4th - 8th century: Mission
The Christian church was now large, highly structured and powerful, and that made it harder to be true to its founder. The intellectual explanations of God’s nature seemed far removed from the simple devotion which Jesus’ original followers had. In Egypt at the end of the 4th century a man called Anthony responded by moving into the desert and living as a hermit. Others followed and set up austere communities of prayer. One of these so-called Desert Fathers was named Jerome. He spent his life translating the Bible into Latin, which made it available to many more people than ever before.
The idea of living as Christian community thrived and many monasteries and convents were founded. They were places where study, prayer and service of the poorest in society were prioritised. The driving force in monastic life in the East was Basil of Caesarea. But monasteries became influential in the Christian experience of Western Europe as well. John Cassian founded communities in France in the 5th century. And in 6th century Italy an abbot called Benedict established a rule of life that still shapes monastic communities, combining worship and work.
At the start of the 6th century the Roman Empire crumbled as the Visigoths attacked. However, new invaders brought new groups of people for the Christians to evangelise – Vikings, Moguls, Vandals. As people responded to the teaching of Jesus it became clear that Christianity was not just the state religion of the Empire, but a worldwide faith. This made the Pope, Leo I, extremely powerful because he was increasingly an international leader while the Emperor’s influence dwindled.
From very shortly after Jesus lived there had been pockets of Christians in the islands now known as the United Kingdom. By the time of the 6th century they had been driven north and west, leaving England mostly pagan. But Christianity put down deep roots in Ireland under the guidance of a former slave called Patrick. He had escaped to France, studied theology, become a bishop, and returned to convert the people who had enslaved him.
Ireland was one of two centres from which missionaries travelled to bring the Christian faith to Scotland, England and Wales. A monk called Columba sailed from Ireland to Iona, an island off the north-west coast of Scotland. He founded a monastery. From there in the 7th century Aidan and Cuthbert crossed to Lindisfarne, an island in north-east England, and settled there. The impact these Celtic missionaries had in introducing the Christian faith was great. It was distinctive for the way it respected the existing culture, rather than trying to eradicate it.
In the south of England Canterbury became another centre for the spread of Christianity. At the end of the 6th century Pope Gregory was a progressive leader who built hospitals, brought groups of churches together to help them understand each others’ attitudes, and pursued peace with empires who threatened Rome. He sent a man called Augustine to England with instructions not to destroy pagan sites but instead to speak of Jesus and invite people to worship him there. In Kent he found a tribal queen called Bertha. She had come from France, where she practised Christianity, to marry King Ethelbert. She invited Augustine to found a monastery in Canterbury. When her husband converted to Christianity, so did thousands of his subjects.
So in the north and south of England, two different styles of Christianity were flourishing. Their differences now seem insignificant – for instance the way a monk’s hair was cut or the date Easter was celebrated. However, they saw themselves as distinct. Hilda, the most prominent Christian leader of her generation in England, hosted a council at her convent in Whitby in 664. (Decision-making events such as these are called synods.) The principles were discussed prayerfully, and the council chose to follow the highly-organised Roman practice of Christianity. Bringing the way Christianity was lived out in Britain and Ireland into line with the rest of Europe gave it an enduring strength.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Oh that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest,
I would fly far away and stay in the desert.
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm ...
Cast your cares upon the Lord and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous be shaken.
Where to find it:
About these words:
A hymn written about one thousand years before the time of Jesus.
And they said...
Jerome, Bible translator, 331 – 420:
Everything we read in the sacred books shines and glitters even in the outer shell. But the marrow is sweetest. He who wants to eat the kernel must first crack the shell.
Cuthbert, monk in Scotland and missionary to England, about 620 – 687:
If I could live in a tiny dwelling on a rock in the ocean, surrounded by the waves of the sea and cut off from the sight and sound of everything else, I would still not be free of the cares of this passing world, or from the fear that somehow the love of money might still come and snatch me away.