WILFRID, (634-709)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

This brilliant, erratic churchman was born of a distinguished Northumbrian family in 634 A.D. He was educated at St. Aidan's school on the Isle of Lindisfarne, near the Northumbrian coast. He was a youth of exceptional mental gifts, but his outspoken self-assurance tried the patience of the gentle Aidan. Wilfrid was ambitious, and the simplicity of the Celtic Church irked him. Before he was twenty years old he went to Kent, where the Latin Church was extending her influence. He was dashing and handsome, and he gained favor at the court of Queen Eanfled, who was a member of the Church of Rome. There he developed a taste for ritualism. His interest in the claims of the Latin Church led him first to Lyons and then to Rome, where he became acquainted with some of the leaders of the day. Breaking completely with the Celtic Church, he became a Benedictine. He returned to Lyons, assumed the Roman tonsure and spent three years in the study of ritual.

Wilfrid returned to Northumbria about the year 658 a fullfledged Latin propagandist and a foe of the Celtic Church. He lived at Stamford Abbey for a time, and in the year 661 he was made abbot of Ripon, which had become an institution of the Latin Church. Under Wilfrid's leadership the Benedictine rule was introduced.

About the time that Wilfrid became Abbot of Ripon, a man named Colman became ab of the Celtic community on the Isle of Lindisfarne. Colman was a learned man, very conservative, mild of manner, but wholly inexperienced in intrigue. The leaders of the Gaidhealic Church, mindful of his scholarly gifts, chose Colman as their spokesman at the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D. This strange blunder on their part was destined to influence history for centuries, because the brilliant, dynamic Wilfrid, a master of intrigue, was selected as the spokesman for the Church of Rome. The Synod of Whitby proved to be one of the most dramatic events in Church History, for much more was at stake than merely the date of Easter and the question of the Roman type of tonsure. On that grim, rocky headland, where the North Sea thunders unceasingly at its base, the contest took place which decided whether the great Celtic Church should continue to influence northern Europe.

For those who would know the details of that notable Synod, Bede the historian describes matters very fully, but from the Roman standpoint. He pictures clearly enough the mild-mannered Colman, inexperienced in controversy, and the dominating influence of Wilfrid. With a final burst of eloquence and a method of argumentation that suggests the law courts, Wilfrid declared the Church of Rome to be the only true Church, following faithfully in the footsteps of the Apostle Peter. He described the Celtic Church as a group of simple-minded nonconformists, a severed branch of the only true Church of the Prophets and Apostles, standing aloof in their rustic ignorance and refusing to conform to the one recognized Christian Church that had endured throughout the centuries. Turning to King Oswy, Wilfrid pleaded with him, reminding him that he must soon stand at the very gates of Heaven where St. Peter held the keys. Could he, under these circumstances, render a decision in favor of the schismatic Celtic Church, and thus reject St. Peter, the very rock upon which the true Church was founded? Moved by the fiery eloquence of Wilfrid, the king decided in favor of the Latin Church. The complete defeat of the Celts meant not only that the date of Easter, as fixed by the Latin Church, should prevail forever after, but it meant that the innovations which Rome had introduced should be recognized henceforth, and that Rome, and not the Celtic Church, was to become the ruling force in the North.About the year 665, Wilfrid was made bishop of York, only to be ejected in 678 in favor of Caedda or Chad. During the winter of 678-679 Wilfrid spent some time in Frisia, preaching with marked success among the pagans. In 680 he visited Rome, where his defense of his work in Britain made a favorable impression. He appeared before a gathering of some 125 dignitaries, purporting to act as spokesman for all Britain, Ireland and Pictland. In 681 he returned to Britain and preached throughout Sussex, where remnants of paganism still obtained, and then he extended his missionary work to the Isle of Wight. While we are assured that he won many from heathenism, yet he became thoroughly disliked in both places. He was restored to the primacy of York in 685 and to Ripon in 686, but in 691 he was once more expelled. In 702 he was excommunicated, but during the next year he visited Rome and pleaded his cause with complete success.

Wilfrid was a handsome man, wealthy in his own right, energetic, eloquent, but declared by his opponents to be arrogant and thoroughly worldly-minded. With all his shrewdness yet he made bitter enemies wherever he went. In spite of his dictatorial ways, he was a preacher of unusual attractiveness, and there were brief periods in his life when he seems to have been moved by a genuine missionary zeal. On such occasions he would abandon his other tasks and spend a few months preaching to the pagans, and, some writers assert, winning them by the thousands with his eloquence. He quarreled with the king continually, and on one occasion he was charged with bribery by his enemies. As a rule he was more than a match for his foes, but in one instance he spent nine months in prison.

The Picts and the Gaidheals despised him, believing him to be conceited, thoroughly unscrupulous and a hypocrite. They regarded him as a renegade Celt who had betrayed his own Church into the hands of a group of proselytizing foreigners. Even Roman Catholic writers are by no means unanimous in their attitude toward him. Bede does his utmost to excuse the shortcomings of Wilfrid, and to dwell upon the qualities that he considers admirable. Several biographies exist, at least one of which was written shortly after Wilfrid's death.


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