Bede – Truth and Unity

Bede’s Shrine in
Durham Cathedral

Last Saturday I prayed at the shrine of the Venerable Bede, whose feast day falls today. When I visit Durham Cathedral, I pray at the shrine of St Cuthbert for God’s help in prayer and in ministry, and at Bede’s for blessing in study, thinking and writing – something I haven’t done enough of recently and for which I asked for renewed energy! So it seems rude not to write something today…

Bede lived (c. 672-735AD) around Jarrow, and spent most of his life as a pupil and then a monk in the monastery there. He learned from his abbot, Benedict Biscop, himself a towering figure in the Anglo-Saxon church. This was the ‘golden age’ of Northumbria, and Jarrow was a major European centre of learning and culture.

Today Bede is best known as an historian – his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ is one of the most important sources we have of early English history, and helped to cement the popularity of the whole system of ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ in dating events – Bede didn’t invent the system, but he was a key early adopter!

In his lifetime, Bede was better known for other works – textbooks of grammar, maths and astronomy but above all for his many translations, commentaries and other books about the Bible. One of his pupils recorded that just before he died, Bede dictated the last words of his translation into English of St John’s gospel.

Bede worked through his life as a passionate student and teacher of the truth – driven by a desire that the English people should know the love, truth and word of God and also by a longing for the church to be united.

This was what he was trying to do, perhaps surprisingly, in his astronomical or mathematical writings, which cover a lot of ground but were aimed to give a solid foundation for calculating when Easter falls each year. This had been one of the points of disagreement between the Iona/Northumbrian church which re-established Christian faith in the north and the Roman church which worked out from Canterbury.

Bede tells the story of this controversy, and how it was settled, in detail in his history – in fact, the importance of bringing together different strands of Christian faith lies deliberately behind the whole work, and colours his writing. Bede comes down decisively on the side of the Roman way of setting Easter, and of being Christian in general. Even when he criticises those who followed other Christian paths, though, he has a clear love of the Iona and Lindisfarne saints like Aidan, Hild, Chad and Cuthbert, and of their ways of prayer, discipleship and mission. I’ll write about them and how we can learn from them in a few posts yet to come, so watch this space…

For the time being, though, as we remember Bede it strikes me as a good aim to seek truth and unity in the service of God and each other as he did. He drew on maths, history, language and theology, to the glory of the God who is behind truth and beauty in all its forms. What do we bring to the table, and what are we seeking to achieve with what we know?

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