Hilda of Whitby

A Sermon at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, General Theological Seminary

November 18, 2014

A little over nine years ago, my daughter Maggie finished her degree at the Early Music Institute at Indiana University and moved in with us to get her start in the New York music scene. This led to a family decision to get a dog, and at the end of September Maggie and Paula went to New Jersey and came back with the cutest little bulldog puppy, all white with a large red-brown patch on the left side of her face. When I got home that evening, Maggie said, “This is Hilda.” And I said, “Hilda of Whitby?” Maggie scowled, and said, “Of course not, she’s named after Hildegarde von Bingen.” I should have known, because Hildegarde was a twelfth century abbess, who among other great achievements, is known as a composer of beautiful music, some of which Maggie had sung in recital.

Hilda - Abbess elect of Chelsea Square- will model her service on both Hildegarde von Bingen and Hilda of Whitby

Hilda – Abbess elect of Chelsea Square- will model her service on both Hildegarde von Bingen and Hilda of Whitby

Since then, I’ve often hoped that Hilda would be installed to her rightful place as Abbess of Chelsea Square on the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen on September 17, but we have never quite gotten that together. It’s all right though, because Hilda makes it quite clear that she owns the place.
But today we celebrate a different Hilda. Hilda was an abbess, but she lived five centuries before Hildegarde. She was born in the early six hundreds in Northumbria—which was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom encompassing much of northeast England and Southeast Scotland. Hilda was part of the royal family of Northumbria, which is important, because women of the uppermost classes were much more likely to have opportunity for some education and their standing made it conceivable that they could exercise influence and perhaps undertake an important project.

This was the early middle ages, but no one then knew that they were in the middle of anything. The Roman empire was no longer functioning in the West, but there was still a Roman Emperor, he just lived in Constantinople—basically a world away. The church into which the Anglian Hilda was baptized as a thirteen-year old was that of the Celtic missions. We can get all sappy about Celtic Christianity, and make it over into something else for our own sentimental purposes, fantasizing that it was some ideal, affirming, democratic, nature religion or something like that. But that won’t help to understand Hilda or the serious issues that she and the Christianities of Britain faced at that time.

Britain was always at the edge of the Roman Empire, and thus the church had not really become established there as it was in Italy or Turkey during the later Roman Empire. The church that emerged in the North of Britain, after the withdrawal of Roman governance and the gradual invasion of pagan Germanic tribes, was the result of the monastic missionaries, whose strongest centers were in Ireland, Scotland and some small offshore islands. Instead of the model of church that arose inside the structures of governance of the empire where the chief pastor of a town or city was the primary leader, the Celtic churches, which took their origins from British churches pushed westwards during the mainly pagan invasions, developed on a model in which the missionaries were often the head of monastic communities, or were sent out from established monasteries. As a result, the structure, the feel, and the lines of accountability in areas christianized by these missionaries were quite different from the model developing in the areas that had been more securely and for a greater time within the cultural and political influence and protection of the Roman Empire.

Hilda was the founder and abbess of an important double monastery , that is to say, a religious establishment where both men and women were in the community, living in separate houses but worshiping in the same chapel. Was she a missionary and authoritative leader? Yes. Was this the lost time when women and men were equal and patriarchy was set aside? No. Double monasteries were often headed by women, because they were essentially founded for women’s ministry and in those times and remote places, there was a need for men to work in the fields, to scare off robbers and to be priests for the sacraments, since it never occurred to anyone in the seventh century that women should be priests. On the European continent, these men were often retainers who lived just outside the community, but in Hilda’s foundation and others in England, they were a full part of the community.

Hilda was a leader who respected and encouraged all the people in her community. A number of the men of the monastery became bishops. We have records of those important people. Others also developed as priests, poets, artists, administrators. Caedmon, one of the greatest of early Anglo-Saxon poets, was a servant or a shepherd for the monastery, and Hilda heard his voice and encouraged him to become a monk and devote himself to developing and singing his poetry.

There was a great controversy in England while Hilda was abbess at Whitby. It is called the Paschal Controversy, because the issue that gets the most attention was differences in the dating of Easter. It is often not understood well by modern Christians, because the real differences were not about any major doctrine, or about the validity of any bishops. One of the difficulties in understanding this is that the main source about Hilda and about the Paschal Controversy is Bede. And Bede was a major advocate for Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent to England from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great and represented the views of those who wished to conform to the use of the political, religious and cultural center of Rome. Bede never questions Hilda’s holiness and he was a good enough historian to record that she opposed the Roman views, but without a full appreciation of the position of the Celtic Christians which Hilda espoused.

As we live here together in this chapel, we can get a bit of an idea of the significance of times, spaces, ways of dress and structures of relating with one another. The Celtic missions were derived from monastic practice. Even the churches in the towns related back to bishops who were monks or bishops whose cathedrals were founded by monks. The relationships were not strictly hierarchical nor based on Roman territorial provinces or dioceses because the relationships were based on the organic growth of missions in the absence of such imperial structures, coming from monasteries with overlapping areas of influence.

The Roman mission in the south and its political and religious supporters was much more interested in rationalizing and regularizing practice. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s patron, Gregory, was really the one who started the Papacy on the way to becoming the centralized authority in the Western Church as we know it to this day. The local, Northumbrian controversy about the date of the celebration of Easter became very heated and troublesome—the disagreement was not merely about the dating of a festival, but about the entire fabric of living and working together. The two observances were overlapping and sometimes families, even royal families, were joined by marriage and observed conflicting days for Easter as well as the other differences that came from two divergent ecclesiologies.

Hilda’s monastery was the place where all the power brokers gathered to work out a solution. Hilda was one of the strong advocates for the Celtic position at this Synod of Whitby. After debate King Oswy of Northumbria definitively accepted the Roman position, which had the authority of St. Peter and which made it possible to have better relations with the kingdoms to the south. Much is often made of Bede’s assertion that Hilda accepted the decisions of the Synod of Whitby. She certainly accepted the facts on the ground and authority of the king. Yet what she really did was to continue to attend to her community, to develop faithful and dedicated women and men and to continue the mission of Whitby.

Hers was a disrupted time. And we should attend to the fact that there was more than one model of the church being brought forward. It is not at all clear that the system that carried the day in Northumbria in 664, was necessarily the best system simply because it won and was implemented, or that decisions that were advantageous at the beginning of the Middle Ages remain useful in the 21st century. We are in a similarly disrupted time. The church of the future will not be the church of the past, and the missionary strategies that will work in the years to come cannot simply be pounding harder on the strategies that haven’t worked very well for the past 40 or fifty years.

In our Epistle lesson today, Paul says this: I, Paul, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love… (Eph 4:1-2)

This would describe Hilda of Whitby and her mission strategy. I would suggest that we, too, as a church should start our outreach to the world by living a life worthy of our calling, with deep humility and gentleness. Being patient and bearing with one another—the world needs deep honesty, authenticity and humility—and we know that we won’t reach any of the millions who have walked away from the church without all three of those.


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