Our Christian Heritage

Our Christian Heritage

John Robertson

The traveller is not long in Britain before he realizes that every nook and cranny of the countryside breathes the very air of historical struggle and achievement. Not least of the impressionable sights are the cathedrals and abbeys. There can be no doubt that these buildings, whether restored and still in use or reduced by neglect, to a mere fragment of their former splendour are part of the national heritage of architecture, craftsmanship and history. The visiting tourist, however, might be at loss to explain the part they played in keeping the Christian faith alive on the Island.

Following Pentecost, the infant Church faced persecution after persecution and many were forced to flee Jerusalem. We read, “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word” (Acts 8:4). Thus the truths taught by the Apostles were carried to every part of Europe. But it was not long before the simplicity of Church government as given by the Holy Spirit, through the inspired writings of Paul, gave way to a rule of clergy under the domination of bishops. The cathedrals of England are mute evidence of this development in the motherland.

The Gospel was first introduced to Ireland by merchants and soldiers and from there it was carried to the shores of England and Scotland by monks. “Groups of twelve monks, under the leadership of an Abbot, would go to open fields for the Gospel… this work, in its origin and progress, though it developed some features alien to New Testament teaching, was independent of Rome and different in important aspects from the Roman Catholic System” (The Pilgrim Church, Broadbent). These men relied upon Holy Scripture as the sole guide in matters of faith and life. They preached justification by faith and reserved baptism for those who had put their trust in Christ. These were the Celtic missionaries whose influence shaped the course of Christianity in Britain for more than 500 years.

“In 596 Augustine, with 40 Benedictine monks, sent by Pope Gregory I landed in Kent and began the missionary work among the heathen in England which was to bear such abundant fruit. The two forms of missionary activity in the country, the older British and the newer Roman, soon came into conflict” (The Pilgrim Church, Broadbent). In 601 Augustine, with papal authority, appointed twelve bishops. He himself was Archbishop of Canterbury. With State aid, which he was able to win, the design to compel the Celtic order to submit to Rome was vigorously carried out and gradually the earlier missionaries lost their influence and almost ceased to exist except in the northern regions.

Iona, Melrose and Glastonbury are sites of ancient Celtic Abbeys. The ruins still to be found there belong to the newer order. As visitors to these spots we found nothing but memories to remind us what Columba had accomplished. Standing on the shores of Iona, with the ruins of St. Oran’s Chapel at our back, we could almost imagine we saw Columba and his courageous band approaching in an open boat over the mist-enshrouded sea. Here on the eastern shore of the island directly opposite Mull the small group set about building a monastery, a church, a refectory of wood, a group of beehive huts and an encircling wall surrounding the whole enclosure.

For over thirty years Columba laboured in this area, directing his efforts towards the unconverted Northern Picts. His greatest triumph was winning King Brude for Christ. Everywhere he went he found the druids strongly entrenched but with his cry, “Christ is my Druid,” he hammered home the Word a God and slowly but surely this bastion of paganism gave way and the heathen tribes were brought into the fold of the Church.

Some of us hallow places through the natural habit of connecting events and places, the significance of one giving a certain sanctified and interpretative value to the other. At Glastonbury our thoughts turned to the story told by the monk of Glastonbury in Tennyson’s poem, “The Holy Grail.” Here we were in that Isle of Avalon made famous by the poems “The Idylls of the King.” How prophetic of this site and others his words from “The Passing of Arthur:”

“The old order changeth, giving place to the new
And God fulfils Himself in many ways…”

the prelude to his beautiful poem on prayer ending,

“For what are men better than sheep or goats,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer,
Both for themselves and those who call them friends;
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”

There is something of the mystic about the bard, but who are we to say he did not realize his hope expressed in still another poem, “I hope to see my Pilot face to face, when I have crossed the bar.”

Of the ecclesiastical buildings still standing, nearly all belong to the period following the Norman Conquest. But what shall we say of those who brought light to darkest England prior to 1066? In many instances the real issues of the Christian faith were lost sight of in the struggle for power, with a highly organized church hierarchy attempting to hold control over things spiritual and temporal. However, there were some who were moved by pure motives. St. Cuthbert, the saintly Bishop of Lindisfarne showed both by example and precept what it meant to be a child of God. Then too, if it had not been for Alfred the Great Christianity might have disappeared from England’s shores during the Danish Invasions. He wrote at that time, “It has often come to my remembrance what wise men there formerly were among the English race, both of the sacred order and the secular and how the kings who had the government of the folk in those days obeyed God and His ministers.” It was to this period also that the Venerable Bede belonged. He was the product of the monastery having received all his education from the Abbots. At the time of his death he was engaged in translating the Gospel of John. It is from his Historia Ecclesiastica that we learn much of the work of the Church in those early years. His translations were in latin and so were used by scholars, only.

The arrival of William the Conqueror marked a new era. He had no intention of relinquishing his rights as sovereign to the pope or any other dignitary. In the years that followed this struggle between pope and Kings continued.

Under Lanfranc, whom William brought from Normandy to be Archbishop of Canterbury, there Was a revival of monasticism and a resurgence of building churches and cathedrals. Most of the great cathedrals of England bear marks of Norman structure. Lanfranc’s successors may have been more interested in this work than in the salvation of souls, for the Abbey Churches were unusually rich in the Middle Ages. All the accumulated funds of the monastic orders were expended lavishly in the erection of edifices that would be a credit to the order responsible for them. Cathedrals, crystallizing, as they did, the power and wealth of a rich and ambitious Church surpassed in grandeur and architectural beauty all other buildings of the times. Strangely enough these vast structures were not parochial for most cathedral cities were well supplied with parish churches for the laity. Nor were they intended for large gatherings of diocesan clergy and laity. Rather, they were designed to provide dignified and impressive settings in which a small group of priests might offer daily worship to God and as a place where princes sacred and secular might be interred in magnificent vaults and tombs in keeping with the wealth and dignity they had enjoyed in life.

Perhaps this is nowhere better exemplified than in the most famous of all Abbeys, Westminster, erected in the time of Henry III and Edward I on the site of the old Benedictine Abbey. Famous as the scene of the coronation of English monarchs it has become the final resting place for kings, statesmen, writers, poets and churchmen.

“Amid the noblest of the Land,
They lay the sage to rest;
And give the bard an honoured place.
With costly marble dress.”

Our arrival there coincided with one of the many daily services and we stopped to listen while the speaker of the day intoned the service from the prayer book. There was a solemn dignity in the order followed and a reverent attention from the audience, but to us it seemed as cold and lifeless as the surrounding tombs and effigies. Certainly it lacked the warmth and spontaneity of a soul lost in contemplation of the Christ of Calvary. Yet who can say that from the hearts of those accustomed to such there did not arise a prayer that reached the ear of God.