbours, which just goes to show the danger of domestic disunity, to say nothing of trying to gain an advantage by bringing in powerful outsiders to reinforce your side…). Christianity was more or less eradicated. It survived in Ireland although, ironically, it had originally been brought there by missionaries from Britain.

When the dust had settled, the Irish in turn sent missionaries back to Britain, setting up monasteries in Iona off south west Scotland, and then further afield including the great centre at Lindisfarne on Holy Island, off north east England. The illuminated manuscript of the Lindisfarne Gospels is an outstanding monument to the artistry and skill of the monks gathered there.

Since it’s Easter Sunday today, this is perhaps a good time to remember St Columba, to whom Iona is dedicated, St Aidan who founded Lindisfarne, and the many others who kept alive the flame of Christianity when pagan dominance in England made contact with the mother church in Rome dangerous if not impossible. So here’s a little Easter story about them.

In the seventh century, Pope Gregory sent missionaries to England. They started the process of conversion from Kent, in the South, founding the archbishopric of Canterbury while they were there. As they moved up the country, they came into contact with the Ionan group, based on the monasteries in the North.

Now Christianity’s aim is to bring us consolation and peace. Remember the key Christian message? ‘Faith, hope and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love’. So when the Roman missionaries met the Ionans who’d striven so hard to keep Christianity alive, did they embrace them and praise them for their efforts? ‘You’re dating Easter wrong,’ they said. During the time when the Ionans were cut off from Rome, the Pope had decided to change the way the date of Easter is calculated, and the Ionans were still using the old way.

So did the Ionans in turn say, ‘hey, we’re all Christians, and all subject to the authority of the Pope – tell us the new rules and we’ll apply them’? They said ‘this is the way we’ve always calculated the date and it’s always been good enough for us so we’re sticking with it.’

A date. That was the subject of their dispute. Which Sunday in March or April they were going to choose to celebrate the resurrection. As though the most extraordinary thing about the resurrection business was a date.

The Council of Whitby was summoned in 664 to settle the issue and King Oswiu of Northumbria decreed in favour of the Romans. So the English started dating Easter like the rest of Europe. The power of the Northern monasteries was broken, and authority for the Church in the North of England moved to the Archbishopric in York. Nearly fourteen centuries later, while the Catholic Church in England has its centre in London, the capital, power in the Anglican Church is divided between Canterbury, little more than a large market town in Kent, and York, a historic and beautiful city but long since overtaken in economic and political power by its rivals. Of the two centres, superior authority resides with Canterbury – the triumph of the Romans over the Ionans is enshrined in the structure of the Anglican Church today.

Power, control, intolerance of difference, all in the name of a Church built on Love.

I suppose we should be grateful that at least no-one was burned at the stake.

Happy Easter, everyone.

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