A sermon preached by Graham Low on 31st August 2022
In todays’ passage from Luke’s gospel we heard Jesus say “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God…..for I was sent for this purpose”. And in turn his disciples did likewise, and in their turn centuries later a Celtic community was founded on Iona by Columba and other Irish monks, with the intention of bringing their faith to Scotland. Among the monks who came to Iona was Aidan. At about this time the historian Bede records that King Oswald of Northumbria, who was converted to Christianity on Iona according to Celtic rites, asked for a monk to Christianise his kingdom. An earlier mission to Northumbria, led by Paulinus had failed when he moved south. Because King Oswald followed the Celtic rite and tradition he asked the monks of Iona rather than from Canterbury to lead the new mission.
It seems that the first monk sent from Iona was of austere disposition, and soon returned to Iona saying that the English would not listen to him, and added that they were an ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament. On the monk’s return to Iona Aidan listened to him and then said that he should have begun as the apostles did, giving the Northumbrians the milk of simple teaching, and so gradually nourishing them with the word of God. Thus it was decided that Aidan should take on the mission instead. He was then consecrated bishop and sent to instruct the ignorant and unbelieving of Northumbria.
Aidan chose Lindisfarne, now known as Holy Island, for his base, a mile or two off the mainland and only accessible on foot at times of low tide. Like all the monks of the Celtic tradition Aidan needed a quiet place where he could be in touch with the natural world. But only a short distance away lay Bamburgh with the royal palace, which provided protection for the monastery on Lindisfarne. Aidan regularly dined sparingly with King Oswald but returned afterwards to be with the other monks who joined him in community.
Bede’s account of Aidan was fulsome in its praise of him, saying that the highest recommendation of his teaching was that he and his followers lived as they taught. He was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit. If wealthy people gave him gifts he passed them on to the poor. It is said that when he was old and found walking difficult a king gave him a horse but he immediately gave it away to the next poor man who needed a horse.
Aidan was a gentle, moderate, wise and discrete man. He spoke to all he met. He strengthened the faith of the baptised, and spoke the gospel message to those who were not baptised. He ransomed many slaves from the wars of those times and sent them home. The regularity and order of the worship in his monastery was exemplary, as was his education of local boys, who became missionaries. He encouraged the ministry of women, among them Heiu who he sent to form a community on the Headland in Hartlepool, and then he encouraged Hilda to form a community at Whitby which continues to this day. Aidan faithfully visited both communities on a regular basis.
Aidan and his communities were simple and holy, worshipping in the Celtic tradition. At the Synod pf Whitby Aidan argued for maintaining the Celtic rite rather than the more elaborate Latin rite, which was supported by the Pope. Eventually the Celts were defeated by the successors of Augustine.
Aidan and King Oswald remained friends through a good deal of turbulence in the kingdom and eventually they died within ten days of each other. Lindisfarne was sacked by Viking raiders in 793 and it has seemed that nothing remains of Aidan’s monastery. Aidan’s remains are recorded as having been buried at the monastery. However, the foundations of buildings which are thought to have been the original monastery have recently been discovered near the present-day Anglican Church of St Mary.
Many people still go to Lindisfarne because it is a place of great calm and holiness. The eventual adoption of the Latin rite in the north of England and the absence of visible reminders of Aidan down the centuries caused his name to be somewhat eclipsed. However, J.B. Lightfoot, the distinguished church historian and Bishop of Durham in the 19th century said that it was not Augustine but Aidan who was the true apostle of England. This seems to have been a bold but reasonable claim.
We give thanks to God today for the remarkable witness of Aidan, for his continuing influence on monastic life, especially in Whitby, and for the example he set for continuing apostolic teaching and life.