Evensong 6th February 2022
Columba, Continuity and Challenge
We find ourselves today reflecting on St Columba. There is no external or liturgical reason for this: simply that Geoffrey’s work on “the sound world of the Celtic Church” will be featured tonight during the Annual Meeting of the Friends of the Music (all welcome), and we have heard two examples already. That inspired Maggie Willmer to look at “Images of St Columba” for our session on Arts and Faith on Thursday, and it was suggested that I might therefore speak about Columba during the service.
I do so on an important day in the calendar: the seventieth anniversary of the Accession of Queen Elizabeth II. It is a mixed day for Her Majesty, as it marks the death of her beloved father as well as the beginning of her illustrious reign. Celebration will come later. For now there is quiet reflection on the nature of monarchy, power, authority, service, community, calendar, faith and devotion. And all of this can be found too in the life and what scholars call the “afterlife” of the saint of Iona.
It is impossible to escape the foundational aspect of faith and belief for the Queen, informing her position of earthly rule. Recent Christmas broadcasts have been almost more explicit about this than the sermons of Archbishops on the same day! Columba’s life is also an intertwining of earthly power and divine service. He was high born, and evidently could have wielded earthly power, but found position and leadership in the church. That did not prevent the power struggles which led to his exile and establishing a monastery on an island out of sight from his home, yet with links enough for him to return and founding monasteries back there too.
The intertwining of power and prayer continued after Columba’s death in 597. Iona was a place of influence in the centuries beyond, not least because in the early 600s it sheltered the young Oswald after his kingly father lost a battle in Northumbria. Reclaiming his kingdom later, Oswald raised the cross as his battle standard (and I hope that provokes all sorts of reflections on whose side God takes…but not now), and then sought to bring the influence of the Irish church in mission to his kingdom by bringing the saintly Aidan from Iona to found the priory on Lindisfarne. It was the ways of Iona which evangelised the north of Britain. As the Venerable Bede says: “we know for certain that he left successors distinguished for their purity of life”.
It is what remains of our activities and life which marks our true worth. We can’t control that, of course, but we can ensure that what we do and what we pass on is faithful, in our time. Nearly seventy years after his death, Columba did lose an argument, about the calendar, at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Christianising of the North in the 600s had been matched by the mission from Rome to the south in those years. Augustine was made the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597, the year of Columba’s death. The two missions calculated dates differently, and Easter was celebrated on different Sundays, which was confusing when royal courts had adherents to both. There were other considerations too, and Whitby landed on Rome rather than Ireland – ironic, as Whitby was founded on Irish lines and Bede, who writes it up, was loyal to the Celtic church too.
But Columba’s influence goes way beyond whether he got the date of Easter wrong or right (and, when you think about it, it’s only a mater of convenience rather than Gospel truth). His gifts of leadership, his scholarship, his discipleship, and energy and his creation of a faithful community, along with his association with temporal power and authority enabled these islands to become the spiritual powerhouse for the whole of Europe. A century after his death the North East of England provided scholarship and leadership for the growing western church. Iona continued to speak.
It still does. Continued reflection on its role has enabled a new Iona community to be formed, with influence in the gritter parts of Glasgow as well as the place where people go to escape such things. Famously described as a ‘thin’ place, kings were buried there, and, in our own day, John Smith, Labour leader, and the Prime Minister we never had (after Gaitskell, who lies here). If you hear John Bell give Thought for the Day on Radio 4, that’s the Iona Community in one of its current and most influential voices.
Dates can give cause to reflect, whenever the date of Easter really is. Today is an anniversary for pondering and celebrating for her Majesty and the nation. Historical figures teach us much, not least in how they are treated after they die. Power and prayer cannot be separated. The institutional life the church always needs to be reformed. Kings and servants each need to hear the good news. And God is always to be worshipped, in the elements, in the gift of place, and in daily routine as well as in grand places and the glory of creativity – things the Celtic church excelled in, and which it continues to teach us today.
who filled the heart of Columba
with the joy of the Holy Spirit
and with deep love for those in his care:
may your pilgrim people follow him,
strong in faith, sustained by hope,
and one in the love that binds us to you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.Print This Page