Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

The Synod of Whitby (AD 664)

Introduction

Prior to the seventh century, the Celtic church of the Irish, Britons, and Scots remained relatively untainted from the influence of the Roman church and her bishop. While there was a history of interaction between the two dating at least back to ad 314 and the Council of Arles, the physical distance and geographical isolation of what made up most parts of Celtic society had helped to form a natural division.1 Eventually, however, the Roman bishops, driven by desire for expansion of their empire (the Roman church) and authority, along with a craving for conformity, were compelled to begin sending bishops to England. The result of the interaction was disagreement on many fronts that would produce centuries of debates and power struggles which would eventually lead to the victory of the Roman church in England.2 A major turning point in this series of events was the Synod of Whitby.

The Reason for the Synod: Conflict Abounds

Augustine was established by the bishop of Rome as the first archbishop of Canterbury around ad 597. However, the Celts there never accepted him as their bishop. The story is told of a meeting he was to have with many of the Celtic church leaders, where he was to propose that they make changes to the way they worship in order to conform more to the standards of the Roman church.

Before the meeting, the Celtic leaders met with a wise and holy hermit whom they all respected. They asked him how to know whether or not they should heed Augustine’s counsel. The hermit replied that they should follow only he who is humble, as Christ was humble. If Augustine stood to honour their presence when they arrived for the meeting, they should listen to him, but if he remained seated, they would know that he was a proud man and, therefore, not to be followed. When the Celtic Christians arrived, Augustine did not stand for them and so they were renewed in their determination to resist his teaching and the claims of the Roman church.3

The conflicts between the Celtic Christians and the Roman church ran deeper than personality, however. In fact, hard feelings and ill-will seemed to abound. For a time, Celtic church leaders would refuse even to eat with representatives of Rome who viewed the Celts as “unorthodox” at best.4 While some debate remains about exactly how different these strands of Christianity were from one another, some historians insist that there was little in common: “Irish Christianity was pure, spiritual, intensely personal, dedicated only to the absolute word of God. Rome’s was materialistic, tightly organized, widely social in intent, intolerantly conformist.”5 The differences between the two church traditions should not be underestimated: “There existed fundamental and far-reaching differences between the Celtic Christians and the Roman Church, which held them as schismatics and heretics.”6

The majority of the debate recorded in extant accounts of the Synod itself centres around the issue of the calculation of the dates for celebrating Easter.7 According to the Irish Christians their roots went back as far as the apostle John and his churches. The Romans, however, insisted that the apostles Peter and Paul and their churches practiced Easter in the pattern which the Roman church kept.8

The Synod, however, was not entirely consumed with this one issue. Historians record that the type of tonsure worn by monks was also a debated topic.9 While the Celtic Christians had a tonsure of uncertain origin, the Roman model seemed to follow the pattern worn by slaves in the Roman Empire. As time had worn on, the symbolism had become more spiritualized to the Romans, who came to see this type of tonsure as a picture of the crown of thorns which Christ wore.10

In addition to these two major sticking points there were many issues of contention between the Roman establishment and the Celtic Christian tradition. One historian records that Rome objected to “many other observances” of the Celts which “consisted not merely of ritual, they also included ‘doctrines’.”11 Put another way, there were still other ecclesiastical practices with doctrinal roots which separated the Celts from the Romans. Scherman posits that while the controversy recorded from the Synod centred on Easter and the tonsure, “other deviations annoyed the Roman party, particularly the unimportance of bishops in the Irish monastic system, hardly higher than servants under the hegemonic abbots.”12 This type of ecclesiastical thinking was simply out of line with the hierarchical structure and nature of the Roman church and could not be tolerated by those of the Roman party.

All these issues, however, would have been allowed to stand as simple difference between the churches, had it not been for the prevailing mindset that all the churches and Christians in the civilized world should have the same structure and doctrine. King Oswy declared this ideal to be valid when he called the synod and declared at its opening that “it was fitting that those who served one God should observe one rule of life and not differ in the celebration of the heavenly sacraments, seeing that they all hoped for one kingdom in heaven.”13 As historians have rightly observed, “there seems to be no reasonable doubt but that the cleavage between Roman and Celtic Christians was very wide, and could not be bridged without one party’s giving way to the other.”14

This, then, was the reason and setting for the Synod of Whitby. There were grave differences in many areas of doctrine and ecclesiastical polity between the Celtic Christians and the church of Rome. The prevailing mindset of the day was that the all those who were called by the name of Christian should agree on all things. Since the differences between the two organizations were of such a gravity and nature as compromise was not a possibility, it was certain that either the Celts or the Romans would have to give way entirely to the other; so the Synod of Whitby was called to settle the matter.15

The Course of the Synod and Its Outcome

The Synod itself took place in the year ad 664 in Whitby (modern day North Yorkshire), atop a hill, in the monastery run by Hilda. The monastery itself would have been similar in appearance to a monastic village consisting of a small “conglomeration of little buildings.”16 The Synod was called by King Oswy, who was to give the final decision with regards to the victor of the debate and therefore, the subsequent practice of the Celtic church. Bishop Colman, abbot of Lindisfarne, was to give the arguments for the Irish side. Agilbert, bishop of the West Saxons, was to make the arguments for the Roman position. He request, however, that Wilfred, abbot of Ripon be allowed to give the arguments in his stead, since he had more ease with the English tongue. Bishop Cedd was present to act as the interpreter for all parties involved. Many others were present on both sides as well.17

As stated above, most of the extant accounts are consumed mainly with the debate over the dating of Easter. First to argue was Bishop Colman who insisted that the Celtic tradition could be traced back to the apostle John, without doubt. To this Wilfred replied that the Roman tradition had been handed down from both Peter and Paul and their churches. He added to this the argument that the whole world followed the Roman pattern except the Celts; how could everyone else be wrong and only the isolated Celts be right? Even if it is true, Wilfred argued, that John had begun celebrating Easter in this manner, it was only to accommodate the law for a specific audience in a specific time and he did not intend for it to be the pattern the church would always follow.

Wilfred and those with him argued that Peter taught them that Easter should be celebrated on the Lord’s Day following the rising of the moon on the fourteenth day, since the Lord rose from the dead on the first day of the week. Any appeal to the apostle John’s patterns must be abandoned, he insisted, since even the followers of the apostle John in Asia now celebrate Easter in the manner of the Romans.

To all this Bishop Colman replied with an appeal to the patterns laid down by both Anatolius and Columba, who were both to be revered as servants of the Lord, and both celebrated Easter in the Celtic manner. It was asked, how could such holy men, used by the Lord, have been so wrong in this matter?

Wilfred was not persuaded by these arguments, however. He rebutted that Colman and the Celts have simply misunderstood and incorrectly followed the practice of Anatolius. Further, Wilfred suggests that Columba was either not a Christian (who will find himself rejected on the final day of judgment) or one who will be excused because of his “rude simplicity.” Wrong practice in ignorance is acceptable, but rejection of the correct teaching (which Wilfred is now offering them) would be unacceptable on judgment day.

It was at this point where Wilfred plays his final “trump card.” Since Colman has now referred to the authority of other individuals, Wilfred follows suit by juxtaposing Columba with the apostle Peter, who he insists is the rock on which the church is built, the one who holds the keys to the gates of heaven.18 Once Oswy had heard this argument, his mind was made up. Since Peter was presumed to be superior to Columba, the Roman practice for the calculation of Easter must be accepted at risk of being rejected by Peter himself at the gates of heaven. In his recounting of the dialogue Eddius records a further appeal to Nicaea, which is said to establish the Roman calculation for Easter, and attaches the warning that any who reject Nicaea are to be considered “accursed.”19

Once this decision had been handed down from the king, Bishop Colman and all those sympathetic to the Celtic cause departed solemnly. After returning home to Lindisfarne to speak with the Irish monks there, Colman and all his fellow monks departed back home to Ireland where they would be free to practice their religion as they desired for the time being. The English episcopate, which had been held by the Irish for 30 years, had been transferred to the Romans as a result of the Synod and King Oswy’s decision.

The Significance of the Synod for the Celtic Church and Roman Church

With the declarations of the Synod handed down by the king, a process of Romanization began, which would take centuries to finally complete but which was immediate in its impact. The significance of the agreement should not be underestimated. Formerly, “wherever and whenever these (contacts between Celtic Christians and the representatives of the bishop of Rome) initially took place there was conflict,”20 but now, for the most part, there was peace since the Roman way was accepted by most. One significant impact that must not be overlooked, then, is simply the resolution of conflict. Where Christians had formerly not been able to be civil with each other, or even eat with each other, now there was mainly peace.21

Everything in the church’s structure and theological life would begin to change from this point; even its geographical centre moved as a result of this Synod. “York supplanted Lindisfarne as northern England’s spiritual center, and the conformist discipline of the Roman organization was at last supreme in all of England.”22 Lindisfarne, which had been identified with Irish-Celtic spirituality had become outmoded overnight with the rejection of Bishop Colman, and the much more easily Roman affected York became the hub of theological and ecclesiological thought and activity.

When the Irish defected back to their homeland from England after Whitby, the English church lost the influence of the pure, even if primitive, virtuous spirituality of the Celts. Nevertheless, their influence was still to be felt, to a lesser degree. As Scherman surmises,

Though they had been defeated and in effect driven away, their influence lingered in a diluted form for many years. The accord of the seventh century between the English and Irish, which entered all spheres of spiritual endeavor from scholarship to illuminated manuscripts, was to be reflected in their political rapport, a cordial informal alliance that lasted for four hundred years – until the Normans came.23

Though the direct influence of the Irish was lost, as they were rejected by the English at Whitby, a general sense of comradery remained between the two peoples for some centuries to come. The English church, however, would never look quite the same for lack of the Irish.

Life after Whitby was not nearly as easy as it sounds, however. The resolution of the conflict was far from being absolute. Many Scots, for example were forced to adjust immediately or move. Centuries of debate would follow on the heels of Whitby, and the Celtic Christians continued to oppose Rome until the eleventh century when they were finally assimilated into the Roman religion.24

Following Whitby, the Roman mission in the Celtic world prospered and grew in force and influence. Wilfred’s achievements have been recorded thus: “He introduced into the English churches many Catholic customs, with the result that the Catholic Rite daily gained support, and all the Scots remaining in England either conformed to it or returned to their own land.”25

Though the Roman victory was far from complete in ad 664 at the conclusion of the Synod of Whitby, King Oswy’s decision had indeed signalled the beginning of the end for autonomous Celtic Christian spirituality and the coming to power of the Roman church in Celtic lands. In short, “the Synod of Whitby … confirmed the Romanization of British Christianity.”26

Footnotes

1 Harry Rosenberg, “The West in Crisis,” in Tim Dowley, ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 232.

2 Leslie Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain (London: S.P.C.K., 1972), 18.

3 Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, trans. and eds., Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 137, 139.

4 Hardinge, Celtic Church, 18.

5 Katharine Scherman, The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars and Kings (Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1981), 166.

6 Hardinge, Celtic Church, 28.

7 Colgrave and Mynors, Bede’s, 299-309. Cf. Eddius Stephanus’ account in Bertram Colgrave, trans., The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927), 21-23.

8 Colgrave and Mynors, Bede’s, 301.

9 Scherman, Flowering, 168.

10 Ibid.

11 Hardinge, Celtic Church, 18.

12 Scherman, Flowering, 169.

13 Colgrave and Mynors, Bede’s, 299.

14 Hardinge, Celtic Church, 23.

15 Scherman (Floweing, 167) displays her own bias, but is not far from the mark when she records the significance of the Synod in this way: “The Irish tonsure and the Irish dating of Easter were the ostensible points at issue: these tiny lapses in conformity were but excuses for a fundamental spiritual difference. An entire concept of Christianity was at the bar.”

16 Ibid., 168.

17 Colgrave and Mynors, Bede’s, 299-301 and Scherman, Flowering, 169.

18 This section is largely a summary of the account offered in Colgrave and Mynors, Bede’s, 299-309.

19 Colgrave, Life of Bishop Wilfrid, 21-23.

20 Hardinge, Celtic Church, 17.

21 While the significance of the agreement should not be underestimated, the peace that resulted should not be overestimated, either. To be sure, this Synod did not result in widespread Celtic submission to Roman church authority immediately, but it was indeed the beginning of the end for Celtic Christian independence; it was a micro indication of things to come soon on a macro scale.

22 Scherman, Flowering, 170.

23 Ibid., 171.

24 Hardinge, Celtic Church, 22-23.

25 As recorded by Bede, cited in Hardinge, Celtic Church, 22.

26 Rosenberg, “The West in Crisis,” 232.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for bringing this information together and making it so readable and understandable to lay people like myself. It explains so much which has filtered down into our Western Christian thought. It seems to me that the heart departed and gave way to the head at the ancient Synod. We have been searching for it ever since.
    Again, thank you.

  2. Dulce Johnston

    10 June, 2014 at 4:50 am

    thanks, Julian. I agree with Rebecca above, you've explained the issue in everyday language, found it easy to read and grasp – user friendly indeed…. will try and visit your site every now and again.
    Dulce Johnston, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

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