The Ancient English Church

Imagine a thriving, growing, vibrant church that excels in holiness, is saturated with Scripture, bears the fruit of good works, and lives in complete freedom from papal tyranny.

At what point in history could such a church be found in England?

A person might not raise many eyebrows by suggesting the 16th or 17th centuries.  But what if he were to roll back the calendar a full millennium, and suggest the 7th century as an answer to the question?

It can be refreshing to realize that the Church of England enjoyed nearly 1000 years of freedom from papal corruption, before suffering a relatively brief time of captivity under tyrannous medieval popes.  As intoxicating as it may be to celebrate one’s release from bondage, one would be amiss to forget what circumstances had been like in the first place, before any ecclesiastical slavery had taken root. [i]

In 1534, English Parliament passed the Act of the Submission of the Clergy, revoking the right for citizens to appeal to Rome, effectively putting an end to papal influence over England.

Less than 500 years earlier, prior to the year 1066, the English Church was in a similar state of freedom.  However, their freedom was not due to a severance from Rome. Their freedom was partially due to the existence of a Rome which had not yet fully fallen into the clutches of tyranny.

In the earliest centuries of the Church, Britain was a province of the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century, the early Christian writers Tertullian and Origen mention the existence of a British church. The first known martyr in Britain was St. Alban, who continues to be recognized as a saint by multiple ecclesial centers, including Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury. Other well-known saints in the early British Isles include figures such as St. Brigid of Kildare, St. Illtud, St. Ninian, and of course St. Patrick.  Alas, history suggests that a series of fifth-century military invasions left the early British church in a sparse and disorganized state.

The great flowering of Old English Christianity came by the grace of God, via the leadership of St. Gregory, through the efforts of St. Augustine of Canterbury.

St. Gregory was the bishop of Rome, and while he did have the title of pope, he was not “pope” in the same sense that the word is often used today. He was a godly leader with a pastoral heart, and he explicitly denied any claim to universal jurisdiction over the Church.  In one of his letters, St. Gregory himself wrote,

Whoever calls himself the universal bishop, or desires this title, is, by his pride, the Forerunner of Antichrist, because he thus attempts to raise himself above the others.

Of course this is a sentiment shared by many Anglicans today. There may be some who would even consider these words a bit too strong.  Indeed, if the later medieval popes had been of the same ilk as Pope Gregory, the East/West schism may never have occurred, and the Anglican severance from Rome may never have been necessary.  Gregory the Great is considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, and some Lutheran churches. Even the Protestant reformer John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was a good pope. [ii]

Prior to becoming pope, St. Gregory had an encounter which was to shape the course of English Church history.  Around the year 585, after spending several years in Constantinople, St. Gregory had moved to Rome and had become the Abbot of St. Andrew’s.  Shortly thereafter, in an event which is now well-known, Gregory happened to see three slave-boys, from what is now Yorkshire, at a market in Rome.  Immediately, he became interested in this unconverted group of people.  He made a number of now-famous puns, proclaiming that the Angles were to become Angels . . . he had plans to send a mission to this people, to bring them the Christian Faith.

In 590, Gregory was unanimously elected pope. And in 596, he finally realized his goal of sending a mission to the English. Collecting a group of monks and making Augustine their abbot (later known as St. Augustine of Canterbury), he sent this crew into England and later into the history books.

St. Augustine and his fellow missionaries arrived on the English isles in April 597, just after Easter.  By Christmas of the same year, they had baptized over 10,000.  The Christian Faith rapidly spread over the isles, and numerous churches and monasteries were built for the benefit of all the converts.

After this remarkable beginning, the English Church quickly blossomed into a world-renowned center for sacred art, music and architecture.  Art historian Talbot-Ricel wrote,

Nowhere in Europe, even in Byzantium itself, was there a more advanced conception of manuscript illustration and decoration than in Britain. Nowhere, even in Persia, were finer textiles embroidered; nowhere was finer sculpture in stone executed; nowhere were finer ivories carved . . . they are all quite easy to distinguish as English. They stand out, moreover, by virtue of their quality.

From the 7th century until the 11th, the English Church stood as a beacon of light within the realm of Christendom.  The Scriptures were believed, works of charity were encouraged, and England blessed the world with many treasures, the most notable of which were its saints.  Think about godly Englishmen such as the Venerable Bede, St. Oswald of Worcester, and St. Ælfheah.  Consider godly Englishwomen such as St. Edith of Wilton and St. Margaret of Scotland.  Who can help but to thank God for such examples of the Christian Faith?

Through four centuries of Christianity in the British Isles, many English saints graced the Church with their presence, and countless faithful Christians blessed the world through their scholarly and artistic contributions to the life of the Church.  Alas, the English Church did eventually suffer decline, due to various negative forces which were at play. The Roman papacy had largely gone into a state of freefall during the 10th and 11th centuries, with the 11th century popes demanding more and more control over the Church at large.  Numerous jealousies and intrigues plagued the succession of the English monarchy.  And most tragic at all, the English Church allowed itself to be infiltrated with an increasing strain of worldliness, making it incapable of fending off the impending tides of history.

Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury writes the following account:

Several years before the arrival of the Normans, love of literature and religion had decayed. The clergy, content with little learning, could scarcely stammer out the words of the sacraments; a person who understood grammar was an object of wonder and astonishment. The monks mocked the Rule by their fine clothes and wide variety of foods. The nobility, devoted to luxury and lechery, did not go to church in the morning like Christians, but merely, a casual manner, attended Mattins and the Liturgy, hurried through by some priest, in their own chambers amidst the caresses of their wives. The common people, left unprotected, were prey to the powerful, who amassed fortunes by seizing their property or selling them to foreigners (although by nature this people is more inclined to self-accumulation of wealth)… Drinking bouts were a universal practice, occupying entire nights as well as days… The vices attendant on drunkenness, which enervate the human mind, resulted. [iii]

William acknowledged that there were still some good clergy and laymen. Indeed, after the Norman invasion, a considerable number of these faithful Christians would later flee from England altogether, settling much farther to the East.

Nevertheless, even if there was some exaggeration in William’s account, the overall picture of decline is clear. In light of the bleak picture painted above, Vladimir Moss suggests that “the curse of God on a sinful people was the ultimate cause of the tragedy”.  He also observes that “the proximate causes are to be sought in the lust for power of England’s external enemies, and in particular Duke William and the Pope of Rome.[iv]

The ancient English Church received the final nail in its coffin in 1066, with the brutal invasion of the Normans. Through extensive cruelty and barbarism, they shattered the face of England, both in the monarchy and in the Church. The English throne was usurped by William the First, a descendant of Viking raiders, and the English Church was thrust under the unyielding control of the late 11th century Roman Pontiffs.

Many of the faithful English went into exile.  Even then, as long as they remained in lands controlled by the papacy, their safety was not assured.  As Vladimir Moss has related,

Perhaps the most lasting image of the English Orthodox in exile is Anna Comnena’s description of their last stand against the Normans at the Battle of Durazzo (present-day Albania) in 1081. “The axe-bearing barbarians from the Isle of Thule”, as Anna called them, thrust back an attack on their part of the line, and then pursued the Normans into the sea up to their necks. But they had advanced too far, and a Norman cavalry attack threw them back again. “It seems that in their tired condition they were less strong than the Kelts [Normans]. At any rate the barbarian force was massacred there, except for survivors who fled for safety to the sanctuary of the Archangel Michael; all who could went inside the building: the rest climbed to the roof and stood there, thinking that would save their lives. The Latins merely set fire to them and burned the lot, together with the sanctuary…” [v]

Such was the lot of those English Christians who remained true to the Faith, refusing to submit to papal claims. From the time of St. Gregory in the 7th century, until the sad state of affairs in the late 11th century, how far the papacy had declined!  How far Rome had fallen!

In 597, St. Augustine of Canterbury had baptized 10,000 souls, marking the dawn of the English Church’s glory. A little over 450 years later, the death of the English Church would parody its birth, as a remnant of faithful English Christians fled the isles after the Norman invasion.  In 1075, a fleet of 235 ships carried away 10,000 souls from England to Constantinople.

The descendants of these self-exiled Englishman helped defend Constantinople against attacks from Roman Catholic Crusaders, and later settled north of Constantinople.  Medieval maps of this region list at least six towns with names suggesting English settlements. Towns include names such as “Londin” and “Susaco” (considered a variant of “Saxon).  One early map calls the Sea of Azav the “Varang” Sea, the Sea of the Varangians, which was a name used for the English in Constantinople during this time.  During the 13th century, a Christian people called the “Saxi” lived in this area, and spoke a language similar to Old English. The evidence suggests that this area north of Constantinople may have been the first true “New England”.

The English Christian influence in the East eventually outlived the half millennium of papal domination in the West. The exiled English Christians founded churches in Constantinople, with some of the ruins lasting well into the 19th century:

It is clear from the statistics for Saxon England that this population together with its bishops must have built several churches in ‘Micklegarth’, Constantinople. . . . One of the English exiles, probably a certain Coleman, ‘vir sanctus’, a holy man, educated at St Augustine’s in Canterbury, founded a basilica in the City and had it dedicated to St. Nicholas and St. Augustine of Canterbury, his patron. He had icons painted of the saints; St Augustine’s was placed on the south side, St. Nicholas’ on the north side. At night he placed lamps and candles in front of them. Above St. Augustine’s icon there was the inscription in Greek: ‘St Augustine, Apostle of the English’. . . . In the nineteenth century, the ruins of this church were said to be still visible at a spot known as Bogdan Sarai. Until 1865, English tombstones were to be seen on a tower in the vicinity of this place and a list of the inscriptions on them made, though this list was then either destroyed or mislaid. If it could be found, it would no doubt be of great interest. [vi]

Thus, with the hindsight afforded by the historical record, we can see that even the papal throne of Rome was never entirely able to squelch the heartbeat of true English Christianity. Even during the centuries when it appeared that England might never escape the thumb of Rome, the Holy Spirit had hidden a faithful English remnant in another corner of the world.  As Fr. Andrew Phillips points out, the story of the English Church is endued with a sense of historical poetry:

It is indeed a wondrous thought that that very Augustine, the Apostle of the English, who may have spent time as a young monk in Constantinople with his spiritual father Gregory, the other Apostle of the English, should almost five centuries later be venerated in the same city as a saint and by the descendants of those whom he had brought to Christ. Truly Augustinus, meaning in Latin ‘honoured’, was honoured by his people: whether in distant exile, or in their homeland, the English had conserved their affection for their beloved Apostle. The print that the Apostle had left so miraculously on the stone had left its trace on the hearts and minds of the faithful English everywhere. [vii]

Even today, many of us continue carrying the torch, keeping alive both the vision and the fervor that the Holy Spirit ignited in the British Isles so many centuries ago.  By the grace of God, let us be faithful, so that the glories of ancient English Christianity may continue shining bright, many centuries into the future!

Dcn. Joseph Gleason
Christ the King Orthodox Church
Omaha, Illinois


[i] For the historical facts in this article, I have relied heavily on Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Churchby Fr. Andrew Phillips, available online here:  http://tinyurl.com/old-english-church-01

[iii] Cited in The Fall of Orthodox England, by Vladimir Moss,
available online here:  http://tinyurl.com/the-fall-of-orthodox-england

[iv] Moss, Vladimir. The Fall of Orthodox England. http://tinyurl.com/the-fall-of-orthodox-england

[v] Cited above.

[vi] Phillips, Fr. Andrew. Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church.  http://tinyurl.com/old-english-church-01

[vii] Cited above.

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Church History, Western Rite Orthodoxy. Bookmark the permalink.

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