It is the 17th of November 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 680.
We are back in the 7th century today. We will center back on the British Isles as we look at the schism, haircuts, calendars, and one of the most important characters in the early British church. On this, the 17th of November, in 680, Hilda of Whitby died at the abbey, where she helped save the future of the "British" church.
We tend to focus on the significant schisms in the church center around the church during the early councils, the East/West schism in the 11th century, and the 16th century Reformation. But in the 7th-century, trouble was brewing between the Celtic and Roman Christians in the British Isles.
The ancient British church would like to tell you that Christianity was thriving there before Constantine officially recognized it in 315. While a native Celtic Christianity was present, it was regional and splintered. By the 4th century, Roman Britain would be firmly established.
Then, of course, Rome falls. Roman Britons are cut off from their spiritual hub, but Celtic Christianity continued to thrive. And then there is Augustine of Canterbury, everyone's favorite "other" Augustine.
While Augustine was named Archbishop of Canterbury, many of the Celtic Christians resented control from Rome, especially when it came to certain practices. One was the dating of Easter, and the other was the all-important issue of barbering.
The first issue came to a head when Oswiu, the king of North Umbria, married a southerner who had been raised with Roman Christian traditions. The king and his queen could not celebrate Easter on different days, ensuring that one would be fasting while the other was feasting. And so, the question as to the dating of Easter (which would become a big issue for the East/West schism) loomed large.
The second issue was that of barbering. But not just haircuts. You see, the Latin word for barbering is "tonsure," that is, the particular kind of haircut worn by religious orders and penitents. The origin stories of various monkish hairstyles are legion, and there were multiple kinds of monkish haircuts, especially amongst the decentralized Celtic Christians. The Roman tonsure, the type you are likely familiar with, consisted of a bald head with a single ring of hair around the head like a laurel. Perhaps it was meant to emulate Roman slaves, or maybe it was what St. Peter traditionally wore. Perhaps it was a combination of St. Paul's supposed baldness and the Old Testament injunctions that leads some Jewish people not to cut the corners of their hair.
Nevertheless, the institutional Roman Christians insisted that unity in this, in doctrine, in the dating of Easter were on the same level. The showdown between Celtic and Roman Christians would take place in 667. The Northumbrian King, Oswiu, called for a synod to be held, and he would host it at the Monastery at Whitby. He chose Whitby on account of the abbess there, the former maid and tutor to his daughter, the abbess Hilda. Hilda was a well-respected Celtic Christian who had been baptized with her Uncle, King Oswiu's predecessor.
Hilda was renowned for her learning and literacy and her piety and service to both pilgrims and monks. Oswiu believed that her authority and reputation would help lead the church through the controversy. And that is what she did. Wilfrid, who was to take the Roman side against the Bishop of Lindisfarne in the presence of Oswiu, had Hilda's initial support. But when Oswiu ruled in favor of the Roman church, Hilda submitted to the judgment and encouraged other Celtic Christians to do the same. The Roman traditions won the day, the Celtic church retained its particular regional flavors, and the British church would not split.
Hilda was praised as one of the voices that saved the schism from becoming permanent. Hilda would also be responsible for running the monastery at Whitby, which would produce five bishops and two saints under her leadership. Hilda worked, often quite ill, for the rest of her life at the monastery where she would be praised for her role as both a peacemaker and a patron of learning and the arts. Her iconography is interesting as she is represented as holding a crosier, the traditional staff representing the authority of a bishop. They made an exception for the abbess. In the Anglican church, she is recognized tomorrow, as some other saint got in the way. The rest of the world can remember St. Hilda of Whitby on this, the day she is said to have died, the 17th of November in 680.
The reading for today comes from a poet who spent time in the Whitby Abbey. It is said Hilda invited him. This is an excerpt from that poet known as Caedmon from Caedmon's Hymn, the oldest poem in English and written at Whitby under St. Hilda.
Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven,
the power of the Creator, the profound mind
of the glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning
of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
For the children of men he made first
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting Shepherd,
ordained in the midst as a dwelling place,
Almighty Lord, the earth for men
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of November 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man whose first tonsuring was a stylized CG shaved into the back of his head, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.