St. Wilfrid, Bishop and Confessor

Posted by Fr. Mason Waldhauser on

"He is one of the great figures of the Anglo-Saxon church, different in his sanctity from the ascetic and retiring Irish monks and bishops but witnessing all the same to a life devoted to God and spent in the service of the Church." (Butler)

Today we commemorate St. Wilfrid, Bishop and Confessor. Like St. Paulinus, commemorated on this past Saturday, St. Wilfrid was an early English saint and missionary. He was born in Northumbria in 634, and died in 709, and to me, his life represents the tension between Celtic Christianity and Roman Christianity during those times in England.

As a teenager, he spent four years in the monastery at Lindisfarne and then took a pilgrimage to Rome, where he became enthralled by the exulted view of bishops as political figures and their pomp and circumstance, whereas the English bishops of Wilfrid's day were much humbler and chosen more so on the basis of their holiness and asceticism than on their political influence. Returning to England, he was appointed abbot of a new monastery, and in 663-4, he participated in the Synod of Whitby, which was convened to decide one way or the other in terms of the Celtic and Roman systems (with the calculation of the date of Easter being the main issue, since the Celts calculated it one way and Rome another). Wilfrid took the side of Rome and made such a good case that the English decided to align with Rome.

After the Synod, he was elevated to the episcopacy; but instead of receive his orders at the hand of English bishops, he chose to be consecrated on the continent, in France. (As Continuing Anglicans, our bishops have received their apostolic lines from various and sundry places, and so it seems that seeking one's orders from elsewhere has some precident in the English Church!)

Wilfrid loved the pomp and circumstance and had such a high view of the office of bishop that in his consecration liturgy, had twelve bishops involved, and they carried him into the sanctuary on a golden throne. But he stayed in France so long that by the time he got back to England, the Archbishop of Canterbury had appointed a different man bishop of Wilfrid's diocese, St. Chad.

But in humility, Chad resigned his position for Wilfrid. But because of Wilfrid's strong (and not very English) views, he made many opponents, including the king, and was exiled from his diocese, and the diocese of Northumbria was divided into five parts. He appealed his case in Rome, but returning was imprisoned for nine months before being exiled again.

In his exiles, he actually did a lot of missionary work, even working alongside fishermen in order to preach the gospel. So we find in Wilfrid two different impulses: one toward high ceremonial and exulted view of the episcopacy and the Latin tradition, and the other an impulse toward evangelism and coming alongside people where they're at. So we ask for his intercession, that we, too, the inheritors of his church which was both English and Catholic, would have a strong commitment both to high church principles on the one hand, and to a missional emphasis on the other.

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