Since the time when the Apostles met in Jerusalem to decide whether Gentile converts should first become Jews, the Church has met in council to make decisions regarding theology and church discipline and practice under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Church has declared the great theological truths of our faith in the Seven Ecumenical Councils and has regulated Church life in many smaller, local councils throughout the ages. St. Cedd of Northumbria is an example of one who made a lasting contribution in a council of the Church.
Most of what we know about St. Cedd comes to us from the writings of St. Bede. He tells us that Cedd was the oldest of four brothers – Chad, Cynibil and Caelin as well as Cedd – who grew up in a devout family in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in 7th century Britain. The brothers were sent to the monastery at Lindisfarne, where St. Aidan had brought the practices of Irish Christianity to Northumbria, for their religious instruction. Cedd remained in the monastery, serving under Bishop (St.) Finan, St. Aidan’s successor, became steeped in the ascetical practices of his mentor, and was eventually ordained to the priesthood.
Cedd was sent out on several missionary endeavors to convert some of the various tribal inhabitants of Northumbria and Mercia. Most of these had political implications, as they were requested by local kings (such as when a marriage between a Christian king’s daughter and a pagan king’s son stipulated conversion to Christianity as a requirement). Another mission was to the East Saxon kingdom, which had been Christianized by St. Augustine and the monks sent by St. Gregory the Great. Christianity had faltered in later years, depending on the preferences of the local king. So the priest Cedd was sent to bring the faith back to these people and after some success, he was consecrated to be the bishop for the East Saxons. Bishop Cedd was fearless in his presentation of Christianity and the personal commitment that it requires and he did not hesitate to chastise the powerful for their sins.
Bishop Cedd founded many churches and several monasteries, including one at Lastingham in his native Northumbria. He served as abbot at Lastingham and used it as his base, traveling far to fulfil his duties as bishop (and sometimes on diplomatic missions for kings). This was consistent with the Irish tradition of monastic and missionary bishops.
These missionary efforts in a still largely pagan area would be enough reason for us to venerate Cedd as a saint of the Church. But a diplomatic effort in a local church council may have been an act of even greater importance in the spread of Christianity in this part of the world. The differing practices of the Celtic Christians from those who had come from Rome had caused great confusion in the efforts at conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Fairly small differences – such as the style of the monks’ tonsure – might have been ironed out eventually through compromise, but larger issues – especially the dating of Easter – had to be settled once and for all if Christianity was to thrive in this land. A synod was called at the monastery in Whitby to argue and decide which way would be followed.
Bishop Cedd was a participant in this synod and it quickly became apparent that one of the stumbling blocks for decision making would be the various languages that those in attendance spoke and the inability for some to understand others and to comprehend the theological arguments. Bishop Cedd had an affinity for languages and through his travels and missionary activities had learned many local dialects. So he presented himself as an interpreter – making the arguments for both sides – in such languages as Gaelic, Old English, Frankish, Early Welsh, and Latin. St. Bede tells us that this was a sign of the Holy Spirit reversing the effects of the tower of Babel.
The participants in the synod of Whitby voted to follow the Roman – the Orthodox – way of calculating the date of Easter, choosing to celebrate this Feast of Feasts with all Christians throughout the world. St. Cedd accepted this decision and all the others regarding church discipline and returned to his monastery. Soon after, he became ill with plague and passed from this world into the next.
May we ask for the intercessions of St. Cedd as preparations are being made for the “great and holy Council” which has been proposed for later this year. We pray that his holiness of life, his zeal for the spread of the Gospel, and his desire to be a diplomat for the Church in its deliberations will serve as an example for our Orthodox bishops who seek to speak with one voice. Holy Cedd, pray for us.