Tuesday 4 September 2012

Message from the President

The story of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon areas of the British Isles is recorded in the work of an eighth-century monk, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical Histories. I admit the title does not scream out “Best Seller” and yet the story it tells is a fascinating one. Implicit within its narrative are two ways of addressing the world with the story of Jesus and the triune God he incarnates. The first way is to address oneself to the powerful and to point to Jesus and the God of the Scriptures as the All-powerful One able to grant to his followers the force they need to maintain themselves in the war-soaked world they inhabit. That is: Christ is presented as a war-god powerful enough to conquer death itself.

Bede admits that the stratagem worked more or less. Many of the Anglo-Saxon kinglets converted to the war-god Christ in hopes of gaining an advantage in battle. Of course, military defeat would create a problem. Where was the power of the Christ-followers’ God? I have pledged my troth and yet I am defeated. The story of the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons when viewed from this vantage point is a dizzying story of conversions and apostasies in which the pattern of conversion and apostasy maps rather well onto the military fortunes of the many kinglets struggling against each other for dominance. In Bede’s view, every missionary success of this kind remained achingly fragile. The discovery of a gravesite in the 1920s bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs Bede captures in his Histories. It is a noble burial site, Sutton Hoo. The spaces nearest the “front” of the site and its entranceway are filled not only with symbols of the wealth of the deceased in gold and weapons and conveyances, but also symbols of the Christian religion. Here was a follower of the Christ acknowledging his fealty and his expectation that his fealty would lead him into that rich reward that Christ’s power held in promise. But as one moves into the back recesses of the gravesite one sees other religious symbols recognizably attached to the gods Odin and Woden, the age-old gods of Angle and Saxon warriors. Clearly our Christian noble was hedging his bets, playing both sides of the fence in order to see who emerged the strongest and hence able to bring him into his reward.

This story of presenting Jesus as war-god is a story that Bede wants his readers to learn to look past. There is a second story he wants us to learn to look for. This story focuses on the peoples of the land in their interaction with Christian monastic communities that established themselves on the land. These communities functioned as houses of constant prayer on behalf of the surrounding peoples. They also became sources of emergency labour, medical skill, safe storage for the wealth of the peoples (their grain), centres of poor relief, places of refuge against the blood lust of warriors. Bede insisted that all of these social goods were accompanied with prayer; they marked out the intercessory love of the Christian community in these far flung landscapes. And the peoples of those lands took note. They began to associate with such communities, such oases of peace, to patronize them, to look to them and their God in their need, for their prayer and their care became inextricable in popular imagination. Slowly, the popular sense of the world was reoriented Christ-ward and for good.

Of course, Bede was a monk. He was a member of one of the most successful of all of these early monastic communities. His narrative is self-serving, to be sure. The witness of the monks was itself imperfect. Still, Bede’s second story is also perceptive and says something about societal change that should give small communities like that of ICS and its supporters cause for hope as it moves into its forty-fifth year of operation.

Cultural transformation is an incremental thing. It is not about juxtaposing truth and the lie in one gigantic antithesis such that the lie is exposed and done away with for good and all. There is no kingdom-in-our-generation; the world just isn’t built like that. There is no place where you can say this is an area of the truth pure and simple, or this is a phenomenon of the lie and nothing but the lie. Truth and lie are all mixed up together, like the wheat and the tares of the biblical parable. Just as the lie perverts truth, so the truth transforms a lie. This is what we bear witness to when we search for and seek to express the truth of the world in our living, thinking and speaking. The truth transforms the lie. Of course the situation that emerges is still ambiguous, a mixture of both. But the world can be changed in important ways from these humble beginnings. And when that happens, the bit of the world so affected moves a little closer to its Maker. That is how a world of faith is built, one small and quiet step at a time.

Bede saw that well. The inconstancy of faith in the courts of the kings went on and on, while the quiet work of the monks was invisible from castle walls. But in the end the monks’ witness led to a transformation so powerful that it changed the courts of the kings. A large good from small beginnings. May ICS too contribute to our world’s large goods. May our contribution too be reckoned a part of the long tradition of Christ-following that stretches back to Bede’s monks and beyond, building something wonderful from what might be termed modesty itself. Perhaps this is a prayer we could all endorse and enact at the beginning of a new academic year.

For the President,

Bob Sweetman