Several weeks ago I subbed in for Dean Michell in his medieval English Church history course at the Stanton Centre. I reread a book by Venerable Bede and crammed with a textbook or two. Within the first five minutes of class I cited the example of St. Aidan, whereupon a woman in the class raised her hand and said, ‘I think it’s St. Cuthbert, actually… .’ I was pleased: I was dealing with a sharp group, and the bar of my competence had been set appropriately low!
My homework reminded me of the importance of the medieval period. Obviously it was of paramount importance to the Anglo-Catholics of our tradition, intent on finding an identity not pinned to the Reformation. It also matters to understand the challenges of war and poverty faced by our Anglican brothers and sisters in the Global South. The great Anglican mission scholar Stephen Neill once commented that the medieval period, and not the early Church, was the better analogy for the challenges faced by these churches.
But it speaks to our cultural situation as well. As I reread the history, it brought to mind, as the most fitting image of their life, the scenes of battle and distress in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies (Tolkien was, after all, a scholar of that period). And to be sure, hordes of Vikings or Danes with broadsword were not about to descend on the diocese. But, increasingly, we do confront, in a manner more subtle but no less real, a secular and postmodern culture no less foreign to the traditional assumptions and spiritual aspirations of traditional Christianity. We, no less than Cuthbert, need to see that our tradition is preserved and passed on. Furthermore, in the later centuries of that period, Christians were trying to make sense of their similarity and difference, and hence their relation to, Islam. We need better answers than those forebears of ours came up with!
The key figure in the ninth century, for the preservation of our faith, was King Alfred, though his territory was sorely diminished in the face of the invaders. Moorman, in his excellent survey of the history of the English Church, points out that the king had a clear and distinct strategy. The survival of the Church required two things: schools and cathedrals (let us expand the latter by saying ‘strong parishes’). Handing the faith on required that it be remembered. And the laity needed a place to see the fullness and coherence of the Christian life, moral, diaconal, theological, sacramental, spiritual and practical. This same question, how the faith can be incubated, so as to be preserved, and propagated, in an era and culture such as ours, is one of the pervasive and insistent questions before us.