02 October 2009

'A Great High Priest Was He, the Church's Head'—St Theodore of Canterbury


Today, 19 September on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Theodore of Canterbury (602-690), also known as St Theodore of Tarsus, after his birthplace. Rather than prepare an all-new treatment of St Theodore, I am reposting here—with a few minor changes—the article I wrote on him a few years ago for the Archdiocese of Thyateira, and posted at the archdiocesan website here.

For the year 668 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record the following: ‘Pope Vitalianus hallowed Theodorus archbishop, and sent him to Britain’ (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: The Authentic Voices of England, from the Time of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II, ed. & trans. Anne Savage, [NY: Barnes & Noble, 2000], p. 51). With this passage the chronicler records in deceptively simple words the beginning of one of the most fruitful periods in the entire history of the English Church. It is extremely fortunate that we possess a much fuller account of this ‘Theodorus’ in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, an account that does full justice to one of the greatest archbishops of Canterbury, and a Saint of God who now stands before His throne boldly interceding for all the Christians of England.

St Theodore was born in 602 in the Hellenistic city of Tarsus in the province of Cilicia in Asia Minor, the birthplace of St Paul the Apostle. Like many Orthodox Christians of the Eastern Mediterranean in the seventh century, St Theodore was driven West by the conquering Muslims. He spent some time in Constantinople before proceeding to Rome and settling at a nearby monastery, possibly a Greek community made up of other Cilicians known as St Anastasius ad Aquas Salvias, on the road from Rome to Ostia (Venerable Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure & Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 400, n. to p. 171; see also Walter Berschin, ‘Early Byzantine Italy and the Maritime Lands of the West’, available online here).

At this point, we might do well to pause and reflect on the Saint’s life. It is tempting to become caught up in the whirl and the rush of St Bede’s narrative and to see St Theodore primarily in terms of his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury. We are apt to forget that he spent sixty-six years preparing for this role, most of that time—it is likely enough—in monasticism. Although Metropolitan Makarios (Tillyrides) of Kenya and Irinoupolis has suggested that St Theodore ‘may have participated, together with St Maximos the Confessor, in the Lateran Synod of 649, which condemned the heresies of monenergism and monothelitism’, it remains the case that his name is essentially unknown until his consecration (‘Orthodoxy in Britain: Past, Present and Future,’ Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West—Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos [Ware], [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2003], p. 144). The Venerable Bede describes him in glowing terms: ‘He was a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, a man well trained in secular and divine literature, both Greek and Latin. He was of upright character and of venerable age, being sixty-six years old’ (p. 171).

But to have attained that virtue which caught the attention of his contemporaries, not to speak of that ascribed to him by the Tradition of the Church (expressed beautifully in Reader Isaac Lambertsen’s Akolouthia), those sixty-six years must have been filled with unrecorded spiritual struggle. Clearly, St Theodore’s soul was being prepared by God—in the crucible of noetic prayer and ascesis—for the task which still lay ahead.

Thus, having already passed the bulk of his life, St Theodore was brought to the attention of St Vitalian—pope of Rome and a vigorous opponent of monothelitism—by a holy man attempting to avoid his own consecration to the episcopate. When the previous choice for archbishop of Canterbury died before he could return to England, ‘a certain Abbot Hadrian, a man of African race and well versed in the holy Scriptures, trained both in monastic and ecclesiastical ways and equally skilled in the Greek and Latin tongues’, was ‘ordered’ by St Vitalian to accept episcopal consecration and go to England (St Bede, p. 170). But answering ‘that he was unworthy of so exalted a rank’, St Hadrian succeeded in getting the pope to consecrate St Theodore in his stead on one condition: that the African accompany the new archbishop to his see.

After a long journey, during which the two holy men were separated by St Hadrian’s imprisonment at the hands of the cruel Frank, Ebroin of Neustria, St Theodore arrived at his church ‘on Sunday, 27 May, in the second year after his consecration, and there he spent twenty-one years, three months, and twenty-six days’ (p. 172). He began by travelling—in the company of St Hadrian after the latter’s own subsequent arrival—to ‘every part of the island’, visiting the churches, exhorting the faithful to live a holy life, and stressing the following of the Orthodox system for dating Pascha in place of the old Celtic one.

It is at this point that the fruit of St Theodore’s many years of spiritual preparation really begins to be made manifest in concrete pastoral achievements. One of the most important of these achievements was St Theodore’s much needed organisation and unification of the English Church. In the seventh century, England itself was divided into a number of small kingdoms, and consequently her Church too had little sense of cohesion. Furthermore, the relationship of the various dioceses to the archbishopric of Canterbury was, at the time, ill-defined. According to the Venerable Bede, St Theodore ‘was the first of the archbishops whom the whole English Church consented to obey’ (p. 172). His extensive travels, the many new bishops he consecrated* (including St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the greatest wonderworkers of England) and dioceses he created, and the synods he convened (at Hertford, Hatfield, and Twyford, near Alnwick) all served the purpose of ecclesiastical unity in England, and as well, paved the way for political unity less than two centuries later under King Egbert in 829 (Tillyrides, p. 145). In addition, the Saint continued the policy of his predecessors going back to St Augustine of promoting the uniform observance of Roman ecclesiastical traditions throughout the churches of Britain. But while it was based upon the Roman diocese rather than the Celtic monastic familia, this Romanisation of the English Church remained for St Theodore closely tied to monasticism, even though of a more urban and cœnobitic than rural and semi-eremitic character.


Another important achievement of St Theodore’s pastorate was his promotion of what St Bede calls ‘wholesome learning’ (that is, learning in the service of the spiritual life).** Aided by St Hadrian, who became the abbot of the Monastery of St Peter at Canterbury, the venerable archbishop established a school at Canterbury where instruction was given on Greek and Latin literature, sacred and secular, as well as in music, mathematics and astronomy. One study credits this pedagogical activity of Ss Theodore and Hadrian with producing an unprecedented inflow of books into England (L.D. Reynolds & N.G. Wilson, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 2nd ed., [Oxford: Clarendon, 1974], p. 78). As one fruit of their achievement, a number of Scriptural commentaries produced by the Canterbury school were discovered in 1936 in Milan that reveal a knowledge of the Greek Fathers extremely rare in the West at that time (see Bernard Bischoff and Michael Lapidge, eds., Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995]).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, St Theodore’s pastorate was marked by his effective opposition to heresy, an achievement stressed by the epitaph quoted by St Bede:

A great high priest was he, the church’s head,
Who in sound doctrine his disciples fed. (p. 246)

Doctrinal confusion was perhaps all too common in a place like Britain in the seventh century—remote from the great ecclesiastical centres, with little in the way either of learning or of general consciousness of the mind and life of the rest of the Church. St Theodore, with his renowned erudition, his background in the ecclesiastical circles of Asia Minor, Constantinople and Rome, and his backing by the authority of the Church of Rome during a period when that Church was singularly steadfast in her Orthodoxy, was well-equipped to disseminate sound Orthodox teaching to the peoples of Britain. Like many Saints both before and after him, St Theodore is known to have foretold his own death at the age of eighty-eight (p. 246). He reposed peacefully and was buried in the church of St Peter at Canterbury. While England certainly mourned the passing of so great an archpastor, during whose tenure ‘the English Churches made more spiritual progress…than ever before’ (p. 246), she can still rejoice that she has gained so great an intercessor in heaven. For as the last lines of St Theodore’s epitaph read:

September was the month, the nineteenth day,
When from the flesh his spirit took its way,
Climbing in bliss to share new life and love
With angel-citizens of heaven above. (p. 246)

* According to Peter Hunter Blair, at the time of St Theodore’s arrival, ‘In the whole of England only three men are known to have been in bishop’s orders’, one of whom had obtained his see by simony and one of whom had had a consecration of dubious validity (An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1962, p. 135).

** That is, learning in the service of the spiritual life. Some words of Fr Justin (Popović) concerning St Photius the Great illustrate this idea well (Ronald Wertz, trans., ‘The Life of Saint Photios’, in The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, by St Photios the Great [NY: Studion, 1983], p. 36, n. 11):

For St Photios and the Byzantines, the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge could not be accomplished without prayer and spiritual ascesis. The ultimate goal was always union with God and θέωσις (deification). Consequently, knowledge for its own sake had little validity, since outside the truth kept by the whole Church, personal experience was deemed to be deprived of all certainty and objectivity, being rather a mingling of truth and of falsehood. Instead of assimilating the wisdom of God to man’s mode of understanding and anthropocentric categories, one was expected to look for a profound change, an inner transformation that enabled one to experience divine wisdom. That St Photios, the Byzantines, and the Church Fathers in general actively pursued secular learning and indeed were highly educated, manifests their attitude that secular knowledge could be useful but required spiritual discernment.

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the saint, in Tones VIII and I respectively, from Reader Isaac Lambertsen’s Akolouthia:

As a compatriot of the preëminent Paul and a scion of Tarsus, O Theodore, bestowed upon the West by God thou didst traverse afar, proclaiming the peerless Gospel of Christ among the Angles and Saxons. Wherefore, having received thee as a gift divine and great, we cry out in thanksgiving to the Lord on high: Truly wondrous art Thou, O Savior, in Thy holy bishop and in all the saints!

As primate of the English Church thou didst tend well thy spiritual flock, repelling the assaults of the spiritual wolf with the sling of the Orthodox Faith and the staff of sound doctrine. Wherefore, we ever cry out to thee, O Theodore, gift of God: Glory to Him Who hath given thee strength! Glory to Him Who hath crowned thee! Glory to Him Who worketh healings for all through thee!

2 comments:

Lucian said...

September 19 is my birthday. :-)

aaronandbrighid said...

Happy birthday, brother!