Saint Theodore of Canterbury: A Builder of Strong Foundations

At the time of writing, people across Scotland are casting votes to decide whether or not the country will remain as part of the United Kingdom. As the result will not be known until when this is published, and I do not wish to comment on the independence debate anyway, I thought I would write today about a notable saint of the British Isles instead – Saint Theodore of Canterbury, whose feast day it is. Saint Theodore (602 – 690), also known as Theodore of Tarsus (after the place of his birth), was nominated in 667 by Pope Saint Vitalian to be the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury, after the death of Archbishop Wighard.

The appointment was slightly controversial as Theodore, a monk of sixty plus years of age, had not yet been ordained as a priest. Saint Vitalian’s decision was made upon the advice of one Saint Hadrian (or Adrian), a Berber from North Africa, who Vitalian had offered the archbishopric to in the first instance. Hadrian recommended Theodore on the basis of his great learning and personal character, as Saint Bede explains:

At this time there was in Rome a monk named Theodore, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, who was well known to Hadrian. He was learned both in sacred and in secular literature, in Greek and in Latin, of proved integrity, and of the venerable age of sixty-six. Hadrian, therefore, suggested the name of Theodore to the Pope, who agreed to consecrate him, but made it a condition that Hadrian himself should accompany him to Britain, since he had already travelled through Gaul twice on various missions and had both a better knowledge of the road and sufficient men of his own available.

A History of the English Church and People (1979), p.204, Penguin.

            Saint Hadrian’s recommendation and Saint Vitalian’s choice proved to be wise, as the work done by Theodore during his time as Archbishop was highly influential and of great importance for the future of the English Church. Bede continues to describe some of the changes that he initiated upon arrival:

He was accompanied by Hadrian, and he taught the Christian way of life and the canonical method of keeping Easter. Theodore was the first archbishop whom the entire Church of the English obeyed, and since, as I have observed, both he and Hadrian were men of learning both in sacred and in secular literature, they attracted a large number of students, into whose minds they poured the waters of wholesome knowledge day by day. In addition to instructing them in the holy Scriptures, they also taught their pupils poetry, astronomy, and the calculation of the church calendar. In proof of this, some of their students still alive today are as proficient in Latin and Greek as in their native tongue…

…During his visitation, Theodore consecrated bishops in suitable places, and with their assistance, he corrected abuses wherever he found them. When he informed Bishop Chad that his consecration was irregular, the latter replied with the greatest humility…At this humble reply, Theodore assured him that there was no need for him to give up his office, and himself completed the consecration according to Catholic rites.

ibid, pp.206-207.

            Saint Bede writes warmly of Saint Theodore in many other places of his History, emphasising again and again what good work he did in providing stability through promotion of orthodox teaching and implementation of sound ecclesiastical structures, as well as (with Saint Hadrian) expanding the breadth of learning available to the English, and incorporating it into their spiritual instruction, providing what reads like one of the earliest accounts of liberal arts education. Hadrian was himself appointed by Theodore to be Abbot of Saint Peter’s monastery (known retrospectively as Saint Augustine’s) in Canterbury, and together they founded a school there, enabling that widespread and thorough programme to be given deep roots in the English Church.

Apart from his educational legacy (which also included training in sacred music), what Saint Theodore is primarily remembered for is his renovation and improvement of the diocesan structure within the English province – a structure that was taken over by the Protestant movement in England, and continues to be used by the CofE to this day. Most notable among his reforms was the splitting up of Northumbria into smaller dioceses, which angered Saint Wilfrid, Bishop of York (famous for his support of Roman tradition at the Synod of Whitby in 664). Wilfrid had been installed as Bishop there by Theodore himself to replace Saint Chad (the one mentioned by Bede as having been irregularly consecrated), who was instead newly consecrated as Bishop of Mercia.

The story is a long and complicated one, with Wilfrid appealing to various popes as well as kings to have the old diocese of Northumbria restored, but after much time pleading (during which Wilfred did good work in other spheres), the decision of the Synod of Hertford, which was convened by Theodore in 673, was upheld, and the roots of the diocesan system established within the traditions of the English Church. This episode goes to show firstly that, despite the virtues of respective saints, agreement between them is not necessarily guaranteed, and that the work of the Holy Spirit does not depend upon individual personalities – He works through them, often in mysterious ways, but it is He that works through them, not the other way around.

This episode also illustrates, as does this early period of Christianity in Britain as a whole, the extent to which papal and episcopal authority were not just respected but vital to the ecclesial life there. The structures and directives implemented by Saint Theodore were literally foundational for the life of the Church in England for centuries to come, and his work would not have been possible were there not a keen sense amongst the English (as well as the other peoples of the British Isles) that they belonged to a wider body – the Catholic Church – and could not make decisions simply according to their own preferences, but were beholden to tenets of a Faith that they were a part of, that preceded them, and whom they were related to by bonds that went beyond political or personal loyalties.

This profound sense that unity and diversity were not just things that coexisted in an awkward tension, but that informed one another and made the fulfilment of each more possible, is a lesson for us all even today. To be united to peoples different from ourselves in many ways requires the adherence to and the remembrance of the things that those bonds consist of – common belief, shared historical roots, common outlook and shared assumptions. But this does not preclude diversity of life amongst those so united to one another; rather it provides the basis from which genuine individuality and unique cultural expression can be realised.

The Church holds within her a great variety of liturgical and spiritual traditions, but all held together by a common Faith – without this anchor, she would no longer be the Church, but would dissolve into a sea of indifference, where individuality becomes synonymous with cultural or theological drift and ironically traditions become less distinct. What Saint Theodore and those of his time (as well as many others throughout the history of the Church) realised was that it is imperative for these foundations to be laid in order that the life of the Church may thrive freely and with integrity to the One who founded her – if she is truly to be the Bride of Christ, she must be resplendent in many colours, but distinctly one and distinctly His.


3 thoughts on “Saint Theodore of Canterbury: A Builder of Strong Foundations

  1. Pingback: Saint Edward the Confessor: A Witness to True Catholicity | Journey Towards Easter

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