Tomorrow is the feast of St Wilfrid, the 1300th anniversary of his death in 709. Hexham would not be here if it weren’t for him. Wilfrid built the first church here in the 7th century on such a grand scale, says his biographer Eddius, that no other church north of the Alps could compare with it. Your marvellous crypt, all that is left of Wilfrid’s church, is one of the holy places of the north for it links us directly to the saints of Northumbria’s golden age, like his other crypt at Ripon; and like Wearmouth, Jarrow and Escomb whose stones still stand as a record of the Saxon church. And even where those layers of primitive faith have been overlaid with the centuries, as at Bamburgh and Whitby, Lastingham and Hartlepool, Coldingham, the island of the Inner Farne, and Lindisfarne itself the fountainhead of them all, the memory of the saints is still powerful. These numinous places have a power to move us that is all their own. Their testimony is undimmed with the passing of time, for you feel as perhaps nowhere else the fervour of holy men and women who prayed here. Coming from Durham, I include in that list the shrines of Cuthbert and Bede in our cathedral, for though buried beneath the grandest of romanesque canopies, it is the simplicity of their faith that touches and inspires us today.
Nowhere else in England has such a concentration of ancient Christian sites, and nowhere has such a constellation of saints whose lives have so affected the course of English history. Of these, Wilfrid was without doubt one of the most able and most influential. He was one of Aidan’s boys like Chad and Cedd, a native Northumbrian who was sent to Holy Island to be educated at the monastery there. From there his studies took him to Canterbury, Gaul and Rome, an experience that gave him an understanding of the wider continental church few others of his generation had, and which gives us the clue to his life. Here of all places, I do not need to rehearse his colourful career as ecclesiastical statesman and politician par excellence, striding out across Europe like some new Joshua to conquer lands for God. From the beginning, as abbot of Ripon and bishop of York, and as apologist for the Roman way at the Synod of Whitby, he courted controversy. Combative and pugnacious, he fell out with practically every Saxon king and prelate in the land, first imprisoned and then exiled, and making not one but two long journeys to Rome to appeal to the pope. Finally, and not without controversy, he returned to Northumbria where his church at Hexham became a centre of his see.
Of all the saints of his era, Wilfrid is usually presented as an unattractive image of worldly ambition and self-interest, corrupted by the power he craved. He was said to be carried to his consecration on a throne supported by nine bishops, not exactly an icon of servant leadership. While his teacher Aidan had preferred to walk rather than ride, Wilfrid never had a conscience about his fine horses and retinue of servants and warriors. His reforms of Irish customs at Ripon led to the rough expulsion of Cuthbert who was guest master there, an event Durham finds it hard to forgive. And so it goes on. He looks like the antithesis of the gospel simplicity we associate with Lindisfarne which Jesus speaks of in tonight’s reading: ‘I thank you, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’ This is how we like our saints to be: childlike, humble, innocent. Wilfrid, worldly-wise, power-hungry, clever, and not a little ruthless, puzzles us.
So, at your Rector’s specific prompting, let me attempt the difficult but important task of defending Wilfrid. I am not going to paint over his faults, though he is not the only saint to have them. But it seems to me that we can make the case for his being one of the Saxon church’s most far-sighted, dedicated and courageous leaders. Let me try.
First let me say something about the collision of Irish and Roman customs at the Synod of Whitby in 664. By then, the date of Easter was already celebrated on the same date both across continental Europe and also in much of Ireland as well. The Columban communities of Iona and Lindisfarne were a tiny minority. Wilfrid understood where the future lay: not because it was ‘Roman’ rather than Irish, but because he was committed to the unity of the church and believed that the bishop was the visible focus her teaching and her sacramental life. His passion was for a church that was one, holy, catholic and apostolic, extending across the known world. This explains much in him that otherwise seems like a puzzling denial of his own Northumbrian traditions. If we love the church because we love God, then a larger vision of the church, and in particular, the pursuit of unity among Christians is given in the gospel. The church exists as an institution with a catholic shape and structure in order that it may have continuity in time as well as place through the preservation of what is handed on across the generations. Wilfrid understood how the tides of history as well as theology were flowing, which is why he threw his weight behind Europe and Rome. It is a fantasy to think that the outcome could have been different, even if ‘Celtic Christians’ with more romance than historical sense continue to argue that it should.
Secondly, we should celebrate in Wilfrid one of the most energetic of evangelists and founders of monasteries of his day. To establish religious communities, build churches, nurture their faithful, establish schools for the education of the young and proclaim the gospel all belonged together as ‘mission’. This is precisely what Aidan had done at Lindisfarne. In this Wilfrid was the loyal imitator of his teacher, planting Christianity as far afield as Sussex and the Isle of Wight as well as in Mercia and possibly in Frisia, another instance of the extraordinary confidence and flair of the Lindisfarne mission. And the evidence is that Wifrid was conscientious in the pastoral care of his people as missioner, teacher and bishop. We do him a disservice if we somehow imagine that he was interested only in the institution of the church and its power relations with the state, rather that in its community of disciples. His great church here at Hexham testified, no doubt, to human power as much as to the glory of God. Yet the crypt that remains, its layout designed to give the faithful access to the relics of the saints, seems to speak more of the power of holiness, the spiritual quest to re-connect with what truly belongs to the foundation of a life lived before God.
Finally, we should honour Wilfrid as one of the two men who first introduced into England the Rule of St Benedict. (We don’t know whether he or Benedict Biscop was the pioneer, but we can honour them both for it.) This is more important than it sounds. As a matter of history, it paved the way for the upsurge of Benedictine monasticism in the late Saxon period, itself the soil in which the great monasteries of the high middle-ages were planted. The influence of the Benedictine life in English history is incalculable, not only in the great libraries that flourished in monasteries such as Durham, or the economic impact of the religious houses that controlled estates in every corner of the land, but in the spiritual legacy it bequeathed to the English church. It can be argued that the liturgy and spirituality we love the Church of England for, particularly in the Book of Common Prayer, is a direct legacy of its Benedictine past with its instinct for order, balance and seriousness, pattern and rhythm, for the reticence that prefers to listen before speaking, for its profound care for human beings individually and in community. We owe Wilfrid more than we know for his commitment to this wise and humane rule. It took a well-travelled man to grasp why it mattered.
Jesus says in our reading tonight: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ Benedict’s rule makes humility its principal virtue. He likens it to Jacob’s ladder, each of the twelve degrees of humility bringing us nearer to heaven; only the steps lead downwards rather than up, for the lower we go, the closer we are to God. In Wilfrid’s quieter final years, the years of peace as Bede calls them, could it be that politics and power lost their appeal, and instead it was the call to be gentle and humble in heart like his Master that he heard again as in his boyhood he had heard it on Lindisfarne where sky and sand and sea spoke of simple things, and the Lord called as once he had called disciples by the lakeside and had said, ‘follow me’?
Hexham Abbey, 11 October 2009
On the eve of the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Wilfrid