|Island of Iona
From the History of Christianity in the British Isles
Before Christianity, the British Isles were inhabited by pagan Celtic tribes. English tradition links the introduction of Christianity to Britain to the Glastonbury legend of Josef of Arimathea. Then Christianity was introduced through the Romans (Roman invasion: 55/54 B.C. – 407 A.D.). The Romano-British population after the withdrawal of the Roman legions (407 A.D.) was mostly Christian.
The first known saint of England was St. Alban, a Christian martyr who died about the year 287 A.D. Alban was a Roman-Briton who lived in the south of England in the town of Verulanium, now the city of St. Albans. Alban was arrested and put to death for sheltering a Christian who was fleeing persecution. Although the early beginnings of Christianity in England did not survive, for the Anglo-Saxon invasion (5th and 6th centuries A.D.) largely wiped out Christianity from the areas occupied by the Saxons and Angles, the tradition of St. Alban’s heroic deed and conversion to faith did, and he is venerated as one of Britain’s most popular saints. By the 7th century, Anglo-Saxon England was largely pagan, meanwhile, some Christians among the Roman-Britons and the Saxons, who had come from France, remained in the south, in England, though they were scattered. It was already the end of the 6th century when Saint Augustine (+ 604 A.D.) set out from Rome to Canterbury (in the Kingdom of Kent) with the mission of bringing Christianity once again to the Angles. His dream was to unite the Angles, Saxons and Britons into one Church. Although he was not successful, his dream was fulfilled nearly seventy-five years later by St. Theodore of Tarsus (602 – 690 A.D.), the seventh bishop of Canterbury. He organized the Church into dioceses and was able to make peace with the Celtic bishops in the north and west of the country.
Ireland was converted largely by Roman-British missionaries – notably by Saint Patrick (389 – 461 A.D.) at some time after withdrawal of the Roman legions from England. He brought the Christian faith to the Irish people and became known as the Apostle to Ireland. Irish Christianity developed in a monastic style. Celtic missionaries from Ireland brought Celtic Christianity to Scotland – notably through Saint Columba (521 – 597 A.D.), one of the descendants of the royal house of Ireland. He established a mission on the island of Iona, off the west coast of modern-day Scotland. From there, he and his monks brought Christianity to the Picts and established churches throughout Scotland and later in the Kingdom of Northumbria. Thus, the first strongholds of Christianity in the British Isles took root in the west, in Ireland, and in the north, in Scotland.
Wales continued to be Christian when England was overrun by pagan German and Scandinavian tribes, though many older beliefs and customs survived among its people. It is known that St. David (520 -588 A.D.), who was a descendant of the royal house of Cunedda and became renowned as a teacher and preacher, founding monastic settlements in Britain and Brittany, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome during the 6th century, and was serving as a bishop of Wales well before St. Augustine arrived to convert the king of Kent and founded the diocese of Canterbury.
Finally, it was in the northernmost part of England, just below the Scottish border, that this great variety of Christian traditions came together and flourished in English monasticism. The land of Northumbria became known for its famous monasteries in Whitby, Hartlepool, Wearmouth, Jarrow, Hexham, Ripon, and Lindisfarne. It is in Lindisfarne that wee meet St. Aidan (+ 651 A.D.) and St. Cuthbert (635 – 687 A.D.), who are both known for their great missionary work. And it was the monastery of Jarrow that provided the rich library and contemplative settings that enabled St. Bede (673 – 735 A.D.), the first English historian, to write the history of the Church in England. It is largely through his Ecclesiastical History and Life of St. Cuthbert that our knowledge of the establishment and spread of Christianity in the British Isles is made possible.
Until the Reformation established different religious practices in different territories of what is now the United Kingdom, Christianity in the Islands generally looked to Rome for spiritual guidance, although figures such as Stephen Langton and John Wyclif and movements such as Lollardy occasionally posed challenges to the dominance of the Rome-based hierarchy.
The religious history of the country now comprising the United Kingdom has been turbulent and often violent. In response to a rising tide of Reformation sentiment and his own dynastic difficulties, Henry VIII of England cut ties with the Papacy, announcing himself as the supreme head of the Church of England. In Scotland the Reformation was more of a grass roots movement than an imposition by the Crown. However, a majority of the population in Ireland remained faithful to Roman Catholicism. This situation ensured unstable and violent relations between the nations of the Isles. By the late 17th century, a political settlement of religious questions had re-established stability, if not general conformism, although relations between adherents of Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church have at times been difficult.
Despite its Christian tradition, the number of churchgoers fell over the last half of the 20th century. Society in the United Kingdom is markedly more secular than in the past and atheism is also widespread. Religious education (RE) is still an obligatory subject in the curriculum, but because of a greater religious mix among parents and pupils it tends to aim at providing an understanding of the main faiths of the world than forming a strictly Christian viewpoint.
3. After reading
1. Answer the questions:
- Who brought Christianity to the British Isles?
- Who was the first known Christian saint of England?
- Why was Anglo-Saxon England largely pagan by the 7th century?
- Who brought Christianity to the Angles by the end of the 6th century? Did he fulfill his dream?
- What did St. Theodore of Tarsus do?
- Where were the first strongholds of Christianity in the British Isles? Why?
- What is known about St. David’s missionary work?
- Name the key monasteries in the Land of Northumbria.
- What were SS. Aidan and Cuthbert known for?
- Who was the first English historian?
- What happened in England/Scotland/Ireland during the Reformation?
- What was the reason of religious conflicts between the nations of the Isles?
- What tendencies in religious life are typical of modern British society?
2. Read the text again. Fill in the chart:
Spreading of Christianity in the British Isles
and his monks
St. Theodore of Tarsus
3. Discuss your notes with a partner. Find the places on the map.
4. In pairs, draw the routes of spreading Christianity in the British Isles in lines.
5. From your notes, make a brief report of spreading Christianity in the British Isles.
1. Use your own knowledge and addition materials to write notes about spreading of Christianity in Russia.
2. Make a brief report from your notes.