Address at the 10.30am Sung Eucharist
Sunday 17 Jan 2010

St Fursey and the Conversion of East Anglia

 Given by Michelle P. Brown, Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies,
Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Isaiah 62

Zion's New Name

  1. For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
       for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet,
       till her righteousness shines out like the dawn,
       her salvation like a blazing torch.

  2. The nations will see your righteousness,
       and all kings your glory;
       you will be called by a new name
       that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.

  3. You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD's hand,
       a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

  4. No longer will they call you Deserted,
       or name your land Desolate.

These prophetic words delivered by Isaiah to the children of Israel would have had a resounding relevance to the East Anglia to which the Irish missionary-saint Fursey, whose feast we celebrated yesterday (in my case in the good fellowship of the Fursey Pilgrims) came to minister in the 630s. Their message of hope in the face of despondency and decline is just as necessary today.

Christianity had reached Britain earlier, when part of the Roman Empire – perhaps as early as the 1 st century – and by the end of the 4 th had become the state religion of an extensive Empire, already beginning to collapse under its own weight and ambitions. Archaeological evidence shows that, rather like today, religious practices were, nonetheless, mixed. Christian was the default mode, but many were motivated mainly by materialism, whilst paganism and superstition flourished and other of the eastern mystery religions continued to thrive.

In 410 Britain 's formal inclusion within Europe – the western part of the Empire – came to an end, with the withdrawal of much of the administrative and military infrastructure and the rupture of the international monetary system. What do you do in such circumstances? Well, once the hangovers had worn off, the response of the Romano-British was either to lapse back into local tribalism and the old nature-based religions or to attempt to perpetuate the status quo wherever possible. Wine and olive oil continued to be imported, along with the free table-ware offered by Mediterranean traders as a sales incentive, even if the only ones doing well were the pound-shop equivalents in the forums of regional towns, where the rubbish tips were already beginning to pile up. The equivalent of the TA continued to man frontiers such as Hadrian's Wall and the Saxon shore forts that ringed the East and South coasts, assisted by mercenaries drawn from some of those very peoples whom they sought to keep at bay – the Germanic tribes.

Even the most optimistic Christian might have been forgiven for feeling somewhat anxious and depressed. Their fears for this life, if not for the next, were well-grounded, as mercenaries began to turn on their employers and their communities and escalating aggression was followed by mass-immigration, notably from the transit camps of Frisia to the ports of East Anglia and Kent – ever the front-line for incoming goods, ideas and peoples.

Within 2-4 generations the lifestyle, traditions and beliefs of Christianised, urbanised Roman Britain had degenerated into that of the Anglo-Saxons - rural subsistence farmers and a warrior elite, who owed allegiance to petty warlords and to a pantheon of Germanic deities who, at best, offered a hope for some of an afterlife of combat in Valhalla against the world-serpent of evil, which was doomed to failure.

If this posthumous incentive seems unattractive to us, the lures offered by those in control of the living may have seemed more tempting. For the lords of men were gold-friends, ring-givers who knew how to throw a good party, with the mead-tub brimming over and flesh aplenty. Such hedonistic delights might serve as temporary distraction from the perils of the battlefield or the birthing bed, if you were of sufficient social status to enjoy them. The lot of the slave or the struggling poor was another matter.

Seamus Heaney's translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, gives a glimpse of the underlying nihilism of such an outlook:

A newly constructed barrow stood waiting, on a wide Headland close to the waves, its entryway secured. Into it the keeper of the hoard had carried all the goods and golden Ware worth preserving. His words were few: "Now, earth, hold what earls once held and heroes can no more; it was mined from you first by honourable men. My own people have been ruined in war; one by one they went down to death, looked their last on sweet life in the hall … the coat of mail that came through all fights, through shield-collapse and cut of sword, decays with the warrior… No trembling harp, no tuned timber, no tumbling hawk swerving through the hall, no swift horse pawing the courtyard. Pillage and slaughter have emptied the earth of entire peoples."

Such was the world in which Christians from Ireland, Rome and Gaul sought to reignite the torches of hope, rather than of genocide and destruction.

Yet they recognised that there were some good things to be preserved from the traditions of others, and that uncompromising, unremitting in-your-face evangelism could serve to alienate rather than to attract.

When Mellitus, a member of St Augustine's Roman mission to Canterbury, managed to refound a cathedral in London in 604, probably on the site of Wren's St Paul's, he wrote to Pope Gregory the Great saying, essentially, ‘they've got religions already. What do I do about it?', to which Gregory replied ‘If there's a party going on, join in; if there is a place where people have been used to laying their hopes and fears, do not destroy it, but embrace it and make it your own.' And so the festival of the Germanic goddess Eostre became the time for the commemoration of Christ's sacrifice and resurrection and ancient oak groves and Roman fortresses became the sites of Christian altars and shrines.

There was much in Scripture that was already familiar: as we have heard in today's readings, Christ's first act of public ministry was to turn water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana, whilst the words of Psalm 36 might be speaking of the ideal Anglo-Saxon king and his people:

  5. Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens,
       your faithfulness to the skies.

  6. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
       your justice like the great deep.
       O LORD, you preserve both man and beast.

  7. How priceless is your unfailing love!
       Both high and low among men
       find refuge in the shadow of your wings.

  8. They feast on the abundance of your house;
       you give them drink from your river of delights.

When Bede described the decision of Edwin, King of Northumbria, to lead his people to convert to Christianity in 627, he did so in the following way, no doubt inspired by the accounts in Matthew and Luke's Gospels of God's care for even the smallest sparrow:

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, Book 2, Chapter 13:

He [King Edwin] summoned a council of the wise men, and asked each in turn his opinion of this strange doctrine [Christianity] and this new way of worshipping the godhead that was being proclaimed to them. Coifi, the chief Priest, replied without hesitation: "Your Majesty, let us give careful consideration to this new teaching. For I frankly admit that, in my experience, the religion that we have hitherto professed seems valueless and powerless. None of your subjects has been more devoted to the service of our gods than myself; yet there are many to whom you show greater favour, who receive greater honors, and who are more successful in all their undertakings. Now, if the gods had any power, they would surely have favoured myself, who have been more zealous in their service. Therefore, if on examination you perceive that these new teachings are better and more effectual, let us not hesitate to accept them." Another of the king's chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: "Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day with your thegns and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it." The other elders and counselors of the king under God's guidance, gave similar advice.

The hope of succour and reward in this life and of its perpetuation after death have always been incentives to embracing Christianity. Yet, as we know, there is so much more to it than this.

The real key to the successful reintroduction of Christianity to England, and to its survival in other western parts of post-Roman Britain, lay in living out the Godspell (Good News in Old English). This entailed investing in community, in worship, prayer and study, and in a radical social activism that often meant laying oneself on the line and moving beyond one's comfort zone.

For this was a time when Christianity was a radical, transforming force. A time when warriors, brought up in the boisterous ways of the mead hall to the strains of bardic recitation of glorious militaristic genealogies and the exploits of heroes of the like of Beowulf, might be induced to adopt pacifism – like King Sigebert of East Anglia who was summoned out of the cloister that he had embraced as a monk as the sole royal survivor capable of leading his people into battle against pagan forces. This he reluctantly did, but armed only with a wooden cross to serve as his defence against the barbarians bearing down with their battle-axes. King Sebbi of Essex, another seventh-century ruler, likewise renounced his earthly kingdom for the service of the kingdom of God as a monk, thereby risking assassination, as did any Christian leader who threatened to remake the fabric of society. Freeing slaves was one such threat, and the margins of some of the great Gospel books penned in England during the eighth century (such as the Lichfield / Llandeilo Gospels) carry the earliest medieval written records of such manumissions.

What, other than respect and nostalgia, might prompt Christians heading into the twenty-first century of the Christian era to revive interest in such role models and issues? Celtic spirituality is undergoing something of a revival. In the face of the relentless pace of society, its rampant materialism and its monolithic corporate identities and regulation, a tradition which strikes a resonance concerning the balance between active and contemplative, of the place of the individual within the communal, of ‘green' issues, approaches to conflict and symbolism, which underpins so much of our contemporary approach to communications, is bound to be attractive. Yet there is something of a danger of using the ‘Celtic' label as a cover for a laissez-faire attitude and escapism, resulting in a ‘cuddly Celtic Christianity' which bears little relationship to the tradition it purports to perpetuate. For example, anyone tempted to use the ‘freedom' afforded by the Celtic tradition as an argument against discipline and structure should first acquaint themselves with the Rule of Columbanus and the many Irish Penitentials.

One of the major points of interest of the conversion of East Anglia for a modern Christian audience is the example it offers of constructive collaboration between representatives of different traditions of churchmanship in order to further their common Christian mission: Mellitus from Rome, Felix from Gaul, Fursey from Ireland, Cedd from Lindisfarne (not to mention other important contributors, such as St Etheldreda). The ecumenical implications of this are immediately apparent.

The ‘peregrinatio' or voluntary exile for Christ which brought Fursey to East Anglia from Ireland and propelled him onwards to France is a phenomenon which also has something to offer the present. It should be understood against the background of secular Irish law in which it represented the most severe level of deterrent, alongside capital punishment. To remove oneself, or to be expelled, from the social structures of kingship and kindred was to fall outside of any means of legal or economic support. You became, in effect, an outlaw, but were also freed of any attendant obligations, other than to the Lord, in the case of those religious who so chose. Such an option also freed one, in spiritual terms, from what early sources describe as one of the greatest of earthly sorrows: the attachment to loved ones and the fear and grief of separation in life or in death. Vanquishing such fears and recognising a more fundamental allegiance to God – to be part of something bigger - was part of the religious discipline and still has something to offer in terms of fostering the recognition that love can be sustained even when deprived of proximity and physical contact.

The course of Fursey's career is an interesting one, reminiscent of that of St Cuthbert, in that he obeyed a call to share his faith with others through teaching, preaching and pastoral ministrations, but that he seems to have felt himself frequently a victim of his own success. This led him to withdraw to the seclusion and hardship of the eremitic retreat. Such periods were not an escape from the world, however, but times of questioning and purification before re-entering the fray with renewed vigour. The balance between active and contemplative modes and the recognition that there can be seasons for each is something which our ‘24-hour society' neglects at its peril. Steadfastness of purpose is, however, also a feature of Fursey's outlook. He conceived of a purpose and continued to work towards it. Nonetheless, he always responded to the work which God and man revealed for him en route. His own self-determined goal on earth was never achieved. He never prayed at the sites graced by Sts Peter and Paul, but this aim motivated and structured his journey and validated the work en route, assisted by prayer, meditation and study as well as good works. For Fursey it was perhaps better to travel hopefully than to arrive, and the failure to attain the appointed earthly goal did not subtract from the journey towards the spiritual home.

Finally, the virtues and visions of Fursey illustrate, in a succinct and vivid form, the vital interaction of the processes of sin, conscience, acknowledged responsibility, atonement, compassion and forgiveness. None of these are strangers to Christianity in the 21 st century any more than they were in Fursey's time.

As our society moves ever deeper into materialistic secularism, neo-paganism or scientific absolutism, so the tide of despondency, discontent and despair swells, along with rising sea levels. Just as in the late Roman period and in the age of Fursey, people are looking for something from which to draw strength, hope and a sense of purpose.

In the London free newspaper, Metro, last week there was an item on a social networking site that offers support for fans of the movie Avatar who are so captivated by the vision of life on the planet Pandora, as part of the community of the Na'vi people, that they contemplate suicide because of its unobtainability in reality.

If ever there was a need for us to blaze with the light of Christ in this world, to do his work here in the witness of our lives and in care for Creation, and to hold firm to the hope he has set before us for a transformed and transforming existence beyond, it is now.

back to top

back to Fursey Lectures


Fursey Pilgrims Homepage