There is fundamental and very important distinction between the Church of England on the one hand, and the Church in England on the other. Prior to the foundation of the Church of England by King Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, the Church took hold in England thanks to missionaries from Rome; their tale and the tale of the Church that flourished in their wake come down to us through an Anglo-Saxon called Bede.
The Venerable Bede, as he is commonly known – although he has indeed been canonized, and is more technically known as St. Bede the Venerable – has provided for posterity an invaluable and unparalleled record of life in the Christian Church in England up to its date of completion around 731 A.D. This work had a profoundly lasting effect on the world, Christian and non-Christian.
Bede has become known as the Father of English History, and is considered one of the foremost Anglo-Saxon scholars. He wrote not only on the history of English Christianity, but numerous books on nature, music, astronomy, and poetry, as well as commentaries on sacred Scripture. He also wrote the first martyrology, or anthology of the lives of the saints. But it is beyond question that his most influential and most important work is the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, or The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Most of the information that we have on the life of Bede comes from the final chapter of the Ecclesiastical History, in which he recounts his own life up to that point. He was born in the year 672 or 673, in Jarrow in what is now Durham in England. It seems likely that Bede came from a noble family, fairly well-to-do. At the age of seven he was sent to a monastery for his education, which at the time did not necessarily herald a life of a solitary priest; but that is indeed the life which Bede would take up, spending most of his life inside monastery walls, working tirelessly as a scholar.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was a work in five volumes, covering a vast sweep of history – from Julius Caesar’s raids of Britain ca. 55 B.C. to the arrival of Saint Augustine of Canterbury in 597 A.D., the first missionary to arrive from Rome. Bede was a master of classical languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and had a passion for the work of the Church fathers. Seemingly bred to be a historian, and led forth by his passions, Bede cited as his sources for the Ecclesiastical History ancient letters to which he had access, traditions which had been passed down, and his own personal knowledge.
Bede was an honest scholar, and this honesty is not betrayed by his faith in the miraculous hand of God operating on earth. He would only accept as sources those which he trusted and which he felt were deserving of inclusion in this historical tome. But he recognized that the recounting of miraculous events does not by any means limit the veracity of a source; as a result, the Ecclesiastical History is more than just a ledger of episcopal appointments, abbatial tenures, and conversion counts. It is the story of a Church fully alive, with a missionary fervor and profound devotion.
We might reasonably wonder why a work of local religious history from a millennium and a half ago should be important to us today – let alone the chronicler himself. There are a number of ways in which the Ecclesiastical History has influenced scholarship through the centuries, and Bede provides us with a stellar example of simple devotion, as well as the importance of remembering our past.
One way in which the Ecclesiastical History continues to influence us today (in spite of modern attempts at revisionism) is the way in which we account for time itself. Contrary to those who came before him, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, dated events from his reckoning of the date of the Incarnation – the birth of Jesus Christ. His deep and profound Christian faith led Bede to see the Incarnation as the central point of all human history – not merely the history of Christianity.
For Bede to measure all time around the Incarnation as the focal point and axis speaks to his passionate faith in Jesus Christ, and the universal importance of His life and His death. What exactly are we to take from his sense of the Incarnation as the focal point on which hinges all of time? Perhaps we can say it best this simply: Bede recognized history as His Story.
Being outside of time, and time itself being His creation, God cannot be bound by time’s borders, nor can He reasonably be described by its passage. It makes no sense to say “God did this, and ten years later He did that,” because God is completely outside of time. However, because all of time and all of space and all of everything was created by His Word, and is kept in being every moment of every day by a sheer and voluntary and infinitely loving act of God’s will, all of time and all of creation is His. The story of the universe, of great civilizations rising and falling, of the intrigue and drama of great global events, and the poignancy and powerful simplicity of intimate personal moments – all of it is His.
All of history belongs to God, and when we recognize this, we can willingly give it back to Him. We can give Him our past, our present, and our future, offering to Him all that we have and more. As Christ did during his earthly life, and especially during His Passion and Death, we can freely give everything to God, including every part of ourselves.
In 1899, Pope Leo XIII canonized the Venerable Bede, raising him to the altars and lifting him up for the Church to see as an example to follow. When he was canonized, he was also named a Doctor of the Church. In fact, he remains the sole native-born Briton to be granted that designation.
Bede wrote of himself that he had “devoted [his] energies to the study of the scriptures, observing monastic discipline, and singing the daily services in church,” whose “delight” had always been “study, teaching, and writing.” His scholarship is clear and unquestionable, as are his dedication to his faith and dogged devotion to the passing-on of knowledge.
How are we to understand the writings of this learned and holy saint? Perhaps these words of the holy scholar adequately summarize his aims: “For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked men, the good, religious reader or listener is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse, and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.”
Bede died humbly and simply in 735 A.D., in his cell at the monastery at Jarrow in the northeast of England.
image: St Bede the Venerable by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr