While the efforts of the early Church, especially those recorded in Scripture, will always serve as the primary inspiration for all missionary efforts of the Christian church, their example has certain limits. Most saliently, the first Christian missionaries encountered a pre-Christian world; this is a very different context than the post-Christendom world in which many American churches operate. The people we seek to reach with the Gospel know about Christianity know at least something, good or bad, about the faith. My hope is to identify, examine and learn from successful missionary efforts in post-Christendom contexts. In this post I will focus on the reconversion of Britain in the early middle ages.
Basic Historical Background: Pagans, popes and monks
Like much of the Roman Empire, the island of Britain was converted to Christianity in the first centuries after Christ's death and resurrection. As the Roman Empire fell and contact with the Britain isles greatly abated during the 5th century AD, much of Britain reverted back to paganism. Various factors caused this, but chief among them was the invasion and migration of pagan German tribes into Britain who took over the country (the name England is from the "Angles", one of these German/Anglo-Saxon tribes). By the time Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to England in 596 to do missionary work, Augustine found an incredibly weakened to non-existent church, especially in the south and eastern parts of Britain. Yet over the next century, Roman and Celtic missionaries would initiate the reconversion of England.
I will focus on what we can learn today from the efforts of these missionaries. It is especially worth considering the roles of monasteries in this reconversion effort since nearly all of the missionaries were monks. These communities of spiritual ‘escape’ became centers of outreach. This causes us to ask a question: Should we be founding monasteries today? I am not convinced of this, but I am convinced that our congregations today can learn a great deal from these monastic efforts.
Cultural Adaptation and Leadership
Every missionary in ancient Britain, Celtic or Roman, was involved in the very complex struggle of confronting and employing culture in their efforts to spread the Gospel. Two examples of this show the uneven terrain of this evangelical endeavor:
· The Celtic monks were able to make huge strides in terms of limiting slavery. But they themselves engaged in armed combat, supporting their local chieftain and monastery benefactor against his adversaries.
· Anglo-Saxon kings believed themselves descendents of Woden (Odin). A conversion to pure Christianity meant a loss of their family’s divine status; thus they sent their children to enter royal monasteries and became saints, restoring the family's divine lineage. Often Christian scribes left Woden in the family genealogies, even years later.
These are but two small examples that show the rich dialogue between Gospel and culture during the re-Christianization years.
What stands out in the example of Britain’s reconversion is not simply the adaptation of Gospel to culture but the leadership of the church within the culture. The cultural artifacts and learning of the Christians, from their books to their architecture, truly impressed the pagan kings. The Christian missionaries during this time, often monks, were on the forefront of architecture and book creation. What Bach would be to music one millennia later, these monks were to book creation and ornamentation in their day.
Ironically, the monastic movement away from the world provided time for learning that propelled the church to the foreground of the culture. Is it possible for the church to use some sort of neo-monasticism for the purposes of art? The St. John's Bible seems like a modern example of effective use of arts for evangelism. If we are not going to re-create monasteries, a greater willingness to engage the arts, broadly defined, seems like a helpful, if not necessary strategy for missionary work. These missionaries took risks to engage and lead the creative side of their culture; we need to as well.
Necessity of One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
It is striking to observe that the re-conversion of Britain was not done by the British church. In the Eastern part of Britain, where paganism had taken root, the church was far too weak for mission work. In the West where the church still had strength, one must wonder if a certain degree of prejudice and fear existed about mission work into the Anglo-Saxon territory in the East; after all, these were the cruel conquerors! Regardless of the reasons, Britain on its own would not have converted back to Christianity.
Irish monasteries and the children (Aidan, Columba, to name a few) would begin to make inroads into the Britain, Scotland and Wales, especially in the West. Furthermore, Pope Gregory the Great sent the Italian monk Augustine to England to begin the process of conversion of the Eastern part of the Island. Moreover, the main Christian contact of Augustine in England was the King’s recently arrived wife, who was from France. To put it simply, Britain was reconverted by people from outside of Britain. This was also true of Ireland, as Saint Patrick was British (who grew up in the Western part of the Island where Christianity and Roman culture remained stronger).
This forces us to ask ourselves a few hard questions:
· Will the reconversion of America require missionaries from other countries?
· What kind of prejudices might we have that inhibit us from trying to reconvert our neighbors, or more likely, those who are different than us? The American church is notorious for being homogeneous within congregations.
· Does the difficulty of cross-cultural apostolic work require a non-native who paradoxically understands something less yet more about a new culture?
The strong evidence from the British experience during this time is that, yes, foreign missionaries are necessary for the re-Christianization of a population. Given that we cannot create foreign missionaries who will re-Christianize America (although we can pray for them), we can increase our contact with churches from around the globe.
Monasteries were founded with a spiritual purpose: the pursuit of discipleship through rigorous and often communal living. They ultimately ended up becoming centers of culture, learning and apostleship. I suggest this was not simply a spiritual fruit, but a by-product of economic realities. Monasteries afforded a huge economic benefit to the Christian church.
Britain’s 5th century church broke down in large part because of clergy shortage. As state support of Christianity stopped, as cities fell, the whole system of training, ordaining and funding clergy stopped working. No rulers, no money; no cities, no cathedrals; no bishops, no priests. The opposite proves the point: those areas where the church continued to flourish in the British Isles were those which saw the rise of house churches, located in the villas of local aristocrats.
Monasteries afforded the church the resources necessary for its thriving, especially in relationship to its clergy. First, monasteries provided a way to circumvent the lack of bishops (that needed cities!) and still recruit, train and ordain clergy. Second, absent an urban upper or middle class, the church could now fund itself and allow for the resources for the flourishing of the arts and learning (a pax monachica of sorts). While their economic clout would only grow over time, in the first decades monasteries were already giving the church the money, time and stability it needed. Lastly, the economics of monasteries were not only conducive to generating learning, faith and culture, but the unit proved it could be duplicated. Missionary work was done, in large part, first by the spreading of monasteries, not churches. Monasteries were a winning economic model in a post-Roman Empire world, where churches no longer had state support.
As we lose our privileges in a post-Christendom world, we need to consider ways to reconfigure ourselves for greater economic stability. Only a church that can figure out a way to afford its buildings and clergy will be able have the resources necessary for mission. This may come about through the cooperative models that share clergy across buildings; models that do not require buildings; or more radical changes in how clergy are trained; or even most radically, models that do not require significant, if any clergy altogether. Regardless, we should be prepared, if we are to thrive for mission, to engage in stewardship, not just of people in the pews, but the very way we organize for ministry.
To sum it all up
To conclude, Britain was reconverted in the early middle ages. This reconversion was led by monks and monasteries. I suggest their witness challenges us to:
· Engage, even lead, in the culture, learning and arts
· Connect with other churches around the world
· Find sustainable models of ministry
I should stop here, but…
A few other points, unrelated to my previous points, that I want to put out there: · Christians in the mission field did not always cooperate with each other.
· Homebase and missionaries in the field didn’t always agree
· The way from Paganism back to Christianity was a long and uneven road
St Augustine and the Conversion of England, an anthology edited by Richard Gameson. Great Britain: Sutton Publishing, 1999.
Augustine of Canterbury. Deanesly, Margaret. London: Nelson Publishing, 1964.
How the Irish Saved Civilization. Cahill, Thomas. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
The world of King Arthur. Snyder, Christopher A. New York : Thames & Hudson, 2000.
http://www.wikipedia.org/ for Patrick, Gildas, Aiden and Columba