What a 7th century monk can teach us about mission: Bishop Nick's lecture on Paulinus

'Paulinus: Mission and Communication in a complex age' was the title of Bishop Nick's lecture for the 25th Paulinus Lecture at Dewsbury Minster.

The annual lecture has been delivered by Archbishops, Bishops and renowned theologians - always with a focus on mission.

Paulinus was one of the early missionaries to this country who became the first Bishop of York.

Below is an abridged version of Bishop Nick's lecture:

Paulinus: Mission and Communication in a complex age

Is there anything to be learned from a 7th century monk who became a bishop, chaperoned a queen from the south of England to the north, then fled back to the south again when things went wrong? In the internet and social media age, with its renewed threat of nuclear destruction and international fragmentation, what can the past say to us that might be remotely useful?

A potted biography
Bede tells us that Paulinus was sent to England from Rome by Pope Gregory in 601 (the second mission after Augustine’s). He spent 23 years as a monk in Canterbury, then, when Princess Ethelberga of Kent married the pagan King Edwin of Northumbria, he travelled north with her as her chaplain, and was consecrated bishop for the purpose. He is said to have played the principal role in the conversion of Northumberland, which was then the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, stretching from the Humber to the Firth of Forth, & from the North Sea to the Pennines. He became the first Bishop of York (and then the first Archbishop). The temporary wooden chapel hastily built for the baptism of King Edwin began its evolution into York Minster.

Conversion of King Edwin: King Edwin promised Ethelburga, that, despite his paganism, she’d be free to practise her religion, and that he’d consider becoming a Christian himself. He heard the preaching of Paulinus for many months. Bede says he “used to sit alone for hours, deliberating which religion he should follow”. 

On Easter Day 626 Paulinus interpreted two events in Edwin’s life as ‘the hand of God’ - an assassination attempt on the King failed & the Queen safely gave birth to a daughter. The grateful king gave his daughter to Paulinus to be consecrated to Christ (the first Northumbrian to be baptised), and promised that if he defeated the attempted assassin’s king he would “renounce his idols and serve Christ”. He reneged on this and was still “unwilling to accept the mysteries of the Christian faith”.

Worried about the political implications of conversion, he called a council. Coifi, the high priest of the pagan religion, advised adopting Christianity, since the pagan religion had not proved satisfactory. Another nobleman agreed, saying: "Life is like a banquet hall. Inside is light & fire and warmth and feasting, but outside it is cold and dark. A sparrow flies in through a window at one end and out through a window at the other end. That is what life is like. At birth we emerge from the unknown, and for a brief while we are here on this earth, with a fair amount of comfort and happiness. But then we fly out the window at the other end, into the cold and dark and unknown future. If the new religion can lighten that darkness for us, then let us follow it." 

Meanwhile Paulinus arranged for Pope Boniface V to write a letter to the King.

Persuaded, Edwin renounced his religion, & Coifi destroyed his idols: “King Edwin, with all the nobles of his race & a vast number of the common people was baptised at York on Easter Day in the church which he had hastily built of wood”.

But in October 633 King Edwin was killed by the forces of the pagan King Penda of Mercia. Paulinus fled with Queen Ethelberga back to Kent, where he was installed as Bishop of Rochester.

Northumbria sank back into her pagan past. But there then emerged a new King and a new bishop with a different missionary vision: King Oswald and Bishop Aidan built securely on the damaged foundations left by Edwin and Paulinus (including the Minster Church in York). And Edwin’s grandniece St Hilda (who also heard Paulinus) founded the Abbey at Whitby.

Paulinus probably built a church in Dewsbury: “In Campodonum where there was also a royal dwelling, he built a church.” Some say this was Doncaster; but only Dewsbury has an ancient stone which records that “Hic Paulinus praedicavit et celebravit” – Here Paulinus preached and celebrated.

Keynotes of Christian mission

It is important that we do not romanticise the saints of the church. They are not made of plaster, and they are not idealised versions of some image of perfect humanity or Christian discipleship. Like most of us, they are morally contradictory, subject to the politics and social pressures of their day, limited in their perspective, and equipped with feet of clay.

So, for example, Paulinus was obedient to the authority of Pope Gregory and travelled to the harsh northern islands for the sake of God and his mission through the church. He would have left Rome uncertain of what the future might hold – if anything. Like Abraham and the patriarchs and prophets before him, he left behind him the familiar world (and church), and set out on an adventure pregnant with danger and risk. Courageous obedience is key to Christian mission: try asking your congregation to change their service times and see how hard it is to step out from the familiar to the missionally new.

Secondly, Paulinus took his time. He spent 23 years as a monk before anything ‘big’ happened. This means that he learned how to take a long-term view – how to wait. In our world it is irritating when my smartphone takes longer than a millisecond to load a page; a world away from a man who spent nearly a quarter of a century learning the local languages, engaging with local cultures, working hard at looking through the eyes of people not like him. Easy to say, but so hard to do. Impatience is a sign that we don’t really trust God … whose mission it is in the first place. Being able to wait – and use the waiting time well – is a mark of someone who has read the Bible, become acquainted with its narrative and characters, and knows that we must wait for God and God’s time.

Two people who remind me of this are, first, an Asian theologian called Kosuke Koyama, and, second, another European monk 900 years later: Martin Luther.

Koyama wrote a wonderful book of meditations entitled Three Mile an Hour God. Having observed that western theologians start their theology in a university library reading dead German theologians, and that easterners begin by looking at the world around them for signs of God’s presence and activity, the running theme is that we encounter God most powerfully in the desert places. He observes that when God’s people find themselves in a desert (like the Israelites after the Exodus and before entering the Land of Promise) their first impulse is to get out of it as quickly as possible. But, he suggests, we should learn to stay there, slowing down, letting God cease to be the blur outside the windscreen as we race through a busy and distracted life, and realising that, in fact, God is moving at walking pace – three miles per hour. Therefore, we must learn (by practice) to stay in the desert, and wait, and wait until God’s time – when we will respond to his call differently because our ego and self-preoccupations will have been challenged by the stripping back of the desert experience.

Martin Luther comes to mind not because we celebrate in a few weeks’ time his alleged nailing of the famous 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, but because he said simple things like “Lang ist nicht ewig” – a long time is not the same as eternity. Keep time in perspective.

Thirdly, his entire known ministry grew out of long-built relationships. Such strong relationships take time and the building of trust and credibility (to say nothing of competence). Why would King Edwin even consider converting from paganism to Christianity if he hadn’t spent time watching, observing and thinking about the consistency of Paulinus’s life and witness.

That said, we should not escape into some fantasy about “it’s the life you lead that matters, and not what you say”. We use words for everything, and language is action. To speak is to act. It has always been a mystery to me why Christians to easily decline to work at articulating why they believe what they believe. Life and language go together like Lennon and McCartney: one might provide the music to the other’s lyrics. Paulinus knew why he believed what he believed, and clearly had no problem articulating that to the pagans among whom he lived and ministered.

Fourthly, mission and evangelism are often enjoyable, working from and to our strengths and interests; but, it also demands commitment and graft. For Paulinus it came down to hard work and no guarantees. Bede described him as having “toiled long and hard” – which implies that he was as proactive as reactive in reaching out to his contemporaries with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So far, so good. But, it might be worth taking a slight pause at this point to consider the messiness of the church in England at the time Paulinus was doing his stuff.

Paulinus had come from Rome and belonged to a missionary model that began with territory and a diocese headed by a bishop – the Roman model. During the same century that he was leading the church in the south of England (following Augustine), the Celtic saints were evangelising the north of England according to a different model. Here they evangelised communities until they had a group of churches, which they then called a diocese. The dynamic is different. The Roman starts with territory and seeks to evangelise within its borders; the Celtic evangelises and then demarcates its territory according to its missional success.

The point is that England has from the very beginning of its Christian history been messy. Different models collided; diverse ways of seeing the church operated alongside each other in a country that was as pagan, multireligious and multicultural as the England we live in today. If we think our society – and its challenges for Christian ministry and mission – is tough, then we have to recognise that this is nothing new.

The upside of this recognition has to be that we are called to engage with our complex society with the same commitment, determination, self-sacrifice, uncertainty, riskiness, adventure, stamina, humility and courage as did Paulinus in the seventh century. And Paulinus didn’t have the internet to entertain him while he did it.

So, what might we learn from Paulinus about the communication that lies at the heart of good evangelism and mission?

We have already noted how Paulinus took his time, learned the culture(s), learned the local languages, built relationships, knew his stuff, prayed and worked, and was inevitably curious enough to keep leaving the familiar and journeying into the unknown. But, there are other elements to this that have relevance to our own contemporary communication.

Communication matters

Paulinus came from Italy, lived in one capacity in the south of England, then headed north where people were different, the climate was different and the ‘audience’ was different. This inevitably means that he had to look through varying lenses at God, the world and us. Rooted in the resurrection faith, he nonetheless had to change the language and cultural reference points of his language and behaviour in order to enable whichever locals they were to hear, understand and respond to the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. This is not an easy task; but, it assumes that commitment to the Gospel is compelling enough to drive one’s life and not simply be an optional add-on lifestyle choice.

For us this might mean that the language we use to speak of God and the world in church might be different from that which is appropriate in the pub. I can assure you that the mode and language of engagement in a Bradford pub are not quite the same as those I would use in Surrey. Or, to use a personal and rather trivial example, the language register, vocabulary range and cultural references I use on BBC Radio 2 are different from those appropriate to Radio 4.

However, none of this comes naturally; it has to be worked at and practised. One of the jobs for clergy and other ministers is to work at the words in order to offer a vocabulary for lay people to appropriate and use creatively themselves. Or, as I put it elsewhere: The job of the church is to work hard at speaking different languages to different people in order that the good news might be heard and understood by a vast diversity of people who don’t start from the same place.

This makes it clear that effective communication demands a variety of styles, registers, references and vocabularies. We gloss very easily and quickly over the expertise of someone like Paulinus in these matters; but, try to work out what it might involve today in Dewsbury and you might begin to realise just what a demanding task this is. It involves understanding, translation, interpretation and creative faithfulness to the core kerygma.

Now, I wonder if this might be pushing it a bit, but, I’ll venture a connection that you might decide is a little too tenuous. You will recall that Paulinus got the Pope to write a letter to King Edwin, and that this letter made a deep impression on him. In other words, in addition to all the persuasive sermons that Paulinus had given, and on top of all the personal conversation in which the two had clearly engaged, it was a bit of new technology that tipped the balance. This letter might well have been the first written communication that Edwin had ever received – and it probably had to be translated from the Latin in order that he would be able to understand it. Translation relies on trust – trust that the translator is conveying the content and mood of the letter with integrity and honesty.

What would have happened if Edwin had allowed suspicion of new media to prevent him from receiving the letter? Leaping ahead 900 years, the Reformation took off across Europe because Martin Luther and others saw the potential of the printing press for getting around the gatekeepers of the church and directly to the people. Luther wrote and distributed thousands of texts which very quickly (and uncontrollably) pushed his views, interpretations of Scripture and political challenges to the far reaches of Europe and beyond.

The challenge isn’t new. I am more of a cautious appropriator than an early adopter of new technology. I like other people to test stuff out and find the flaws before I venture into using it. I lack the sense of adventure that some have – a sense that compels them (out of curiosity) to try new things out. I would have been suspicious of the Pope’s letter, and I would have seen all the down sides of Luther letting loose the demon of the printing press on an unsuspecting and ill-prepared world. I don’t admit this with pride – just realism.

In our day we have the explosion of the Internet and social media. My guess is that, in fact, what we now think of as cutting edge is already almost obsolete in the plans of the technological designers who have already moved on to the next generation of Artificial Intelligence. It is impossible to keep up. But, I am as bewildered by how such developments (and their consequent shaping of communication, relationships and events) will change us as I was when I resisted using a smartphone because I couldn’t see why anyone would want a camera or computer in their pocket.

Furthermore, I am familiar with the challenges that new technologies present us with. I remember the resistance in Wimbledon to a mobile phone mast being sited in the spire of the church – resistance from people who all had mobile phones – on grounds many and various, but including: that mobile communications might convey pornography; that this equipment might become the vehicle for seditious material to be transmitted; that individuals could use mobile technology for engaging in relationships that were not wholesome. But, who spoke up for getting ahead of the technological game for purposes that are good and noble and godly? Why emphasise the negative at the expense of the potentially positive? What about the use of new technology to forge new communities, to liberate people from being trapped in loneliness or the local? Or to maximise access to knowledge, information, conversation or representation?

We should be very wary of dismissing new methods or media of communication just because they are new, or because they aren’t fully understood or controlled. (I don’t really understand how my television works, but this doesn’t stop me watching it.)

Which neatly brings us to the question of image. Unusually, we do have an idea of what Paulinus looked like. Bede described him as “tall, with a slight stoop, black hair, a thin face, a slender aquiline nose, at once venerable and awe-inspiring in appearance”. He sounds like Alan Rickman as Mr Slope in the 1980s version of Trollope’s ‘Barchester Towers’.

Image matters as a powerful element in any communication. And our imagination will fill in the image gaps, whether for good or ill. If you don’t think image matters, then consider the Prime Minister’s speech to the Tory Party Conference last week when she kept coughing, was interrupted by a comedian with a P45, and the letters on the slogan behind her fell off. (Naturally and cruelly, she will never escape the line that this was an “eff off” moment.) Image and language go together in conveying authenticity, integrity, substance and honesty … or their opposites. Richard Nixon sweating, Donald Trump smirking, me caught on film laughing in a sequence used in other circumstances where it appeared I was being trivial and offensive.

Communicators

This brings us towards a conclusion of sorts. Paulinus lived in a world very different from ours. Yet, there are human and social phenomena that we hold in common, even if the specifics are worlds apart.

Paulinus teaches us to work hard at communicating the good news of the Gospel to those who might not have asked to hear it. He teaches us that there is a heavy cost to this – not least the willingness to move out of our comfort zones and into unknown and unsafe territory where we might not be immediately welcome. It means negotiating new terms with new communities, learning new languages and how to use them creatively, finding new ways to speak of familiar things (familiar to us, at least). It involves not giving up and not fearing failure.

Or, does it?

This all sounds so neatly packaged and straightforward. But, it isn’t. The reality shines a different light on Paulinus, mission and communication. Paulinus did not give up, but travelled throughout the vast kingdom preaching, teaching, persuading, baptising and evangelising. And he did so despite making so little progress for so long – and despite the litany of broken promises on the part of King Edwin. He was not defeatist, but listened, learned, flexed his methods, and stubbornly kept at it. And, in the end, of course, the kingdom converted and everyone lived happily ever after as good Christian people.

Well, no they didn’t. The truth is that Paulinus and the queen fled back down south when Edwin got himself killed and the conversion of the people took second place to their personal safety and security. No glory story here. And, yet, we can surmise the following:

  • He probably wasn’t very successful. Although Bede implies that the mission to Northumbria achieved a great deal, there is little evidence that it did. Indeed, Osric, one of Edwin’s successors, was converted to Christianity by Paulinus – a great coup – but subsequently returned to paganism after Edwin’s death. Disappointing, to say the least.
  • He influenced royal policy and baptised many people. But, there is little or no evidence that he made arrangements for subsequent pastoral care, built churches or trained people for ministry. Good evangelists are not always good pastors, leaders or catechists. Some people are good at getting them in, but hopeless and growing disciples when they get there.
  • However, like the parables in the gospels that speak of taking a long-term view and not worrying too much about getting the most economic return from every seed that is sown, things happened later that might not have happened if Paulinus had not tilled the soil and broken the ground. For example, Northumbria’s later conversion to Christianity appears mainly to have been achieved by Irish missionaries brought into the region by Edwin’s eventual successor, Oswald. Was this a case of the Celtic storytellers connecting to the people’s imagination in a way that the intellectual and propositional Romans could not? Who knows? But, we do know that Edwin’s grand-niece Hilda remained a Christian and went on to become the mitred Abbess of Whitby Abbey, thus influencing future generations of Christians across the world.

So, we celebrate Paulinus not only as an important historical figure in the life of the church in England, but as someone whose experience resonates in a different age and a different world. And, fundamentally, we face the same challenge as he did: to take the gospel seriously as having a claim on our lives and commitments; to listen to our world and learn its languages; to do our bit faithfully and leave the longer-term harvest to God’s faithfulness; to love God, the world and people, to live in the world and be committed to it (though drawn by a vision of how it could become), and to learn as we go – about God, his creation, and ourselves, even when the learning has to be rooted in humility rather than hubris.