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The Synod of Whitby settled the religious question in C7 England

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints on Monday, 5 August 2013

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This edited article about Saints originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 357 published on 16 November 1968.

Synod of Whitby, picture, image, illustration

The Synod of Whitby

Those of you who have read our earlier stories of the great people involved in the spread of Christianity in Britain will know that this faith reached our shores in two different ways.

From the Celtic Church of Ireland, missionaries came to Scotland and northern England in the middle of the 6th century A.D. Towards the end of the same century, other missionaries arrived from Rome and established Christianity in southern England, notably in what was then the Kingdom of Kent.

On the essential teachings of the Christian faith both the Celtic and the Roman missionaries were agreed. But there were various lesser matters on which they differed. For instance, the greatest of all the Christian festivals, that of Easter, was kept on different dates by the followers of the two separate traditions. They also disagreed as to the form which a monk’s “tonsure” (the fringe of hair on his shaven head) should take.

At first, these things did not matter, but as the Celtic form of Christianity spread southwards, and the Roman form moved northwards, there was confusion and misunderstanding among newly converted Christians, arising from the opposing customs and varying dates.

Leaders of the two Churches were persuaded to meet and hold discussions in order to sort out the various points of difference and come to a common mind about matters over which they had differed for so long. This meeting, which became known as the Synod of Whitby, took place in A.D. 664 on the Yorkshire coast, and became a landmark in the history of the Church. Among those who spoke for the Celtic Church were Aidan, the famous missionary from the Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne, Chad, one of Aidan’s most famous pupils, and Oswy, King of Northumbria. The leading speaker on behalf of the Roman Church was Wilfrid, Bishop of York. Wilfrid had been brought up in the Celtic tradition, but, after making a pilgrimage to Rome, he had parted company with his friends in Lindisfarne and had been persuaded to adopt the customs of the Roman Church.

At Whitby, the discussions between the leaders of the two Churches went on for a long time. Sometimes, it seemed impossible for the differences to be settled. There was, however, one person who by tact and diplomacy managed to help the rivals to reach agreement. This was Hilda, Abbess of the Convent of Whitby, where the Synod met. Hilda was greatly respected by the speakers of both Churches for she was of royal descent. She also knew well the Roman and the Celtic traditions, having been baptized into the Roman Church, and having also worked under the direction of Aidan as head of a large convent near Lindisfarne. Now she had the task of trying to reconcile those who were all her friends, even though they were opposed to one another.

At first, Hilda supported the Celtic representatives, but, with King Oswy, she was eventually won over to the Roman point of view. These two then persuaded the other Celtic churchmen to accept the Roman teaching. This they did reluctantly. However, from that time, the English Church was not only united in itself, but it was also drawn more closely into contact with the Church on the continent of Europe. That this happened was due not least to the influence of this remarkable woman, Hilda of Whitby, who was later named as a saint, and who is remembered yearly by the Church on 17th November.

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