St Aidan – Hero of the Faith

St Aidan – Hero of the Faith

This continues a series of articles based on sermons during 2016, about a number of heroes of the Christian faith from which we can learn…

St Aidan

As many of you know, I (Grant Crowe), was part of Lichfield Diocese in the Church of England. I was a Lichfield, ordinand, curate and team vicar before moving to the Netherlands. And Lichfield sees its roots coming from the 7th century and a man called St Chad. St Chad was a pupil of Aidan. In time Chad was made Bishop of Mercia (Kingdom of Mercia, historically, would be equivalent to the entire English Midlands). Chad fixed his residence at Lichfield and he saw it become an ecclesiastical centre. The great historian Bede was to describe Chad as “following the pattern of Aidan, travelling from town to town, preaching and praying zealously among the people he served.”[1] Lichfield Diocese sees its roots coming from a man trained by Aidan.

Statue of St Aidan on Lindsfarne Island, England.

Aidan has been called Iona’s greatest missionary, and the apostle to the English, and “by all accounts a saintly figure.”[2] So where does his story begin? Sometime after AD 617, Prince Oswald came to the monastery of Iona. He was a member of the Royal Family who had felt after King Edwin had been killed in battle with the pagan kings Penda (king of Mercia) and Cadwallon, (king of Wales). Oswald was sent to Scotland both for safety and education, as Celtic Monasteries were known for their high level of scholarship. There, on Iona, he became a Christian. In 632, Oswald felt time was right to confront Cadwallon and free his homeland. They met in battle at Heavenfield. Before the battle Oswald placed a cross in the soil making his Christian belief clear to all. His small army was victorious.

 

After victory, one of Oswald’s first actions, was to send a request back to Iona for a missionary to be sent to convert his Northumbrian people. A man called Corman was sent. But he did not go down well with the English.  He returned disappointed and despondent to Iona, having abandoned his mission, and complained the English were “an ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament.”[3]!!! The community at Iona met to decide what to do. At that meeting was an Irish monk – Aidan – we do not know how old he was – Aidan listened to Corman’s report. He then stood and said: “Brother it seems you should have followed the practice of the Apostles and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, gradually nourished them with the word of God.”[4] When he finished speaking there was silence. The community discerned that Aidan had a clear call of God to go and evangelise the English. And so he was consecrated bishop and sent off with prayers and blessings of Iona. That was in 635.

 

Aidan travelled to Bamburgh – where the King’s castle was. He walked there, evangelizing as he went. A few miles north of Bamburgh lies the island of Lindisfarne a tidal island, but possible to walk across when tide was out. He was given space to build a monastery. Lindisfarne, known also today as Holy Island, became a mission base with training in teaching and evangelism.

 

Lindisfarne has been called “one of the most effective mission bases England has ever seen.”[5] Aidan stayed mostly here, but he helped set up other communities in the North East of England and trained people like Cedd and Chad, and Hilda who became based at Whitby, where, some years late in 657 she established a double monastery for men and women.

 

Aidan’s ministry is significant due to what he established and who were trained there and their legacies.  But he is also significant for the kind of Christian man he was.  The Venerable Bede was a man born in 670s and died in 730s, and who has been called the Father of English History, writing 40 books.[6] The highest recommendation Bede could give was that Aidan and his followers lived as they taught. If the wealthy did wrong, he would confront them, he did not keep silent out of fear or respect. He did not care and did not seek any worldly possessions; he loved to give away to the poor people he met whatever the wealthy had given to him. If he did not give the money to the poor, he would use the money to help buy freedom for those sold into slavery.  Many of these freed slaves became his disciples and in time after instruction and training there were ordained into the priesthood.  Consider, one of the first theological colleges in England – on Lindisfarne – comprised of large number of freed slaves… Such priests were able to understand and were close to the people of the land.

Ceiling fresco in St. Oswald Church, Bad Schussenried, Germany. Title: ‘The King of Northumbria, translates Aidan’s sermon into Anglo-Saxon.’ By Andreas Meinrad von Ow (1778) , Public Domain photograph.

If Aidan was in town or country he nearly always walked – for only the upper class rode on horses and he wanted to walk with the poor.  And whoever he met, as he walked, he would talk to them whether poor or rich. When he met someone, he would ask if they were a Christian – if they said no, he would ask if he could share about the Christian faith and later he would urge them to be baptised. If they said they were Christians, he would strengthen them in their faith and inspire them by his words and deeds to lead a good life and to be generous to others.

There is a well known story. After Oswald died in battle, he was succeeded by his son Oswin in 642, Oswin gave Aidan a very fine horse. He worried about Aidan, with his regular long journeys on foot, worrying about his health. Not long after receiving this special gift, Aidan met a poor person begging for money, and he gave him the horse.

 

Oswin discovered this. Oswin invited him for dinner and as they went into the hall, he took him to the side and began to rebuke him for giving away the horse. He told him that if he’d known he was going to give it away he would have given him one of his worst horses. At once Aidan replied: “What you are saying Your Majesty? That this child of a horse, is more valuable to you than this child of God? They went into dinner. Aidan sat down but Oswin would not, standing by the fire, and then he unbuckled his sword, threw it down, and knelt at Aidan’s feet asking for forgiveness. Aidan forgave. Oswin sat down and talked with his guests. But Aidan grew more serious until he began to cry openly. People did not know what was happening. But he leaned across to a priest and say: ‘I know the king will not live very long, for I have never before seen such a humble king. I feel he will soon be taken from us, because this nation is not worthy of such a king.’ It was a prophecy –  for only a few days later Oswin was assassinated. This was the second king, whom Aidan had cared deeply for, who had died violently.

 

Only 11 days after Oswin’s death, Aidan became ill. Aidan died in church on 31st August 651. And today, inside St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh, marked where he began his journey home to Paradise with the Lord.

 

St Aidan, Stained Glass, Monastic Chapel 1920, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York. By Randy OHC – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4958775

A Closing Prayer:

O God our mission, whose gentle apostle Aidan befriended everyone he met with Jesus Christ, grant us humble, Spirit-filled zeal, that we may inspire others to learn your ways, and to pass on the torch of faith, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.[7]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Darch, JH & Burns, SK, Saints on Earth: a biographical companion to Common Worship, CHP 2004)

[2]  Bradley, Ian, The Celtic Way: New Edition, (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2003), p.21

[3] Mitton, Michael, Restoring the Woven Cord: Strands of Celtic Christianity for the Church today, (Abingdon: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2010), p.117

[4] Ibid, p.117

[5] Ibid, p.117

[6] Dairmaid MacCulloch says of Bede “Bede was the greatest historian of his age in all Europe, perhaps the greatest for many centuries either side of his own time.” MacCulloch, Dairmaid, The History of Christianity, (London: Allen Lane, 2009), p337

[7] Mitton, p. 126.

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