Maori, Jesuit And Celtic Convergence

These are my notes from the colloquium at the Anglican Centre for the Holy See in Rome on the theme ST. HILDA, THE SYNOD OF WHITBY AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION - A WAY FORWARD FOR THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION AND THE WIDER CHURCH?

It marked the 1400th anniversary of the birth of St. Hilda, arguably the greatest first millennium church woman in the English-speaking world. The Centre Director, Archbishop Moxon (who is married to a Maori) is also the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See and a Co-Chairman of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The rapport established between Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby has stimulated fresh joint initiatives such as The Global Freedom Network which aims to end modern slavery and human trafficking and has co-opted world faith leaders who were due to meet in Rome on December 2.

My morning presentation based on my book 'Hilda of Whitby: a spirituality for now' (BRF) is available as a download from

Among those contributing to the discussion were: Norman Tanner S.J., Professor of Church History at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome and his colleague Gerard Whelan SJ; a leader.of the Focolare, Rocca di Papa, Monica Attias of Community di Sant’Egidio, Elizabeth of the Associates of St. Therese who works in the Vatican, and Brian and Elizabeth, a married couple (both ordained) visiting from New Zealand/Aoroteara.

The 664 Synod of Whitby

This required the church of the largest Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria to accept regulations re the date of Easter, the form of monks’ tonsure, and a whole regimen of other regulations which were not documented but about which the Irish-trained English monks at Lindisfarne complained. This was decreed by Northumbria’s King Oswy who presided. Hilda was the host and voted for the losing Irish case. The Irish monks returned to Ireland. They remained catholics, since, although the Pope had written letters to Irish churches urging them to accept changes, he had not overruled their own decision-making, and the extensive St. Columba family of monastic churches in Ireland, with their mother house at Iona, remained opposed.

The issue of culture-sensitive process

A former ARCIC Co-Chairman, Bishop Alan Clark, reflected a prevailing view that the Whitby Synod was a good thing because ‘it preserved the links’ between a province and the world church. Contrasting points of view are: a) the links could have been preserved in other ways, based on relationship more than regulation. Pope John Paul 11 and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch met to develop closer links even though the two communions still have different dates for Easter;

b) the way the regulations were imposed was contrary to the spirit of the Vatican Two documents on respect for local cultures;

c) "If the British Church had survived it is possible that the fissure between Christianity and nature, widening through the centuries, would not have cracked the unity of Western man's attitude to the universe." (H.J. Massingham The Tree of Life London 1943).

Issues that threaten us with schism today

1) The role of women

An argument for the ordination of women as priests and bishops is that Christ’s Incarnation made him the Representative of all human beings. If a priest is an ikon of Christ, a priesthood that only reflects half the human race is not fully catholic. An argument against is that sexual difference between men and women is fundamental in creation, and since the mode by which Christ was incarnated was as a male, and Christ is metaphored as a husband to his Bride the Church, women priests would confuse the wife role with the husband role in the priesthood, even though men are part of ‘the Bride’.

2) Sexual norms

There is general agreement that purity and non-promiscuity are required of all. There is disagreement as to whether a) a same-sex bonding is God’s call to none or some; b) a church province that defines this as a sin should exclude or ‘offer lodging’ to ‘offenders’ who believe they are doing right. Some USA and Canadian Anglican/Episcopalian dioceses have settled disputes between a congregation and a diocese in the law courts. Numbers are haemorrhaging. Some African dioceses speak of seceding; some bishops refuse to share Communion with bishops on an opposing side. Although these two issues are primary Anglican concerns, the on-going Vatican explorations on the role of the family reveal divergent views that touch on some similar issues.

Culture sensitive process in the light of Saint Hilda

Issues of culture-sensitive process and Christ-centered approaches to disagreements are therefore high priorities, and models of good practice are needed. Hence the interest in Saint Hilda.

Hilda was not ordained, but was a spiritual mother with authority over men (stories even have Ireland’s St. Brigid appointing bishops who were under her governance). The role of abbesses who led faith communities of men and women was mostly limited to England, France and Germany and was superseded by rule by (male) diocesan bishops for a thousand years.

Even if women’s ordination is ruled out, what can the Catholic Church learn from these abbesses? Are there examples in Rome? It was thought there were no examples. However, John Paul 11 had agreed that a woman should always head the Focolare movement, which numbers bishops among its members. John Paul 11 drew inspiration from Von Balthazar whose muse was a woman, but none knew of such muses in Rome. A view that women are not listened to was expressed. The Community of Aidan and Hilda’s title indicates that it values male and female working together in polarity. It does not seek to make women like men or men like women.

Archbishop Moxon and his New Zealand friends explained that there is one Anglican province which consists of Pakeha (white settlers), Maori and Polynesian peoples who have a common prayer book but diverse customs and ways of reaching decisions. For example, Maori expressions of church follow tribal patterns, are panentheist, eco-friendly, prioritise hospitality and use network systems. They have different approaches towards time and authority.

Norman Tanner, whose work was rooted in Kenyan universities and African cultures, spoke of the importance of relating the study of anthropology to that of ecclesiology. Thus in African contexts church leaders of European background paid attention to the aspect of people that is rooted in earth and symbol, and recognised the fear in Roman/European culture of the primal. Such aspects may have underlain the Irish and Roman differences at the time of the Whitby Synod.

Alternatives to schism for resolving conflicts.

Hilda was loved as a ‘merciful mother’ by people on both sides of the Synod dispute. She was fear-free, prejudice-free and warm towards all. The ‘theology’ behind this is highlighted in the story of her friend Bishop Aidan who gave to a beggar the royal horse the king had bequeathed to him. In reply to the irate king Aidan asked ‘Is that horse of more value to you than that child of God?’ The beggar was valued because he was made in the likeness of God. In this Celtic tradition people relate to that which is of God in each person.

In Maori culture bonds of affection have higher priority than dogma. They have no word for enemy. The nearest is a word that means ‘a friend you are angry with’. You are not meant to cut off that person however acute the row. Today we need to establish, biblically, that the way we relate to our opponent is a truer test of how Christian we are than is our point of view (c.f. 1 John 1). What may we learn from St. Hilda to do in a climate of division?

1. Hilda bloomed where she was planted. Hilda had fewer options that we. She could neither have moved to Ireland nor made Whitby her own domain. She could perhaps have become a recluse or retired to a French monastery. In fact she neither resigned nor cut off relationships. She nurtured vocations, trained future leaders, and started a daughter house at Hackness.

2. Hilda ‘unlocked the song’ in un-churched people’ (Caedmon). Following Pope Francis’ example we reach out to the poor and those who have a low self image and empower them through love, amid disagreements with fellow Christians.

3. Hilda remained true to Celtic spirituality, living it in the new framework. Her spirituality remained holistic, relational, maternal, concerned for the poor, open to God in the elements, prayerful and reflective. She was a wellspring of wisdom. The change in church rules did not corrode her soul.

4. Hilda laid foundations for future monastic villages of God. Her Rule of Life (probably a blend of the Irish via both Iona and Columbanus-inspired Frankish monasteries, possibly Benedictine, and primarily her own common sense and example) laid foundations far and wide. Although Vikings destroyed the inner monastery, the village survived. Although Norman invaders erased her heritage, it is generally thought that at the Reformation Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (d. 1556) sought to reflect the simple monastic offices of ‘the hours’ based on scripture and psalms, in The Book of Common Prayer, though these were for clergy. Although both before and after the Reformation women were belittled, Hilda’s archetypal influence in the ‘collective unconscious’ is now re-surfacing. On the evening of his Enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury in March 2013 Justin Welby said that amongst the greatest hindrances to the proclamation of God’s love were the historic divisions in the Church – divisions which had begun in particular historic circumstances which had very little, if anything, to do with the situation where we find ourselves in the twenty first century. The divisions are now so entrenched, particularly at the institutional level, that the only way he could see of addressing the problem was for each denomination to have within it a renewed and vibrant monasticism, because monastic life goes deeper than the divisions and monastics are already united in their common practice. Newmonasticisms in Catholic Ireland shares a similar vision, as do we in The Community of Aidan and Hilda.

Some focus on the Benedictine Rule as a tool for creating stability in a sea of change. The Celtic strand in the Catholic and Anglican heritage offers earlier and wider and elements to do with the anthropology as well as ecclesiology which speak to our present changing context. A ‘Celtic’ Rule can be a tool to help ecclesial communities navigate the seas of change in shifting cultures.

Posted at 06:00am on 3rd December 2014
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