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St Aidan – A Model for Mission? – by Taylor Carey


Hagiography is not biography, and what we know of the ministry of St Aidan – principally through the Ecclesiastical History of Bede – must not be considered forensic material, so much as the rich echo of a dynamic and striking life. Nonetheless, these facts we may ascertain: that in 634, Aidan, a monk from Iona, was invited by King Oswald of Northumbria, recently restored from exile, to preach the Gospel to a largely pagan people in the North East of England. Here the pagan gods were apparently in the ascendant; in either 632 or 633, King Edwin of Northumbria, who had himself deposed Oswald’s father Aelthelfrith in 616, was killed by Penda, the powerful leader of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, who joined forces with Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd to deliver a crushing blow to the Christian ruler. Though Oswald would defeat Cadwallon and regain Northumbria, he too was to meet his end at the hands of the Mercians some ten years later – though Penda never considered Oswald’s murder to constitute any particular obstacle to his own son’s marriage to Eanfled, daughter of the slain king’s brother Oswiu. These were interestingly complex times.[1]

Into this violent arena strolled Aidan, an Irish monk. We might suppose that he considered the task at hand with a biblically sound mixture of fear and trembling. On the one hand, there is just a hint in Bede’s History that he might have harboured ambitions: a previous mission from Iona had failed to win over a sceptical Northumbrian population, and Aidan, though hardly the most senior member of his community, emerges rapidly as the candidate for a second try. On the other hand, almost every aspect of his subsequent ministry directly repudiated the prevailing social assumptions of his day. Aidan served several kings, enjoying their support, yet never confusing political patronage with friendship. He impressed nobles and could speak eloquently, yet he walked everywhere, and considered peasants as human individuals, not faceless subjects. One story even has Aidan giving away a fine horse, forced upon him by Oswiu, to a beggar. In a time when travelling unarmed was a reckless invitation to beasts both human and non-human, Aidan’s monks preached the Gospel of peace with integrity, wielding not swords but ploughshares, and asking for nothing but a little patience from the communities they visited with regularity. Aidan founded a school to educate English boys, many of whom (voluntarily) became monks on Lindisfarne, where Aidan had chosen to situate his community, and had built a wooden church in 635. Out of the pages of this particular chapter of history walk countless lives touched by Aidan’s witness, many of whom benefitted from his patronage and instruction – Cedd, Chad, and Hild most directly, but, perhaps most famously, the future Bishop of Lindisfarne, and much exalted, St Cuthbert.

Whilst hagiography is not biography, what emerges from the sources regarding St Aidan is a vivid portrait of a distinctive model of mission. Admittedly, too much has often been made of so-called ‘Celtic Christianity’, an unduly romanticised construct emphasising the ‘free’ and ‘natural’ spirit of early mediaeval ecclesiology in the ‘Gaelic world’, so beloved of the post-industrial mindset. It would be worth remembering here that Aidan always sought to found an English monastery with English monks, participating in the ordered mission of the universal Church.[2] Nonetheless, I think we ought to be able to discern, within the life and witness of Aidan’s community, one or two images which may serve to enrich our own discussions of ‘mission’, which are certainly plentiful in today’s churches. In the ministry of St Aidan, then, we may find some valuable pointers for thinking more thoroughly about what ‘mission’ really entails.

Firstly, Aidan’s model of evangelism was humble, gentle, and personal. We are told by Bede that the first monk from Iona to attempt the conversion of the Northumbrian pagans met with failure. Bede names him simply as austerior, or the ‘more severe’, and implies that an impersonal and somewhat aggressive approach to demythologising the Anglo-Saxon pantheon merely aroused hostility and incredulity. By contrast, Aidan’s understanding of evangelism centred on meeting people on their own terms, rushing out to them like the father of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20). To ‘win the neighbour for Christ’ was, in reality, the enterprise of so opening up the space and time of a shared world that God could be present to and for others. In a sense, then, Aidan’s ministry emphasised the importance of getting out of God’s way, rather than attempting to force others into a preconceived framework for holiness. In such sentiment is the clear imprint of the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, memorably recorded and broadcast to Western Christendom through the Conferences and Institutes of John Cassian (c.360 – 435), whose ascetical theology was immensely popular in early Christian Ireland.[3] Aidan’s ministry thus conformed to an ‘inculturated’ pattern which sought to avoid sharp narrative conflict with existing societal landscapes, instead working through them in a manner vividly repeated by Vincent Donovan amongst the Masai in east Africa in the 1960s.[4] The central element of mission, for Aidan, was not the performance of an act or the imparting of a particular piece of knowledge, but the relation of prayerful charity and hospitality which opened up the possibility of God’s continuous creative activity being allowed to shine through and touch others afresh. In the memorable words of one desert monk, which Aidan may even have known, ‘My rule is to welcome you with hospitality, and to send you on your way in peace’.[5]

This understanding of the activity of mission opens up a second, and perhaps more profound, realisation. Amongst the recorded conversations in Cassian’s Conferences is a warning that ‘a monk’s prayer is not perfect if in the course of it he is aware of himself or of the fact that he is praying’.[6] Evagrian spirituality, and particularly its understanding of prayer as a form of ascent to and mystical union with God, formed an influential strand of Christian thought for much of the Western Church’s formative years (itself being influenced by the Neoplatonic tinge of the Cappadocian Fathers). For Cassian, as for many influenced by his presentations of Patristic teachings, spirituality was, fundamentally, the occupation of a certain place in the world, standing ‘where Christ stands’ in relation to the Father. To ‘put on’ Christ in this way was never primarily a matter of exercising a certain set of skills or activities, but rather, to so attune one’s life to response to God and neighbour that we are ‘swept up into the Son’s journey towards the Father, his eternal and temporal pouring of his life into the life of the Father who eternally pours his life into the Son’.[7]

For the Christian, the life of the spirit is an invitation into the ‘way’ of Jesus Christ, the crucified God. It should thus be clear that any understanding of mission must take as its basic point of reference a particular located narrative; a series of (diverse, challenging, problematic) images which serve as further invitations into the depths of Jesus’ divine life, and which are, as such, sources of the radical re-description of our environment. To ask, then, what ‘mission’ would look like in such a scheme would be rapidly to find the fundamental inseparability of Jesus’ life and work. As Rowan Williams puts it, ‘The mission of Jesus is his concrete reality: God’s purpose is satisfied when the lost and the lawless come into specific relationship with Jesus… There is no mission which is not this sort of involvement…in Jesus, mission and person are identical’.[8]

Hence, perhaps, for Aidan, as for countless Christians before and since, the inseparability of contemplation and mission. The grounding of Christian ‘activity’ in a rigorous pattern of asceticism might be seen as a form of guarantee against the separation of these two images of Jesus’ own life – his personhood, and his being ‘sent by the Father’. Holding these images together, for all their tensions and difficulties, provides the space for a radical understanding of what the proclamation of the Gospel might be: nothing less than our own immersion in the depths of divine creativity and love, through which our environment may be so opened and transformed, that something of God’s grandeur may show forth and prove a spectacle most wonderful for all. This, we might dare to assume – though of course we cannot let ourselves think he would have expressed it in such language – was the inspired vision of St Aidan, and the pattern to which he sought to conform as he rejected so many other assumptions of his day. Plodding humbly through peasants’ fields and villages, teaching with patience and courtesy, and finding where God spoke through others before he presumed to tell them anything, St Aidan might just be a model for our contemporary understanding of mission. In the words of a prayer ascribed to him:[9]

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.

As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore make me an island, set apart, alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond, the world that rushes in on me till the waters come again and fold me back to you.


[1] For a lucid and accessible account of these developments, and their relation to St Aidan and Lindisfarne, see Kate Tristram, The Story of Holy Island (Norwich, 2009).

[2] This is a contentious issue. Quite obviously, the spiritual offshoots deriving (consciously or otherwise!) from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (first published in 1900) constitute, in a non-cognitivist sense, an authentic ‘Celtic Christianity’. The difficulty arises when such frameworks are then read back into the historical record (sketchy and agenda-ridden as Bede’s account, for example, often is). Such recent developments must also be seen in the light of various post-Reformation attempts to play up the importance of the Synod of Whitby in 664.

[3] Irish monasticism was marked by a twofold emphasis on biblical theology (due to the necessity of learning Latin in order to absorb the wisdom of the Scriptures, which orientated Irish theology towards an understanding of its task as the true revelation of the hidden depths of the Word of God), and rigorous asceticism, which aided the gruelling enterprise of memorising the Scriptures and other important texts, including Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences. For a fascinating portrait of Irish monastic spirituality as evidenced by the life of one of its earliest ‘celebrities’, see Kate Tristram, Columbanus: The Earliest Voice of Christian Ireland (Blackrock, 2010).

[4] See Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (London, 1982).

[5] Benedicta Ward (ed.), The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London, 2003), p.136.

[6] John Cassian, Conference 9:31.

[7] Rowan Williams, ‘To Stand Where Christ Stands’, in Ralph Waller and Benedicta Ward (eds.) An Introduction to Christian Spirituality, pp.6-7. See in the same volume Kallistos Ware, ‘Prayer in Evagrius of Pontus and the Macarian Homilies’, pp.14-30.

[8] Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement (London, 1994), pp.254-255.

[9] Though, of course, not written by him.

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