Thursday, November 18, 2021

Hilda - and the Battle for Unity

Hilda is a name we don’t encounter very often these days.  In fact, I only know one Hilda within my entire circle of friends and church members.  Few of us who are older than 50 can hear the name without remembering the infamous Hilda Ogden, of Coronation Street – a strong, forceful character, with a piercing voice, who made the life of her poor husband Stanley rather complicated!

But, in fact, the name Hilde has a long and proud history in the British Isles.  Originally it was a Viking name, and it meant ‘battle’.  Not a bad name for the fictional Hilda Ogden – who picked plenty of fights with Stan and her neighbours!  But perhaps it’s an even better name for the saint whose memory we honour today – St Hilda of Whitby.

Hilda was a relative of the King of Northumbria, who established a monastic community somewhere near Whitby.  She was much loved by her community, and highly venerated in her life-time as a wise and compassionate leader.  As such she battled against rural poverty and ignorance, and battled to establish her community of love and learning. She is known as a patron of the arts, because – in particular – she fostered the music of a sheep-herder called Caedmon.

But she is perhaps most famous for playing a large part in an important gathering of the early British Church, which took place in the year 664…known as the Synod of Whitby.  At the time, the Church had already been well-established in the British Isles – since at least the first century after Christ.  In fact, medieval scholars asserted that the first Bishop of Britain was a man called Aristobulus – who was believed to have been one of the 70 disciples, sent out two-by-two by Jesus himself.  Since those early days, the church had flourished, all across the British Isles.  The names of great Saints like David, Patrick, Alban and Aidan (who personally encouraged Hilde) come down to us from those years.  But, being somewhat distant from Rome, and especially after the fall of the Roman Empire, British Christianity had developed as a somewhat distinct version of Christianity, with many of its own local traditions.

But in the year 597, Pope Gregory sent Augustine, from Rome, with a brief to evangelise first the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Kent (who were said to be a pretty Godless lot, apparently).  Then, once established at Canterbury, Augustine set off to bring the rest of British Christianity fully under the authority of the Roman church.  Many British Christians were not too happy about this.  We Brits don’t take kindly to attempts to rule us from other European cities!  Great debates ensued, about the supremacy of Rome as the seat of St Peter, on whom Jesus had said he would build his church.  One particular focus for this debate was on how to calculate the date of Easter.  Different parts of the British Isles celebrated Easter on different days – depending on what calculation they used.  That meant that some Dioceses in Britain were cheerfully proclaiming Easter, while others were still in the solemnity of Lent.  The Kingdom of Northumbria, and especially the Episcopal See of Lindisfarne, was one such place.

So, the Synod of Whitby was called, by the King of Northumbria – King Oswiu.  After much debate, it was agreed that Northumbria would fall into line with the practices of the Roman Church.  In reality, the Synod of Whitby was just one of many such gatherings at that time, and part of a process of harmonising the British Church with the historical Mother Church of Rome.  But, some revisionist historians like to point to the Whitby Synod as a pivotal moment when a native, Celtic church came ‘under the heel’ of its more powerful Roman neighbour.   The truth is rather more complicated – as the truth so often is.  But those who fear the exercise of power over the British Isles from foreign capitals often point to the Synod of Whitby as a kind of ‘re-enslavement’ to Europe, like the earlier enslavement under the Emperor Tiberius…an enslavement which was only undone by Henry the Eighth, nearly 900 years later.

St Hilda played an important part in the Synod. And it was perhaps her greatest battle.  As a senior leader in the Northumbrian church, she spent much of the following years persuading and cajoling those around her to accept their place within a worldwide, or ‘catholic’, church.  In that sense, Hilda’s battle was for unity.  She longed for the body of Christ to be one – clearly and powerfully speaking with one voice, and being prepared to give up some individualistic practices and traditions for the sake of the greater good.  It was her defence of the Roman Church’s right to rule, while still being proudly a British Christian, which means that she is venerated as much today in the Catholic church as she is in the churches of the Islands of Britain.

St Hilda then, stands as a focus of Unity – for the worldwide church, as well as for political unity (remembering that the church of her time was much more than a purely religious authority).  That makes her a challenging saint for us Brits to contemplate (and indeed venerate) – especially while we anticipate Britain’s present attempt to free itself, once again, from the perceived shackles of another European super-power.  

On Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when we will ponder what it might mean for the whole of creation to come under the Lordship of Christ.  In the meantime, the battle for Unity of St Hilda of Whitby might offer us some food for thought.


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