Sunday, July 10, 2016

British Orthodox Saints

Living in the United Kingdom, whichever the Orthodox Archdioceses jurisdiction we belong to, it is evident that in order to promote and truly establish the Orthodox Church in the British Isles, we should venerate the British saints, i.e. the saints of this land. Many, if not all, of these saints are unknown to the Orthodox East. A revival of them at the forefront of our celebrations is important, that we may relate to saintly figures who lived where we now live and work.
There are countless Saints in the Hagiologio who originate from Britain. Before looking into some of them, it is crucial to state that all pre-schism saints of the British Isles are Orthodox saints, which we should venerate. When we say pre-schism we mean the period before 1054 AD, when the West split from the Eastern Church.


Interestingly enough, in 2007, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate added a new feast to the Russian Church Calendar, the feast of the Synaxis of All Saints of Britain and Ireland, who are to be celebrated on the third Sunday after Pentecost. This would, of course, follow ‘after the Church had completed hagiographical and historical data about their Christian endeavour, as well as the time and circumstances of their glorification and veneration.’[1] Successively, the individual celebrations of saints from the West were to be added to the calendar.  This, however, was an idea promoted and supported by the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, a society based in Oxford, which promotes relations between the Orthodox and the Anglicans. This new development emphasised what Saint Arsenios of Paros claimed in the nineteenth century, that ‘the Church in the British Isles will only begin to grow when She begins to again venerate Her own Saints.’[2]
The first member of the British Church whom we know by name is Saint Alban, who was martyred on the spot where St Albans Abbey now stands, just outside of London. The British Church was a missionary Church with figures such as St Illtud, St Ninian and St Patrick evangelising in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. However, the invasions by the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th century AD seem to have destroyed the organisation of the Church in much of what is now England. In 597 AD a mission, sent by St Gregory the Dialogist, and led by St Augustine of Canterbury landed in Kent to begin the work of converting these pagan peoples. What eventually became known as the ‘Church of England’ was the result of a combination of three traditions, i.e. that of Augustine and his successors, the remnants of the old Romano-British traditions and the Celtic tradition coming down from Scotland and associated with people like St Aidan and St Cuthbert.
A new endeavour here in the UK is the establishment of an Orthodox Monastery dedicated to All Celtic Saints. This is undertaken by Hieromonk Seraphim Aldea, who wishes to point out the Orthodox history of the British Isles. The monastery is located in a rugged but spectacular area of the Isle of Mull, in a remote spot on the Atlantic shore of the island. The region was officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for its extraordinary landscape and its historic significance. The Hebrides are a group of small islands in the Atlantic, off the West Coast of Scotland. These islands are the home of many of the Celtic Saints, and the heart of the ancient Celtic Church. Celtic Christianity is the original Christian tradition of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern England. The Celts were known as ‘the last free ones’, as they were never conquered by the Roman Empire. By consequence, the Celts never fell under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and preserved their union of faith with the Orthodox Church. The monastery is dedicated to All Celtic Saints, celebrated on the Second Sunday after Pentecost. At present, the monastery owns the Church of Saints Ninian and Cuthbert, and the surrounding area. A fundraising is taking place, in order to start building the monastic cells[3].
Now we will examine the lives of three important British Saints, St Alban, St Bede and St Cthbert.
a.      St. Alban
St Alban is the first saint and martyr of Britain, in Verulamium. Numerous traditions relating to St. Alban are very ambiguous, and it is impossible to verify various historical details and traditions about this legendary saint. Nevertheless, during the 5th century “a Gallic saint named Alban, and a native of Britain was widely venerated both in this country and on the continent”[4]. “He was a soldier in the Roman army and, according to the venerable Bede, was brought to faith in Christ by a fugitive priest to whom he gave shelter”[5]. It is said that the priest’s name was “Amphibalus – but this is almost certainly a fictitious name given to him because it is the Greek equivalent of Caracalla – or cloak – which played an important part in one of the episodes of St. Alban’s martyrdom[6]”. Alban so convinced of the priest’s holiness and authenticity, he conveyed his wish to become a Christian.
A local magistrate found out that Alban was sheltering a priest and a group of soldiers was sent to arrest both of them. When Alban realised what was about to happen, he exchanged clothes with the priest, allowing him to escape, thus giving him the opportunity to continue preaching the Gospel of Christ. When introduced to the magistrate he was demanded to sacrifice to the pagan Gods. After his refusal he was sentenced to be scourged, in order to make him recant, but to no avail. He was then sentenced to death. On the day of his execution all the town gathered in order to witness the event. However, the bridge by which the procession was to pass was blocked by all the people. Alban prayed to God and the waters of the river pulled back, thus creating a passageway. When observing this, the executioner was so moved that he laid his sword to the protomartyr’s feet wishing that he as well would be executed together with Alban. Upon reaching the spot of the execution, the saint desired some water, and after praying to God a living spring broke out near him.
After hearing the events that took place, the magistrate was astonished. This admiration resulted in the termination of all persecutions. When, eventually, the Church became the established religion, a magnificent church was built on the spot of St. Alban’s Martyrdom, near London, which is “the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain”[7]
Whether or not he was aware of Christianity before the circumstances which led to his conversion is unknown, nonetheless it’s likely that he would have had some experience of it. Despite the fact that St. Alban is termed the ‘Protomartyr of England’, it is likely that there were many other saintly figures in the British Isles, who lived and died for their faith before him, especially during the reign and persecutions of Emperor Diocletian. St. Alban is commemorated on the 17th of June. 
St. Alban is so important to English Christianity, that even an organisation which promotes Anglican-Orthodox Relations is named after him: The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. This testifies the importance that England has played since the early centuries of Christianity.
b.      St. Bede 
St. Bede is considered the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar and scientist. He wrote more than forty books, mainly of theological and historical interest. He originated from the North West of England and lived during the 7th and 8th centuries. At the age of 7 he became a monk in the Jarrow monastery where he lived for all of his life. He only left the monastery three times, on ecclesiastical matters.
From his work it is evident that he invested most of his powers and endeavours in studying the Holy Scriptures, teaching, writing and abiding by the Rule of monastic life. His work refers to a range of topics, including natural science, music, poetry, hymns, epistles and various homilies. His greatest legacy, which is the principal source for our understanding of British history from the Roman period until his own time and the establishment of Christianity in Britain, is “An Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. It is important to state that it was originally written in English and not in Latin and he is the first scholar to write about the ‘English’. Through this book we are able to learn about the life of many Anglo-Saxon saints and find a translation of the Bible in English. This proves that Luther was not the first to attempt to translate the Bible from Latin into a Western language.
Bede introduced the distinction between BC and AD, adopting the idea from a Syrian monk. He also believed that the earth was round. He wrote about the leap year and the hemisphere. However, he was not only a man of science and a writer; he was a man of God, humble, decent and pure in heart. He worked for the growth of Christianity in the British Isles. He was considered to be the most famous scientist of his time and for centuries many monks used his work as a basis for their education. Even till his last breath he was translating the Bible into English. When the news of his passing reached Europe an Anglo-Saxon missionary stated, ‘The light of learning that was lit with the Holy Spirit has now gone out’. 
Bede died in 735. History has given him the title “Venerable”, whilst his writings, especially his history, have become indispensable. His relics are currently in the Cathedral of Durham. St. Bede is commemorated on the 27th of May. 
c.       St. Cuthbert
Saint Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (634-20 March 687) was born in Northumbria. He lived in North East England and South East Scotland, mostly in his native Northumbria. After his passing, he was considered to be the most important British saint during the Middle Ages. We know of him and his important work from St. Bede’s book, ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’.
Whilst he was still eighteen and a shepherd, during the night, he witnessed a soul rise to the sky accompanied by angels. The next day he was informed of St. Aidan’s death, an Irish missionary and first Bishop of Lindisfarne. He saw this vision as a sign that he was called to become a monk, so he decided to leave his flock and become a monk at the monastery of Melrose.
After a plague hit the monastery, he became its abbot. He was engaged in missionary work, travelling to most of England and Scotland. He founded a school of rhetoric in Dall, Scotland, which later became a monastery and finally the University of St. Andrew, one of the greatest universities in the United Kingdom.
Following a period of ten years, where he became famous for his miraculous healings, he was convinced that God wanted him to become a hermit, in order to battle the powers of darkness with the power of prayer. He first went to a small island, now known as St. Cuthbert’s Islands; however, he later moved to Inner Farn, which is a more remote island. There he stayed for almost nine years. Even there countless pilgrims visited him, asking for his spiritual help and blessings. “This is where he institutionalised special laws for the protection of ducks and birds of that area, the place of his hermitage. These were the first laws ever in regards to bird protection”[8].
“A synod at Twyford, with the holy Archbishop Theodore presiding, elected Cuthbert Bishop of Hexham in 684”[9]. At first he declined, but was persuaded to accept the Episcopal duties by members of the synod who had decided on this matter, accompanied by King Egfrid. One of his greatest achievements was that he taught the English the beauty of the Christian religion and the splendour of its worship.
During the Christmas period in 686, knowing that soon he will depart this world for the Heavenly Kingdom, he required to be moved to his cell on Farn Island. On the 20th March 687 he died. He was buried in a fantastic sarcophagus, where inside the monks placed the Bible of John, which is currently located in the British Library, in London. He also had with him his famous cross, that is now located within Durham Cathedral.
Numerous miracles have taken place near his tomb. Eleven years after his death the monks opened his tomb and found that his body had remained untouched by time. This was a clear sign of his holiness. Due to many miracles that he performed during his worldly life and after his death he is known as the “Wonderworker of Britain”[10].  His relics have been moved countless times due to war, the invasion of the Vikings and the Protestant movement when many monasteries, churches, relics and treasures were destroyed. Finally the relics were placed in Durham Cathedral (1104), where they are currently located.
St. Cuthbert still moves believers today due to his multiple and valuable offerings towards Christianity, his love for his people, his concerns on spiritual matters and his tender care for the natural environment, particularly animals. He is commemorated on the 20th of March.
These are but three of countless British saints that we Orthodox should venerate in our churches, both here in the United Kingdom and abroad. They have plenty of things to teach us and they continue to serve as an example, especially today that we live in a globalised, secular, materialistic and consumerist society which promotes unholy and dreadful paradigms and idols. We Orthodox in Britain should work on composing hymns and services in their honour and celebrate their feast days.




[2] Salapatas, 2012, p.24.
[3] For more information on the monastery and how to contribute towards this endeavour, please visit the monastery’s site: www.mullmonastery.com
[4] Johnson, K.R., “St. Alban. English Promartyr. (304)”, Journal of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, No. 4, March 1929, p. 32
[5] Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, http://www.thyateira.org.uk/index.php?option=com_alphacontent&Itemid=151, 14/08/2012, 17.34
[6] Johnson, K.R., “St. Alban. English Promartyr. (304)”, Journal of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, No. 4, March 1929, p. 33
[7] St. Alban’s Cathedral, http://www.stalbanscathedral.org/, 16/08/2012, 17.11
[8] “Εδώ θεσμοθέτησε ειδικούς νόμους για την προστασία της πάπιας και των πουλιών της περιοχής όπου ακσήτευε. Αυτοί ήταν και οι πρώτοι νόμοι παγκοσμίως για την προστασία των πουλιών”. Σαλαπάτας, Δημήτρης, “Άγιος Κάθμπερτ. Μοναχός, Ερημίτης, Επίσκοπος και Άγιος”, Ανάκτιση, Τεύχος ΙΑ’, Οκτώβριος 2008, p. 5-6
[10] Archdiocese of Thyatiera and Great Britain, http://www.thyateira.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=265&Itemid=151, 16/08/2012, 16.45

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