The Coming of the Latin Church

from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber

Historians have made laborious efforts to show that Latin Christianity existed in England from the days of the Apostles and onward. Many of them reject the legendary visit of Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, as well as the legend of St. Alban. They accept the statements of Tertullian and Origin, which prove nothing beyond the fact that Christianity was preached in Britain as early as the year 200 A.D. However, the same historians, with their fixed habit of beginning all things with the Greeks and Romans, are ready enough to declare that there must have been Christians among the Roman legions who dwelt in the British Isles as an army of occupation until the last of them withdrew in 410 A.D. It is quite possible that there were such Christians, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that Christian truths were preached in Britain long before the time of St. Ninian. If Bede’s account of King Lucius is true, and not idle legend, it is evident that some one must have made known to him some of the truths of Christianity.

All these things are purely conjectural, and the first documentary evidence that we have of any permanent missionary work on the part of the Western Church, begins with the coming of Augustine of Canterbury, in 597 A.D., exactly two centuries after St. Ninian began his work in the northern part of Britain. . . .

When Augustine and his companions landed on the Isle of Thanet, in the southeastern part of what we know as England, he must have been aware that in Canterbury, a few miles away, dwelt Ethelbert, the Kentish king, and his queen Bertha. The latter was a daughter of one of the Frankish kings, and she had brought with her a chaplain. Just east of Canterbury was an old building which tradition declared had been a church used by Christians who had been with the Roman army of occupation, long since withdrawn. The old building was used by Queen Bertha and her chaplain as a place of worship; and it is probable that this is the oldest place of worship of the Church of Rome in the British Isles, although certainly not nearly as ancient as a multitude of churches of the Celtic Christians. King Ethelbert was not greatly influenced at the outset, but a few years later he accepted Christianity and was baptized by Augustine.

Whether Augustine was aware of the wide influence of the Celtic Church one cannot say, for the Celts were a clannish race, and, despite all fabulists and legend-makers, there had been but little contact between the Picts and Gaidheals on the one hand, and Rome on the other. As soon as Augustine realized the widespread character of the Pictish Church, the Gaidhealic Church and their affiliated groups, he sought to bring them into conformity with the Church of Rome. In 603 A.D., but six years after he landed on Thanet, he arranged for a joint conference with certain leaders of the Brito-Picts. Those who attended the conference were chiefly from St. Dunod’s Bangor. Augustine proposed to them that the Celts accept the Latin Church’s date of Easter, that they accept the manner of administering Baptism as practiced in the Church of Rome and which differed in some details from that of the Celts, that they accept the authority of Rome and unite with her in the evangelization of the pagan Angles. The Celtic delegates were not impressed with Augustine’s manner, which they declared to be lacking in that meekness and lowliness of heart that they considered so desirable a virtue. They refused Augustine’s requests. Augustine pronounced a curse upon them, declaring that they should be slain by these same Teutons among whom he had hoped to establish a mission jointly with the Celts. His curse, strangely enough, was fulfilled in the massacre of St. Dunod’s community in the year 613.

From Kent the influence of Augustine’s Latin mission spread to Northumbria in the northeast part of England. This was accomplished about 30 years after the landing of Augustine of Canterbury. Edwin, who had become king of Northumbria, had married a Christian princess from Kent. She brought with her a chaplain named Paulinus, who was instructed by the leaders of the Latin Mission to introduce Latin Christianity into Northumbria. They must have been aware of the Pictish Candida Casa, and of the training center of the Church of the Gaidheals on the Isle of Iona, and of the activity of the Picts and the Gaidheals in the north of Britain. Paulinus began his work in Northumbria in 627 A.D., and two years later the king accepted Christianity, only to be slain four years later. Paulinus fled with the queen to Kent, and the mission in Northumbria came to an end for the time being.

Meanwhile the influence of Augustine and his fellow workers was beginning to spread into central Britain, and not many years later young Celtic missionaries who had been trained at Lindisfarne made the acquaintance of the missioners of the Latin Church. In 653 A.D., one of their number, Wilfrid, grew tired of the simplicity of the Celtic Church, and went to Kent, where he made the acquaintance of some of the leaders of the Latin Church’s mission. A few years later he made his submission to Rome. Other young Celtic clerics became dissatisfied with the simple evangelical character of their Church, and they began to speak of possible union with Rome. They admired her assurance, and her strong centralization, which they contrasted with their own primitive form of government. They began to make friends with the Latin missionaries, and to study the claims of the Church of Rome.

The controversial question of the date of Easter continued to disturb the minds of many. The Celtic Church in Britain, Gaul, Switzerland and Italy followed the ancient method of reckoning this date. The Church of Rome, after trying to make use of astronomical cycles of 84 years, 532 years and 19 years, finally decided to use the present method of calculation. About the end of the sixth century Rome sought to secure uniformity in this matter throughout Christendom. As the influence of the Latin Church grew and her mission work began to expand throughout the British Isles, the difference in the date of Easter, and the influence of this date upon much of the Christian Year, became apparent to the people, accustomed as they were to the practice of the Celtic Church. In order to secure uniformity, the Celts were asked to meet with the representatives of the Church of Rome at Whitby, in the year 664 A.D. A brilliant young Celt, Wilfrid, who had made his submission to the Latin obedience a decade previously, was appointed spokesman for the Church of Rome. The Celts chose Colman, a man of deep sincerity, but wholly unskilled in ecclesiastical controversy. The eloquence of Wilfrid resulted in a complete victory for the Latin Church, and the Celts went home defeated.

In the year 688 Adamnan of Iona accepted the Roman date of Easter and the Roman tonsure. Failing to persuade his brethren at Iona, he went to Ireland and urged the people of northern Ireland to conform to Rome. In 710 A.D., Nechtan, king of the Picts, yielded to the Latin Church, and decreed that the Roman date of Easter should be observed throughout Pictland. About the year 729, the community at Iona, after some years of internal conflict, conformed; and this yielding on the part of the most powerful center of the Gaidhealic Church had a far-reaching effect wherever their influence was felt. In 767 A.D., an abbot of the Roman type was appointed over Iona, and the great training center of the Gaidheals became a monastery of the Latin Church, and came entirely under the leadership of Rome. However, in 794 and again in 806 A.D., the Vikings raided Iona, pillaging the institution and murdering many of the brothers.

Meanwhile the Church of Rome was gaining strength in the South. In 669 Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek who had accepted the Latin rule, was made archbishop of Canterbury. The Latinizing of England proceeded steadily. The liturgy of Rome was introduced in southern, western and northeastern England, and in the midlands as well. Celtic ordination was declared invalid on the grounds that it had not been conferred by diocesan bishops, and many of the young clerics of the Gaidhealic Church began to doubt the validity of their orders, and to discuss among themselves the possibility of seeking reordination from the Latin bishops. In 816 it was decreed by Rome that no Scot should be allowed to minister in Britain unless his ordination had been conferred by the Latin bishops. In 678 Archbishop Theodore established bishoprics at Deira and Lindisfarne, and three years later at Hexham and Abercorn. The bishop of Abercorn was given authority over all the Picts, but the clergy of that Church paid no heed to him. In 686 the English invaded Pictland, and at the great battle Brude and his Picts routed the English army, led by Egfrid, and forced them to flee to their own country.

The period between the eighth and the twelfth century was not a period of great preaching. A hierarchy had been developed, with its archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons. Monasticism had become widespread. Some of the monks were ordained men, priests or deacons, who dwelt in communities and were subject to monastic rule. These men were known as the regular clergy, because they lived by regula, or rule. Some of them were men of learning, but many of them were novices, pupils or lay workers on the lands of the monastery. A great monastery might have 200, 300 or even more men in its community, and many of these were uneducated men who plowed the fields, tended the horses and cattle of the monastery, cooked the meals in the abbot’s kitchen and served them in the refectory, had charge of the fish pond and the bee hives, and built the many fires that were necessary in winter, and in the case of England about eight months out of twelve. There were other men who were called the secular clergy, because they did not live in communities, but among the people of the world, or saeculum, hence their name.

There has been a sharp difference of opinion among historians as to whether there was preaching in the vernacular. Existing Latin sermons have led some to declare that all preaching was in Latin. Dr. Dargan, who is a judicious authority, suggests that the preaching in the monasteries, where the congregations were composed of monks, was usually in Latin, while missionary sermons and popular preaching may have been in the vernacular.

Some of the sermons of Mediaeval days have come down to us. The influence of the older preachers is apparent, and it became the fashion to embellish a sermon with all manner of legendary and allegorical material. The 176 Homilies, prepared by Paul Winifried by order of Charles the Great, in the early ninth century, remained for a long time a popular source of sermon material. Preaching became allegorical, and among the common people it was believed that the man who could announce a text and then give it two or three meanings, was a good preacher, but if he could suggest seven or eight meanings he was a preacher of superior merit. Some of the old writers declare that a preacher of those days felt himself bound to give not only the literal meaning of the text, but “the allegorical or parabolic, the topological or etymological, the anagogic or analogical, the typical or exemplar, the anaphoric or proportional and the anystical or apocalyptic.” The preacher who was able to expound his text after that fashion was hailed as a man of supreme accomplishments.

Early in the thirteenth century we have records of the coming of the preaching friars to England. Preaching had declined among the parochial clergy, and Dominican and Franciscan preaching friars went throughout the land, preaching everywhere. There is a record of the arrival in England, in 1220 A.D., of thirteen Dominican preaching friars, and four years later we read of the coming of nine Franciscan preachers. It is said that the nine Franciscan preaching friars had increased within 30 years to 1,242. They went among the people, and these men evidently preached in the vernacular, or at least made use of interpreters, where they were not able to use the common tongue. Their style was popular. The parochial clergy did not welcome the coming of these mendicant preaching friars, whose popular style of preaching they criticized, and whose studied eloquence they looked upon as mere vulgar emotional appeal. They declared that such mingling with the common people tended to break down the feeling of high respect for the clergy, and was quite out of keeping with the dignity and the aloofness that was considered desirable between the clergy and the common people. When the friars indulged in eloquent appeals to the imagination and the emotions of the multitudes, they met with the same opposition and the same arguments as did George Whitefield and John Wesley, centuries later. Unfortunately religious zeal is not lasting, and human nature being such as it is, every period of religious awakening is followed by a reaction. As the number of preaching friars increased and as their influence became considerable, there was a loss of the original missionary zeal, and preaching declined once more.