The Orthodox Heritage of Pre-Schism Britain

As a Metropolitan of the Alexandrian Patriarchate, within the Coptic and Oriental Orthodox traditions, the Great Schism of 1054 might seem to be somewhat beyond my remit, as it was a schism between two Chalcedonian churches which had been separated from our portion of the Orthodox Church for centuries. However, as an Englishman with canonical responsibility for a community of British Orthodox congregations I have a keen interest in our Orthodox heritage and what we may draw from it.

From the outset I want to distance myself from applying the designation ‘Orthodox’ in a sectarian way or as a denominational label. The Insular Church from its foundation was an integral part of the universal church, holding to a common faith and order. It withstood successive waves of persecution and when the Constantinian Peace of the Church was established, its hierarchs took their place in the counsels of the church. St. Athanasius the Great commended the British Church for upholding the Nicene Faith1 and very early we find it drawing on the support of sister churches to root out heresy.

For the historian, dates are convenient boundaries which provide an orderly structure to events, but most of us realise that they are not absolute markers of reality like the severing of a head from the body; but more fluctuating and equivocal like the gradual erosion of a stretch of coastline. When the Council of Chalcedon concluded its deliberations on 1 November 451, it was not until almost a century later that the divisions resulting from that Council were consolidated; and when Cardinal Humbert slammed the Bull of Excommunication down on the altar at Constantinople on 16 July 1054, it still took several centuries for the separation to become fixed.

Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

We do not know exactly how Christianity came to the British Isles although there are many interesting and improbable traditions of great antiquity. The earliest documentary evidence is from Tertullian, writing around 200, declaring that the Christian faith had even reached “the haunts of the Britons, inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.”2 Origen, in 239, speaking of polytheism, asks, “When, before the coming of Christ, did the land of Britain hold the belief in the one God?”3 And again, “The power of the Saviour is felt even among those who are divided from our world, in Britain.”4 What we do know, however, is that the Insular Church had the same hierarchy and ministry as the rest of the universal Church when it emerged from persecution. We learn that the Council of Arles in 314 was attended by three British bishops, the eponymous Eborius of York, Restitutus of London and Adelphius, probably of Lincoln. Saint Patrick, who was extant in the fifth century, was the son of a deacon, whilst his grandfather was a Christian priest.

British bishops are reported to have attended important provincial councils at Sardica (in modern Bulgaria) in 343 and at Ariminum in Italy in 359 and functioned in a conciliar manner, which is a characteristic of Orthodox ecclesiology. They also worked closely with the neighbouring Church in Gaul and there are numerous examples demonstrating considerable co-operation. It is recorded that in 396 Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, attended a Synod of bishops in Britain and won support for the reforms of St. Martin of Tours; whilst the intervention of St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, St. Lupus, Bishop of Troyes and St. Severus, Bishop of Trier, in the early fifth century sought to combat the Pelagian heresy, then troubling the British Church. We have no reliable episcopal lists from this early period but it does seem that the insular church followed the pattern of that period in establishing bishoprics in the major cities following the Roman provincial structure: Cirencester or Caerleon for Britannia Prima, York for Britannia Secunda, Lincoln for Flavia Caesariensis and London for Maxima Caesariensis. These four provincial bishops, or Metropolitans, doubtless had small sees within their jurisdiction but it is worth noting that it wasn’t until St. Augustine’s Roman mission of 597 that we see the first signs of imposing a local primacy. Before that date we have no record of anyone possessing that status in Britain, until Bede refers to Augustine as Archbishop of Britain (Brittaniarum archiepiscopus).5

Development of Roman Primacy

There is little doubt that he was encouraged by Pope Gregory the Dialogist to assert his authority and, in the process, the authority of Rome. Gregory would have viewed Britain as a former province of the Roman Empire which had drifted away and needed to be brought back into the Roman orbit. During his pontificate Pope Gregory consolidated his hold over the Gallican Church, culminating in the Emperor Valentinian III’s rescript of 445 stipulating that nothing should be done with regard to the church without the sanction of the Roman See. Gregory systematically attempted to reassert papal jurisdiction over the entire western episcopate6 , so it is not surprising that the existing bishops of the Insular church, who had largely been driven into the western parts of Britain through the Saxon invasions, are rather cavalierly committed to Augustine’s authority: “All the bishops of Britain, however, we commit to your charge. Use your authority to instruct the unlearned, to encourage the weak, and correct the obstinate.”7

Historically, there had been close ties with the See of Rome and, at the Council of Sardica, which the British bishops had attended, canon III provided that the See of Rome should be the final court of appeal for bishops, a status accorded in recognition of both its apostolic foundation and its reputation for Orthodoxy. However, it was not a basis for proving that the Church in Britain originally accepted a more advanced view of Papal Primacy of which Pope Gregory was an early advocate. Equally, attempts by nineteenth century Anglican and Reformed writers to show that the insular church was entirely independent are insupportable.

Bede recounts the tradition from the Liber Pontificalis of the late second century Pope St. Eleutherius sending missionaries to a fictitious British king, Lucius, to baptise him and uphold the faith they had earlier received. This traditiuon was also recorded in the Cambro-Latin Historia Britonum (formerly attributed to Nennius, of around 820) and so was valued by British as well as Anglo-Saxon Christians. Later scholars, like Harnack8 , question the historicity of this event and suggest that what Bede read as Britanio may have been Britio Edessorum (Britio of Edessa) and more likely refer to a mission to King Abgar of Edessa. This is, however, mere speculation and some have held that the confused account in Historia Britonum derives from the Liber Pontificalis independently of Bede. Another theory, put forward by our own British Orthodox historian, Paul Ashdown, suggests that ‘King’ Lucius might refer to Lucius Artorius Castus, a late second century Roman soldier who served as praefectus legionius, camp prefect, of the legion VIth Victrix at York and later received a special mission as dux of two British legions, which apparently campaigned “against the Armoricans”. Professor Anthony Birley argues that “one might see the origin of the Arthurian legend” in Artorius Castus, ‘Arthur the Chaste’.”9 Whatever its origins, the Lucius/Eleutherius tradition was for many centuries utilised as evidence for Rome’s supremacy. Even the distinguished Scottish historian and antiquary, William Forbes Skene (1809-1892), although an Episcopalian, having acknowleged that during the Roman occupation the Christian Church in Britain was a part of the Church of the Empire; went on to declare that “it acknowledged Rome as its head, from whom its mission was considered to be derived, and it presented no features of difference from the Roman Church in the other western provinces.”10

Undoubtedly, the sending of Palladius to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine I brought that part of the Insular Church into closer relations with Rome as later expressed by the great Irish missionary, St. Columbanus, who wrote to Pope Boniface IV, “The Catholic faith is held unshaken by us, just as it was delivered to us by you, successors of the holy Apostles.”11 In 853 King Ethelwulf of Wessex (839-858) sent his son, the future Alfred the Great (King of Wessex: 871-899) to Rome and on the death of his queen, Osberga, followed him there. During his stay he demonstrated his devotion to the Papacy by distributing gold to the clergy of St. Peter’s and offering them chalices of the purest gold and silver-gilt candlesticks.

The advent of St. Augustine in 597 and his mission to the pagan English is enthusiastically chronicled by Bede, whose uncritical support for the Roman mission must, to some degree, have influenced later writers to take sides in the dispute with the existing British hierarchy in the western territories, not yet infiltrated by the pagan Saxons. We must beware of adopting the unhistorical concept of a ‘Celtic Church’ which Dr. Thomas O’Loughin rightly cautions against as a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach, “One picks items from here and there, spatially, tempororally and linguistically with the effect that one can find virtually anything one wants …. This nonchalence with chronology and blithe dismissal of differences in culture and genre is wholly unacceptable. It is not only unacceptable in terms of historical method, but also culturally: it is based on a notion that the people out on the Atlantic fringe are unlike the more sophisticated, fast-witted and fast moving people at the centre.”12 Whatever Pan-Celtic consciousness exists today, Ireland and Wales saw themselves as distinct although the Irish saw themselves as having received Christianity from the British (the Welsh), whilst the early Scots were in fact Irish migrants.

Links between the Western British Isles and the Eastern Mediterranean were sustained over many generations. We know that Egyptian grain was regularly traded for Cornish tin and the so-called ‘Tintagel ware’ comprises Byzantine amphorae scattered throughout sites in south west Britain and around the Irish Sea during the period 480-640. Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey have revealed imported 4th-6th century Byzantine pottery.13 The late Archdale King noted the links between Celtic Ireland and Coptic Egypt14 and suggests that much of the contact took place before the Muslim Conquest of 640. There exists evidence of Mediterranean trade in a single passage in the life of St. John the Almsgiver (Ioannes III Eleemon), Greek Patriarch of Alexandria between 610-621, in which reference is made to a vessel sailing to Alexandria from Britain with a cargo of tin, doubtless come from Cornwall or Somerset.15


One of the defining characteristics of the Insular Church throughout this period is the centrality of the monastic tradition. Its origins are certainly close to its founding roots in the Egypt deserts and appear to have found their way to Britain via the south of France and the close links with the Church in Gaul. We know that St. John Cassian, after spending some fifteen years with the desert fathers at the end of the fourth century, returned to Marseilles and became one of the inspirations for the vibrant monastic impulse which centred in and around the island of Lerins. Both Gildas and Patrick (writing probably in the 480s) attest to local monastic life. Gildas exempts them from his general condemnation of the worldly and corrupt British Church of his day, in which bishops played a prominent part. Having written De Excidio, probably while employed as a secular teacher of rhetoric, Gildas achieved his ambition, as stated in that work, to become a monk. As an abbot he was consulted for advice on monastic discipline by the second generation off the Irish Church.

This early monastic tradition in Britain is quite distinctive when it reaches Ireland, probably because the Irish had no cities. Monasticism, which began as a flight from the cities, was rural and fitted well in Britain and Ireland. The latter also had an existing tradition of ‘colleges’ of the learned orders, such as druids and bards, who were recognised in native law. Dr. Joseph Kelly of John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, suggests that monastic spirituality was well suited to our indigenous culture,

As barbarians (that is, nonclassical peoples), the Irish and English lived in heroic societies that valued a man’s individual qualities more than the office he held. Their heroes, such as Cuchulainn and Beowulf, were men who faced the enemy alone. The hermit, who by himself fought the world, the flesh and the devil, fitted the image of the northern hero; bishops and cenobitic monks generally did not.16

Certainly in Ireland the dominance of abbots of great monasteries became quite a distinctive feature. From the 6th centuries we see them holding great secular as well as ecclesiastical power. Although these abbots were sometimes not ordained, their authority overshadowed episcopal authority, which some writers have suggested meant they were insignificant and largely viewed as simply the source of sacramental grace.17) However, other scholars believe that abbots never superceded bishops, who continued to exercise ultimate spiritual authority and remained in charge of diocesan clergy.18)

We know that St. Athanasius’s Life of Antony and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers were available in Latin translations and this early period was characterised by hermits and wandering monks as well as huge monastic cities, such as Bangor Iscoed, where Bede tells us there were “so many monks that although it was divided into seven sections, each under its own abbot, none of these sections contained less than three hundred monks, all of whom supported themselves by manual work.”19 The Irish monasteries of St. Finnian of Clonard and St. Comgall at Bangor were said to contain three thousand monks each.

Archdale King observes that the kind of asceticism associated with the Desert Fathers was especially congenial to the Irish but refers to Dom Henri Leclercq’s suggestion that Celtic monasticism was directly derived from Egypt, as an “unsubstantiated hypothesis”. No serious historian, however, would deny that first-hand knowledge of the Desert Fathers was brought directly to the South of Gaul by St. John Cassian and that the links between the British and Gallican churches were especially strong at this period. King nevertheless admits that the grouping together of several small churches within a cashel or fortified enclosure seems to support Leclercq’s view.

King mentions an Ogham20 inscription on a stone near St. Olan’s Well in the parish of Aghabulloge, County Cork, which scholars interpret as reading: ‘Pray for Olan the Egyptian.’ Professor Stokes tells us21 about the Irish monk Dicuil, who around 825 wrote his Liber de Mensurâ orbis terræ describing the pyramids as well as an ancient precursor of the Suez Canal. It would seem that Egypt was often visited by pilgrims to the Holy Land. Stokes instances the Saltair Na Rann, an anthology of biblical poems attributed to Oengus the Culdee, but containing the sixth or seventh century Book of Adam and Eve, composed in Egypt and known in no other European country except Ireland.

King also notes that one of the commonest names for townlands or parishes is Disert or ‘Desert’: a solitary place in which anchorites were established. Presumably the same etymology gives us the Scottish Dysart, just north of Kirkcaldy, and the Welsh Dyserth, to the south of Prestatyn? This would then present a consistent picture common to Insular Christianity. The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, an early ninth century monastic bishop of Clonenagh (Co. Offaly) and later of Tallaght, has a litany invoking ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Disert Uilaig, I invoke unto my aid, through Jesus Christ.’ [Morfesseor do manchaib Egipr(e) in disiurt Uilaig]. The Antiphonary of Bangor (dating from between 680-691) also contains the text:

“ … Domus deliciis plena

Super petram constructa

Necnon vinea vera

Ex Aegypto transducta …”

which is translated as:

“ … House full of delight

Built on the rock

And indeed true vine

Translated from Egypt …”22

Modern scholars identify Disert Ilidh or Uilaigh with Dundesert, near Crumlin, county Antrim,23 which is to the north-west of Belfast, between Belfast International Airport and Templepatrick. There are clearly medieval ruins still extant here but whether there was an earlier shrine still awaits a proper archaeological investigation.24 The traditional encounter of St. Antony, the first monk, with St. Paul of Thebes, the first hermit, when they were fed by a raven, early became a popular theme in Insular Christianity and we find it depicted on a number of carved monumental stones, dating from the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries. Found in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Northern England, they include both Pictish and Anglo-Saxon inscriptions.25

Roman hegemony

The Synod of Whitby in 664 is another watershed in the consolidation of Roman hegemony, but as with all such dates it is flexible. The decision to adopt the Roman pascha was essentially a Northumbrian matter but its influence was to spread, though in some places because of resistance to change, it took several generations. Against 704, the Annals of Ireland record that “In this year the men of Erin consented to receive one jurisdiction and one rule from Adamnan respecting the celebration of Easter and respecting the tonsuring of all the clerks of Erin after the manner of St. Peter.”26) In 710 Scotland followed, whilst Iona accepted the Roman Easter in 716. Two years later the Roman tonsure was introduced on Iona, although a schism ensured with rival abbots, which lasted almost sixty years.27 Wales submitted between 755-777, first in the north and, after much resistance, the south followed by the counsel of Elbod, ‘Archbishop of Gwynedd’, “after whose death the contest was renewed; while so far as ‘West Wales;’ was concerned, there was no surrender of the national ‘Pasc’ until after the foundation of the Saxon Bishopric of Crediton in the early part of the tenth century.”28

The appointment of Theodore of Tarsus (668-690) as Archbishop of Canterbury is always regarded as a significant link between the English Church and the Christian Orient. Tarsus, being part of the patriarchate of Antioch, clearly had an influence on Theodore’s formation and the Canterbury biblical commentaries reveal an exegesis which is thoroughly Antiochene in orientation. There is also incontrovertible evidence showing that Theodore studied in Constantinople and we know that by the 660s he was living in one of the oriental monastic communities in Rome, probably at the Cilician monastery of St. Anastasius outside the city walls to the south of the city, known as ad aquas Salvius. Bede tells us that having been tonsured in the manner of Oriental monks (his head totally shaved), he had to let his hair grow, so that prior to his consecration in Rome he could be given the Petrine tonsure. There is evidence that Rome was anxious to ensure that Theodore hadn’t been tainted by Eastern theology as Pope Vitalian insisted that Abbot Hadrian accompany Theodore to England to ensure, in Bede’s words, that he “did not introduce into the church over which he was to preside anything contrary to the truth of the faith in the manner of the Greeks.”29 This clearly referred to the dyothelete views of St. Maximus the Confessor and other oriental monks who, like Theodore, had participated in drafting the acta of the Lateran Council of 649 to deal with the Monothelites.30

Despite his Eastern origins, Theodore’s Archbishopric consolidated the Roman grip on the Insular Church and at the Synod of Hertford in 672 he presided over an important council, which affirmed faith in the five oecumenical councils and in Pope Martin’s Lateran Council, condemning the Monothelites. More significantly, however, the Synod affirmed the double procession of the Holy Spirit, or filioque. The late Professor Henry Chadwick suggests that Theodore needed this affirmation to silence criticisms taken to Rome by the contentious Wilfrid of York. Far from being stressed to support Pope Agatho in his stand against the Monothelites, for whom it might prove an embarrassment in dealing with his Greek critics, “the insistence on the filioque at Hatfield almost certainly belongs to the tensions between Theodore and Wilfrid and was the kind of help that in 680 Agatho would have preferred not to receive.”31 It has been suggested that Theodore was influenced by Hadrian, Abbot of St. Augustine’s monastery, Canterbury, who was a Greek-speaking Berber from North Africa and in turn influenced by Augustine and Fulgentius of Ruspe, proponents of the double procession. In fairness to Theodore, it has also been suggested that his understanding may have been that of St. Maximos the Confessor who often acted as a “mediator between East and West”32 and declared that it was wrong to condemn the Roman use of the filioque, who, on the evidence of the Latin Fathers, “have shown that they have not made the Son the cause of the Spirit – they know in fact that the Father is the only cause of the Son and the Spirit, the one by begetting and the other by procession – but that they have manifested the procession through him and have thus shown the unity and identity of the essence.33

Jane Stevenson observes that it is worth noting that the synod of Hatfield was one of the three provincial synods which, taken together, presented a “united western position on a number of extremely controversial issues and enabled Agatho … to speak with confidence as the head of the western church as he negotiated a mutually agreeable resolution of the schism between East and West.”34 She also points out that, notwithstanding its overwhelming Greek intellectual background, Theodore’s Laterculus Malalianus consistently defends the Roman viewpoint whenever it touches on a subject of contention between East and West, including the filioque clause.35 Slightly later we find that Alcuin of ork (c. 735-804), a Northumbrian by birth, who served as a tutor at Charlemagne’s court, played a key rôle in the debate about the procession, introducing the interpolated Creed at the imperial chapel in Aachen and composing the De Fide Sanctae et Individuae Trinitatis (802) in defence of the filioque.36 The precise process by which the filioque became embedded in the English church is difficult to determine (it is not found in the Stowe Missal dating from around 750), but it can be said that at Hatfield it received canonical support which, once consolidated became another feature contributing to the drift aweay from its Orthodox and apostolic roots.

Just as the Roman primacy developed from one of honour to one of jurisdiction, so the British Church’s relationship with Rome underwent changes. Papal interference with secular affairs was a common occurrence during the Middle Ages. Pope Alexander II played a significant role in one of the most important events in English history: William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066. He not only excommunicated King Harold and declared William’s invasion a legitimate crusade, but sent a ring to William containing one of St.Peter’s hairs and a blessed banner, which was to be carried into battle at Hastings. The support of the Pope gave William a moral imperative he would not have had otherwise, making it possible to build his army and robbing King Harold of his will to win. (John Edward Fahey, Pope Alexander II’s Role in the Conquest of England). Between the fourth and eleventh centuries the relationship between church and state had clearly undergone a significant development which would ensure, when the final separation took place between East and West, that the ecclesiology of the Britain Church was no longer that shared by the churches of the East. The completion of that process is surely reached in 1213 when William’s descendant, King John, held the English Throne for Pope Innocent III as a papal fiefdom.

Saints & martyrs

The Insular Church shared with the rest of Christendom the great persecutions under successive pagan emperors. Whilst the exact period of our Protomartyr, Alban’s martyrdom is debatable, he was seemingly martyred in one of the third-century persecutions and left an enduring cult focussed at Verulamium, a localisation first attested by Gildas around 540.

Saints Julius and Aaron are also celebrated as two British martyrs who died during the religious persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian in AD 304. In his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, Gildas writes: “God… the…..time of persecution…..lest Britain should be completely enveloped in the thick darkness of black night, kindled for us bright lamps of holy martyrs…..I speak of Saint Alban of Verulamium, Aaron and Julius, citizens of the city of the legions (legionum urbs), and the rest of both sexes in different places, who stood firm with lofty nobleness of mind in Christ’s battle.” This “city of the legions” is frustratingly imprecise and could refer to Chester, York or Caerleon-upon-Usk. Although York might present a better fit as it had a cosmopolitan population, including Syrians, and was rendered inaccessible by the ‘Saxons’ of Gildas’ day, recent research on topographical and epigraphic data from the Roman fortress at Caerleon, together with evidence of the site of their martyrium chapel from the 9th century until post medieval times, support the genuineness of the tradition transmitted from Gildas and place the saints at Caerleon.37 Once again the dating is subject to question as Britain, Gaul and Spain at that period fell within that portion of the Empire administered by Constantius Chlorus, first as Caesar (293-303) and later as Augustus (303-306). Although he was noted for his tolerance towards Christians and his failure to implement decrees issued against them, it should be noted that he was a staunch pagan, using images of his protectors, Hercules and Jupiter, on his coins. Although the historian Eusebius, as advisor to the Emperor Constantine, would have been anxious to present his patron’s father in a positive light, another courtier, Lactantius, grudgingly admits that Constantius allowed some churches to be demolished.38 We must be cautious, therefore, in assuming that those churches were not in Britain.39

Later invasions by pagan Saxons and Vikings also swelled the ranks of martyrs. Around 614 King Æthelfrith of Northumbria slaughted some 1,200 monks who had come from the monastery of Bangor-Is-Coed to support the British army with their prayers.40 However, Æthelfrith’s son, King Oswald, who subsequently became a pious Christian himself, was in turn murdered by the pagan king, Penda of Mercia, thus adding to the long line of British martyr-saints. Two martyrologies, of Tallaght and Oengus the Culdee, dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, commemorate many obscure local martyrs.

In addition to the saints’ cults introduced from Rome, Anglo-Saxon England soon provided its own heroes and heroines of the faith. Over time shrines were established in honour of St Oswald, St Cuthbert (first at Lindisfarne and later at Durham), St Chad (Lastingham), St Aethelthryth (Ely), St Swithun (Winchester) and St Edmund (Bury). All drew pilgrims, seeking spiritual benefits and miracles of healing.

Insular pilgrims also travelled abroad. Within a century of the arrival of missionaries from Rome to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons; Anglo-Saxon pilgrimage to Rome was already well established. Not only monks and nuns, but kings and other lay people made the journey. Some, like King Ine of Wessex and King Coenred of Mercia, remained there to die close to the shrines of the apostles Peter and Paul; others, such as Benedict Biscop (d. 689) and St. Wilfrid (d. 709), returned with relics, books and increased understanding of the history, teaching and liturgy of the Church. A hostel (schola) was established close to St Peter’s for English pilgrims and other visitors to Rome. Women pilgrims also made the arduous and dangerous journey. In the mid-eighth century St Boniface (d. 751) wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him to forbid “matrons and nuns” to travel to Rome because many of them perished and few kept their virtue. Indeed in 889 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle found it necessary to note: “In this year no journey was made to Rome.”

Some pilgrims travelled even further afield. Saint Jerome, eager to encourage friends to visit the ‘holy’ land of Palestine, claimed that “the Briton … no sooner makes progress in religion than he leaves the setting sun in search of a spot of which he knows only through Scripture and common report.”41 Saint Willibald left an account of a visit to the Holy Land and Constantinople, recorded by an English nun, Huneberc or Hugeberc.

There ‘wandering monks’ who came out of Ireland at this period were not the gyrovags denounced by St. Benedict for indulging their passions and cravings, but seem to have been impelled by a deep missionary spirituality to save souls. Irish monks founded numerous monasteries in what is now France.42 During the Saxon invasions significant numbers of British Christians settled in Brittany and the names of many Breton villages and towns commemorate these half-remembered saints. From the monastery of Llan-Iltut (or Llantwit in the Vale of Glamorgan) Saints Malo, Samson, Teilo, Magloire, Brieuc, Frugdual, Corentin, Gildas and many others resettled in Britanny, where they established monasteries or bishoprics.

A little known late British settlement is that of Britonia (Bretoña) in Galicia, northwestern Spain, which appears to have been established in the late 5th or early 6th century by either refugees from Anglo-Saxon incursions or more widespread migration (völkerwanderung). This settlement was recognised by the Council of Lugo and an episcopal see established under Bishop Mailoc, who signed the decrees of the Second Council of Braga in 572. Their local rite appears to have been superseded by the Visigothic or Mozarabic Rite at the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633 under Bishop Metopius. The See certainly survived until 830 when the area suffered from Viking attacks and may have continued as late as 900 when the Concil of Oviedo met. It was subsequently merged with the See of Mondoñedo-Ferrol.43

The list goes on. Irish monks also founded monasteries in the Netherlands44 , Switzerland45 , Germany46 and Italy.47 It is hardly surprising that St. Bernard compared the missionary inundation of foreign countries by the Irish monks to a flood.48 This profusion of monasteries and hermitages and also the parochia or federation of monasteries is clearly a witness to our Orthodox heritage and finds its counterpart in the great Orthodox settlements of Mount Athos in Greece, the Wadi al-Natr’un in Egypt and Tur Abdin among the Syrians.

The Augustinian mission also marked the introduction of St. Benedict’s monastic rule to Britain, with its very different structure and ethos. When later, monastic life fell into decline – as it did throughout western Europe – it was through the Benedictine rule that it was revived. Under the great statesman-Archbishop, St. Dunstan (909-988) and his co-worker, Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester (c. 904-984) the Regularis Concordia provided a common rule for all the Benedictine houses, making them centres of learning and spiritual power. Although the Benedictine tradition was not specifically insular, there were, however, some unique features in the English rule: prayers were offered daily for the king, and an attempt was made to integrate monasteries into the life of the people. St. Dunstan desired that the monastic reform should encourage personal piety among the laity as well, and he attached great importance to the monastic schools. Continuity with the old Irish monastic tradition was not entirely lost, as the Abbey of Glastonbury, where Dunstan had first served as a monk and then as Abbot, had an ancient history and many traditions linking it with this earliest monastic flowering. The Irish connection was certainly ancient and strong, for there is a reference to ‘Glastonbury of the Gaels’ in a ninth century Irish martyrology. It is perhaps worth noting that attempts to restore the Benedictine Rule in the Orthodox Church have been attempted in recent years within the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

In the process of their wanderings, the Irish monks performed an immense ministry of evangelisation, carrying the faith to many pagan areas. Surprisingly, however, their initial motivation was not evangelistic but actually mortification or the ‘white martyrdom’ of asceticism, which impelled them into exile from their native land.49 The Anglo-Saxons later adopted a more purposeful approach and St. Willibrord (c. 658-739), a Northumbrian, became the Apostle to the Frisians, whilst St. Boniface (c. 680-758), from Devon, became Apostle to the Germans.


We have only an incomplete picture of the liturgical life of the early Insular Church. We certainly cannot talk of a ‘Celtic’ Liturgy as we only have some ancient fragments. The Stowe Missal, the oldest mass-book of the Irish Church, was written mainly in Latin with some Gaelic, and probably dates from around 750. The canon is the Gregorian Canon with the addition of a long list of Irish saints although the Fraction precedes the Lord’s Prayer, as it did before changes introduced by Pope Gregory. The Book of Deer is a 10th-century Latin Gospel Book from Old Deer, Aberdeenshire, with early 12th-century additions in Latin, Old Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It contains a portion of the Service for the Communion of the Sick and a short Eucharistic Office, which bears a marked resemblance to the Mozarabic and Gallican Missals. The Book of Dimma and The Book of Mulling are both 8th century pocket Gospel Book containing orders for the unction and communion of the sick. Scholars believe that there was some local affinity to the Gallican, Mozarabic and Ambrosian rites, which is not surprising in view of Britain’s close ties with other western churches and clearly there were local variants and borrowings.50 Pope Gregory’s letter to Augustine giving permission for the use of the Gallican Rite suggests that it had already been introduced to England by Queen Bertha’s Frankish chaplain. It was not until the seventh century, with the strongly pro-Roman activities of St. Wilfrid of Hexham, St. Benedict Biscop, and the arch-cantor John, and during the Archbishopric of Theodore of Tarsus, that there was a positive effort to introduce Roman usages. This culminated in the declaration of the Council of Cloveshoe (747) that services should in future be exclusively according to the Roman Rite.51

Dr. Jamie Higgs, Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Marian University, Indianapolios, employs a comparative method to examine the similarities between the church plans of Visigiothic Iberia, during the mid-sixth to late eighth century, and Anglo-Saxon Britain, using evidence from archaeological record, contemporary literary descriptions and on-site analysis. As the Celtic and Mozarabic rites are more similar to each other than to the contemporary Roman rite she suggests that they may have required similar architectural space usage. She considers three aspects of church design: elements used to achieve separation within the churches: (chancel barriers, choir screens and full walls – incipient ikon screens ?); the presence of eastern chambers (sacristies) and complicated subdivisions. Her conclusion is that this suggests “that Iberia was not an isolated enclave that much scholarship of the past has proposed. Rather, it is the case that this geographical region and its respective culture was functioning as part of a much wider and interconnected early Medieval world.”52 Her conclusion is a tenable hypothesis, but rather than interpreting it as cultural influences travelling from Iberia to Britain; might those influences not have originated in Britain first and the ancient contacts between Iberia and Britain, which we know existed, have been renewed by the significant emigration of Britons and their settlement in Britonia ?

A highly distinctive aspect of Insular spirituality is the Penitentials, handbooks for confessors and a significant move from public to private confession. Developed in Ireland in the sixth century they later spread to England and continental Europe, where they achieved rapid and extensive acceptance. As a literary genre they spans three centuries and two languages: Latin and Old Irish. Generally they are simple documents – at times short enough to be memorized – which advise a confessor how to induce candour, determine guilt and prescribe remedies for sin.53 O’Loughlin comments, “They provide the one case where Irish and Welsh clergy were highly innovative, and actually shaped western Christian practice and theology. More importantly, they provide evidence that those clerics were prepared to grapple with theological basics.”54

Art & learning

The readiness to associate this period of our history with the ‘Dark Ages’, a term coined by Renaissance humanists in the 14th and 15th centuries to emphasise their cultural superiority, has possibly been responsible for our viewing the Insular Church as culturally and spiritually isolated from the rest of the Christian world, something which the surviving artistic and literary heritage does not support. Insular, as being islands, but not to be understood as ignorant and indifferent to other countries and their cultures. High standards of learning were maintained in early and Mediaeval Ireland, largely fostered by the monasteries. A notable example of this is Europe’s greatest Neoplatonist philosopher of the Early Middle Ages, the Irishman, John Scotus Eriugena (c.815-c.877), a Greek scholar, who was invited to become head of the Carolingian Palatine Academy by the Emperor Charles the Bald. Professor Stokes devotes an entire lecture to ‘Greek and Hebrew Learning in Irish Monasteries.’ He puts forward the suggestion that the Irish schools were modelled after the form and rules of Egyptian monasteries as well as that of Lerins. “The Irish schools then developed themselves in accordance with their own genius. They had one pre-eminent quality, distinguishing them from too many of their descendants: they pursued learning for its own sake. They did not require to be bribed by prizes and scholarships. They conceive, and rightly conceived that learning was its own reward.”55 My friend and neighbour Professor Michelle Brown observes, “There remains a tendency for much modern nationalism to be projected backwards into a period which was notable for its ability to merge elements from the Celtic, Germanic, Graeco-Roman and Christian Orient cultures to give birth to a new order in Europe: the early Middle Ages.”56

Chief among the wealth of manuscripts surviving from the Insular church at this period is undoubtedly the Lindisfarne Gospels, which Professor Brown rightly designates “one of the great landmarks of human cultural achievement.”57 Made in Britain around 700, after the twilight of the Roman world and at the dawn of the early Middle Ages, it features “an energetic and sophisticated new style of art which fuses Celtic, Germanic and Mediterranean forms in a visual manifestation of a vibrant new culture”. These links are represented by the fact that the main text is written in Latin, but the elaborately decorated capital letters with which each Gospel begins owe much artistically to German runes and Greek letter-forms, whilst between the lines are tiny glosses, a word-by-word translation of the Latin into Old English. This close link with the wider cultural and religious world is important if we are not to see the Insular Church here as some abandoned backwater of Christendom, whilst the development of religious texts in the vernacular is an important sign of a mature culture.

Although external influences abound in the superb manuscript illustrations produced in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, we are able to distinguish a distinctive Insular Christian ikonography of particular richness, first among the Irish Celtic manuscripts and then, through cross fertilisation, in later Anglo-Saxon art which, sadly, appears to have been snuffed out at the Norman Conquest. Regrettably today it is neo-paganism rather than Christianity which seems to have been more inspired by these traditions.58

However, while the manuscripts and smaller artefacts were of the highest quality, the churches themselves remained simple. Of these little has survived, as so many were constructed of wattles or wood. The earliest stone churches appear in the early seventh century but with the exception of the great Saxon ministers, they were generally modest. A few churches have survived intact, at Derehurst in Gloucestershire, Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire, Barton-upon-Humber in Lincolnshire and Earls Barton in Northamptonshire. Where architectural stonework has survived it has often been incorporated into later buildings. It shows some fine work, such as carved stone rood screens, standing crosses, sundials and fonts.

The title of this talk is capable of two interpretations. The first might be simply to demonstrate that the Orthodox faith was manifested fully in the British Church prior to 1054, whereafter it gradually became more Romanised and fell into schism or worse; the second might be that the British Church in its first thousand years was not only fully Orthodox in its faith and order, as manifested by its participation in the life and witness of the universal church, but that it made its own significant contribution to the faith, which not only carried the Gospel to huge populations but enriched and renewed Christendom with its own unique character and perception.

Abba Seraphim

  1. Letter LVI, Ad Jovian, 2 (A.D. 363). []
  2. Adversus Judaeos 7, 4 []
  3. Homil. IV, in Ezek., Hieron interpr. (A.D. 239). []
  4. Homil. VI, in Luc. I, 24, Hieron interterpr. []
  5. Bede, History, II, 3 []
  6. Vide the case of Lucillus, Bishop of Melita (Malta), Hector Scerri, “Gregory the Great deposes a disobedient bishop” in Studia Patristica XLVIII, 321-326 and Jeffery Richards, Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (London: 1980), p. 115. []
  7. Bede, History, I, 27. []
  8. A. Harnack, Der Brief des britischen Konigs Lucius an den Papst Eletherus, Sitzungsberichte der koniglich-preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1904, pp. 909-16. []
  9. Paul Ashdown, “King Lucius and the Evangelisation of Britain”, The Glastonbury Review, 111 (December 2004), pp. 94-100 & Anthony R. Birley, The People of Roman Britain (London, 1979), p. 45. []
  10. Skene, Celtic Scotland, Vol. II, p. 2. []
  11. Migne, P.L., Vol. LXXX, 275. []
  12. Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Theology. Humanity, World and God in Early Irish Writings (Continuum, London: 2000), p. 12 []
  13. John Allan, “A Window into the Material World of Glastonbury Abbey – the Glastonbury Pottery Collection, unpublished paper read to the Glastonbury Abbey Symposium, 9 June 2011. []
  14. Liturgies of the Past (1959), pp. 228-229. []
  15. “The Life Of Our Holy Father, John The Almsgiver”, chapter 10, Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies of St. Daniel the Stylite, St. Theodore of Sykeon and St. John the Almsgiver, trans. Elizabeth Dawes, and introductions and notes by Norman H. Baynes, (London: 1948). []
  16. J.F.T. Kelly, “Coptic Influences in the British Isles” in the Coptic Encyclopaedia, pp. 416-419. []
  17. Kathleen Hughes, “The Church in Early Irish Society 400-800” in Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, A New History of Ireland. I. Prehistoric & Early Ireland (Oxford: 2005 []
  18. Sharpe, Richard. ‘Some problems concerning the organization of the Church in early medieval Ireland’, Peritia: Journal of the Medieval Academy of Ireland, 3 (1984); Michael W. Herren & Brown, Shirley Ann Brown Christ in Celtic Christianity (Boydell Press, Wood bridge:2002 []
  19. Bede, History, II, 2. []
  20. Ogham is an alphabet of only twenty characters used by the ancient British and Irish. the characters consist of thin lines or strokes, or a group of from two to five such parallel strokes, arranged along either side of, or drawn across, a continuous medial or guiding line. []
  21. .T. Stokes, Ireland and the Celtic Church (SPCK, London: 1928), pp. 211-230 []
  22. F.E. Warren, Antiphonary of Bangor, Vol. II, p. 28. []
  23. This is also supported by McLaverty’s History of the Diocese of Down and Connor, Vol. II, pp. 312-315 & 460. []
  24. Abba Seraphim, ‘On the Trail of the Seven Coptic Monks in Ireland’, Glastonbury Bulletin 91 (November 1995), pp. 89-92. []
  25. J. H. Romilly Allen, The Monumental History of the Early British Church (London: 1889), W.G. Collingwood, Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age, (London: 1927), V.E. Nash-Williams, The Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff: 1950). []
  26. John O’Donovan, Annals of Ireland. Three Fragments, copied from ancient sources by Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh (Irish Archæological & Celtic Society, Dublin: 1860 []
  27. William Bright, Chapters of Early English Church History (Clarendon Pressw, Oxford, 3rd edition: 1897), p. 469. []
  28. Bright, op.cit., p. 467. []
  29. Bede, History, IV: 1 []
  30. Michael Lapidge, “The career of Archbishop Theodore” in Archbishop Theodore. Commemorative Studies on his life and influence, edited b y Michael Lapidge (Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 1-29. []
  31. Henry Chadwick, “Theodore, the English church and the monothelite controversy”, in Lapidge, op. cit, pp. 88-95. []
  32. Jean-Claude Larchet, Maxime le Confesseur, médiateur entre l’Orient et l’Occident (Paris: 1998). []
  33. Letter to Marinus, Migne, PG 91:136. []
  34. Jane Barbara Stevenson, “Theodore and the Laterculus Malalianus”, in Lapidge, op.cit, pp. 204-21. []
  35. Jane Stevenson, The ‘Laterculus Malalianus’ and the School of Archbishop Theodore (Cambridge University Press, 1995). []
  36. A. Edward Siecienski, The Filioque. History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford: 2010), p. 95. []
  37. Jeremy K. Knight, “Britain’s Other Martyrs: Julius, Aaron and Alban at Caerleon in Alban and St. Albans, Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology, edited by Martin Henig & Philip Lindley, (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXIV, 2001), 38-44. []
  38. Lactantius, de Mortibus Persecutorum, 15, 7. []
  39. The debate over dating the martyrdom of St. Alban sand SS. Julius & Aaron still engages scholars. Vide: John Morris, ‘The date of St. Alban’, Hertfordshire Archaeology, I (1968), 1-8; G.R. Stephens, ‘A note on the Martyrdom of St. Alban’, Hertfordshire Archaeology, 9 (1983-86), 20-21 and Martin Henig, ‘Religion and Art in St. Alban’s City’, in Henig & Lindley, op.cit., 24-27. []
  40. Bede, History, II, 2. []
  41. Ep.LVIII,3 to Paulinus & LXXVII, 10 to Oceanus. These pilgrimages are also mentioned by Palladius (A.D. 420) and Theodoret (A.D. 423). []
  42. These included Remiremont, Lure, Besançon, Romain-Moutier, Bezieres, Brezille, Cusance, St. Ursanne, Jouarre, Reuil, Rebais, Faremoutier, St. Maur-les-Fosses, Lagny, Moutier-la-Celle, Hautvilliers, Moutier-en-Der, St. Salaberga, Fontenelles, Jumièges, St. Saens, Luxeuil, Anegray, Fontaines, Peronne, Toul, Amboise, Beaulieu and Strasbourg. []
  43. E.A. Thompson, “Britonia”, in M.W. Barley & R.P.C. Hanson, Christianity in Britain, 300-700 (Leicester: 1968), pp.201-205. []
  44. Namur, Liege, Gueldres, Hautmont and Soignes. []
  45. St. Gall, Mont St. Victor, Rheinau. []
  46. Hohenaug, Erfut, Freyburg, Ettenheimmünster, Schuttern, Nüremberg, Würtburg, Memmingen, Mentz, Cologne, Regensburg, Reichenau, Bregenz and Säckingen. []
  47. Bobbio, Taranto, Lucca, Faenza and Fiesole. []
  48. Vita S. Malachy, c. 6. []
  49. Abba Seraphim, “An Address given at The Annual Pilgrimage in honour of St. Fursey”, SS. Peter & Paul Church, Burgh Castle, Saturday, 2 October 2010, Glastonbury Review, 119 (November 2010), , pp. 96-105. []
  50. F.E. Warren, The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church (Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1881); Sir George F. Warner (ed.), The Stowe Missal (Henry Bradshaw Society, 1989); R.C. West, Western Liturgies (London: 1938); Archdale A. King, Liturgies of the Past (London: 1959). []
  51. H. Ashworth, ‘Did St. Augustine bring the Gregorianum to England?’ Ephemerides Liturgicae 72 (1958), pp. 39-43; Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God. The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (London: 1980), p. 123. []
  52. Jamie L. Higgs, Architecture Crossing Cultures. “Some Observations on Visigothic Architecture and its influence on the British Isles”, Journal of Empire Studies, []
  53. Hugh Connolly, The Irish Penitentials and their significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today (Dublin: 1995). []
  54. O’Loughlin, op.cit., p. 49. []
  55. Stokes, op. cit, pp. 211-230. []
  56. Michelle P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality & The Scribe (The British Library: 1903), p. 8. []
  57. Brown, op.cit., p. 1. []
  58. Vide: Brother Aidan, “Celtic, Anglo-Saxon & Romanesque Iconography”, a talk to the Midlands Orthodox Arts Forum, Birmingham University, 11 October 1997. []
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