The Early Church in England

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    The Early Church in England

    There were Christians in the British Isles quite early.

    It’s difficult to know how early, but the first martyr that we know of was St. Alban who was executed around 287 at Verulanium (now called St. Albans).

    Three English bishops attended the Council of Arles (in France) in 314, which formally condemned the heresy of Donatism.

    These were all part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

    After the Romans Legions left England in 407 England was invaded by Pagans such as the Picts (from Scotland) and the Saxons (from Germany), followed by the Angles, the Jutes and later the Vikings.. In 410 the Visigoths sacked Rome.

    England became virtually pagan. But gradually Christianity came back in as various Anglo-Saxon kings converted. In 604 the son (Oswald) of the pagan king of Northumberland fled when his uncle killed his father to gain the throne. He spent many years at the monastery in Iona, an island off the Scottish coast, where monks from Ireland had settled. He converted to Christianity. In 633, his uncle died and Oswald became king of Northumbria. In 634 he invited the monks to send missionaries from Iona to convert his kingdom, led by Aidan. Thus began a line of great Saints such as Aidan (died 651), Cuthbert (634-687) and Bede (672/673 –735)

    In the south Pope Gregory had sent Benedictine monks, led by Augustine, to convert the English. He landed in 597 in Kent and made Canterbury his base. By 625 his mission had spread north, founding a diocese at York. Then the two branches of Catholicism met and disputes arose because of different liturgical practices and different calendars. A great synod was held at Whitby in 664 to settle the differences and agreed that the Roman calendar and practices should be adopted by all.

    Note these were not doctrinal differences but such issues as the date of Easter and the style of a monk’s tonsure.

    There is good article on that here: Synod of Whitby - Wikipedia

    The Synod was presided over by King Oswiu of Northumberland.

    In the end the argument was settled when “Oswiu then asked both sides if they agreed that Peter had been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven by Christ and pronounced to be “the rock” on which the Church would be built, to which they agreed. Oswiu then declared his judgment in favour of the holder of the keys, i.e. the Roman (and Petrine) practice.”

    Both sides of the argument were in submission to the Pope and therefore accepted the Roman practice because that was the practice of the Pope.

    They were not two different branches of Christianity but two different Rites, just as today there are different Rites within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in communion with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.

    The (Anglican) Bishop Lightfoot of Durham (1828-1189) is reputed to have said “Augustine was the Apostle of Kent, but Aidan was the Apostle of the English.”

    Today (27 June) in the Catholic Church we celebrate the life and work of Augustine of Canterbury (see above). For most Christians, Augustine means Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), the writer of Confessions and The City of God.

    But Augustine of Canterbury (a prior of a monastery in Italy) was sent by Pope Gregory to convert the English. He landed in Kent in 597 with 30 monks. Later (in 601) more joined him. He made Canterbury his base and was later made a bishop with Canterbury his bishopric. Although the Church in England broke away from the Catholic Church at the Reformation, Canterbury is still an important See. The (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury is still acknowledged as the (symbolic) head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

    Augustine also founded two other dioceses – London and Rochester. Rochester was the diocese of John Fisher who was executed in the Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII.
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