The history of our salvation is a story of preparing the way, of laying groundwork, of taking advantage of right conditions and making the best of others: God gave Moses the law to prepare a particular people for giving his Son; the prophets gave those people the expectation of a Messiah, the faith and obedience of one of those people – Mary of Nazareth – prepared her to become the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
This same process continued as Christianity spread through the centuries and throughout the world. The Apostles, and particularly St. Paul, took advantage of the Jewish knowledge of one God and made use of Greek philosophical ideas in persuading people of the truth of Christianity. Later missionaries took advantage of “ripe” conditions and laid further groundwork for the conversion of pagan peoples.
This task was especially difficult as Christianity was brought to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire, to people whose assumptions and expectations were completely different. Much tolerance and charity had to be exercised, and patience and wisdom were especially required. St. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 7th century, was one who possessed these virtues and who used them to promote the faith among the Anglo-Saxon people.
Born in Tarsus (the city of St. Paul’s birth), Theodore was raised in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world. He was well-educated, with wide interests. He had become a monk and knew the traditions of the desert fathers. He was living in Italy, perhaps in a monastery under Adrian (or Hadrian), the African abbot of a Neapolitan monastery, who introduced Theodore to Pope Vitalian.
When the English priest Wighard, who had been chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury and had come to Rome to be consecrated, died suddenly while in Rome, Pope Vitalian turned to Adrian as his next choice. The abbot begged off from this assignment, but agreed to accompany Theodore when the Pope chose him. At the age of 65, Theodore was ordained sub-deacon through all the orders to Bishop and began his journey to England. In addition to Abbot Adrian, he was also accompanied by the much-traveled English abbot, Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, who was in Rome to acquire books, icons and relics. They spent time with the Bishop of Paris before arriving in England in the year 669.
What this educated Greek monk found when he took up his duties at Canterbury was a people still largely pagan, and those who were Christian were divided by different traditions. Many people had not yet converted to Christianity and for many who had, the religion of their Scandinavian ancestors still had a strong hold on their beliefs and actions. These aggressive, war-like people valued the traits of bravery and strength in battle. They lived by the rule of the “blood feud”, demanding a life for a life. Their marriage customs required that a man marry the widow of his closest kin (even a step-mother). Their myths and legends glorified fierceness and revenge. [Even Anglo-Saxon Christian priests and monks maintained such an attachment to their myths that the Synod of Cloveshoe in 747 had to enact a canon forbidding the reading of Scripture in church in the same manner as the poets recited the sagas.]
The traditions of those brought to Christianity by the Irish differed enough from those with Gallican or Roman background that much ill-will and mistrust existed among them. The Synod of Whitby, in 663-4, had rejected the Celtic manner of determining the date of Easter, but other divisions had not been resolved: the Irish custom of “wandering” bishops without diocesan boundaries conflicted with the Gallican and Roman desire for an orderly division of responsibility and Episcopal oversight. The Gallican monastic practice of large groups of monks living in community with a rigid community life excluded the tendency among the Irish monks to live the hermit life. Hereditary property customs were carried over into the passing on of the positions of abbot and bishop. The relationship of monasteries to bishops varied from group to group.
With the wisdom of Solomon, and following the example set by St. Gregory the Great with his missionaries to this land, St. Theodore achieved conformity to Christian principles and unity among the people. He encouraged chieftains to accept monetary payments (“wergeld’) instead of a life for a life, making some progress toward the Christian ideal of forgiveness. The archbishop established and reorganized dioceses and their boundaries, diplomatically following the boundaries of kingdoms. He allowed different monastic traditions to be followed in different monasteries, and it is probable that both he and Abbot Adrian had some influence on the decoration of churches and knowledge of the lives of saints from other parts of the world.
In the midst of this difficult administrative and evangelistic work, St. Theodore founded a school at Canterbury for the education of monks and clergy. Here were taught not only Scripture and theology, but also Roman law, meter, music (theory as well as chant), poetry, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and the computation of time. Greek was taught as well as Latin (rare in the West at this time).
St. Theodore was of the Antiochian school of Biblical interpretation and passed on this literal (rather than allegorical) approach to Holy Scripture to numerous students. Here, his Mediterranean birth was of great value. [An 11th century manuscript, believed to contain Theodore’s scriptural commentaries, gives descriptions of Middle Eastern plants and animals mentioned in Scripture. How helpful that must have been to monks living in this northern European island!]
St. Theodore faithfully carried out these diverse duties for 21 years before falling asleep in the Lord on September 19, 690. There were no miracles reported of him; none of his original writings still exist; but his memory lives on as one who reconciled differences among his people and who, through his contribution to that society prepared the way for others to continue the work of converting Anglo-Saxon England. May almighty God give us grace to learn from him to further our work.
Sources: The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, Henry Mayr-Harting; A History of the English Church and People, St. Bede the Venerable; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Hugh David Farmer.