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  • Fr. Andrew Philips. Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition. The Reawakening of England

    Formerly, when men lived in the beauty and bounty of Earth, the reality of Heaven was very near; every brook and grove and hill was holy, and men out of their beauty and bounty built shrines so lovely that the spirits which inhabit Heaven came down and dwelt in them and were companions to men and women, and men listened to divine speech.

    (John Masefield, Poet Laureate, in his speech in Hereford, 23 October 1930)

    It was in the year 597 that with silver cross and icon of Christ Our Saviour the Roman monk Augustine and forty other missionaries first preached the Gospel to the English nation. They were to set hearts aflame, to provide the power to transfigure pagans into followers of Christ. St Gregory the Great, Pope of Old Rome, had sent them to convert Angles into Angels, to set the image of Christ in their hearts, to build a church dedicated to the icon of Our Saviour in Canterbury, the future spiritual capital of England. Had we remained faithful to the teachings of St Austin, as our forebears affectionately called him, what would our land be like today? Had we all heeded the Apostle of the English, what vision would we have of England now? How would we love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind?

    Firstly, with all our hearts we would love God through the saints. They would be familiar to us, literally familiar, part of a family to which we would belong. And not only the universal saints, such as Sts. Peter and Paul, the patrons of London, but also the local saints. The long litany of their names would be known to us by heart, we would feast them on high days and holy days; there would be national festivals in their honour. Instead of absurd ‘Bank Holidays’ (as if banks could be holy, or worthy of feasting), there would be national holy days on the Feasts of the Apostles of England, on 12 March (Feast of St. Gregory the Great) and on 26 May (Feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury) and no doubt on other saints’ days. We would name our children after these saints and children would know their lives when still small. How could we forget Sts Mellitus and Justus, Laurence and Paulinus, the patron of York and all the North? Long ago we would have asked the French authorities to give back the relics of St Peter of Canterbury. St Oswald of Heavenfield would be venerated amongst us; St Benedict Biscop, that lover of icons and holy books, would be a patron of Church Art; the great Theodore, the first Greek Archbishop of Canterbury (may God send us a second), and his faithful companion Adrian, would have their icons hung in our schools and seats of learning. The Wonderworker of Britain, St Cuthbert, would be known to all, Sts Wilfrid and Bede and Aldhelm would intercede for us at the Throne of the Most High. We would read the life of the great fen Father, Guthlac, the English Antony, as we read the lives of the ascetics of Egypt and Syria and Russia. Women would find their place in living according to the examples of Audrey and Hilda, Mildred and Edith and that host of holy women who were drawn to the great Abbesses. St Erkenwald, ‘the Light of London’, would be commemorated in the Capital, St John of Beverley would stir Yorkshiremen. The altruism of young people would be stirred by those greatest of missionaries and Englishmen, Boniface of Crediton, Apostle of the Germans, and Clement who brought the light of Christ to the Frisians and much of Holland, who went out like elder brothers and sacrificed themselves for the love of the Gospel. Edmund the Passion-Bearer would be the patron of East Anglia, the humble Swithin would heal the sick in our hospitals. The Feast of King Edward the Martyr would once more be a day of national penitence as before, and the town of Shaftesbury would again be called ‘Edwardstowe’. At our end we would utter the same words as St Oswald of Worcester: ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost’. Or perhaps we would think of St Alfwold of Sherborne who so loved the Saints of England that at his end, before an icon of St Swithin, he could only repeat the words of his favourite hymn from the service to St Cuthbert. And what can we say of St Ethelwold, ‘the Father of Monks’, or of St Dunstan whose Byzantine coronation rite is still essentially that used by our monarchs today. And we would ask the prayers of St Neot, who together with St Cuthbert, appeared in a vision to King Alfred the Great and blessed him to victory against the pagan Danes. And of the martyred Archpastor of England, Alphege, of whom it is written:

    Captive then was he who had been the head of the English nation and of Christendom. Misery was to be seen where before had been bliss, in that unhappy city whence first came to us the Christian Faith and joy in the sight of God and man

    And we would keep the customs of old – the calendar of our forebears. At midnight at Christmas would some not take their children to farms to see the cattle kneeling in their sheds and stalls in honour of the new-born King? Is that not what our forefathers and foremothers believed? And at Holy Easter would there not be some to go at sunrise to see the sun dance to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection? Are there still any who do that today? Have any remained faithful to the Apostles of the English? Are there any among the English who yet wish to become like the Angels?

    Secondly, with all our souls we would love God through places. We would know a spiritual geography of England, a geography where the English Earth would meet an English Heaven and an English Heaven meet the English Earth. On Thanet, where that wonderful Apostle of Christ, Augustine came ashore, there would today be a great monastery, a centre of pilgrimage and there we would kiss the earth as holy, for Christ trod there through his servants. And we would honour Canterbury as our spiritual capital, the Mother-City and cradle of the English Faith, the spiritual birthplace of England and its 22 sainted Archbishops. London would remember the Holy Apostles, Paul, in the East, and Peter, in the West. Westminster would once again be the monastery in the West. The Holy Mountain of the English Church, the Athos of England, would not be a mountain, but an island, Holy Island, Lindisfarne. There would be a pilgrimage to Glastonbury, the English Jerusalem with its traditions, unproven, perhaps untrue in fact, but true in spirit. And another pilgrimage to Walsingham, the English Nazareth. There would be great monastery in the fens at Crowland, to honour St Guthlac, to whom the holy Apostle Bartholomew gave a scourge against the Devil. There we would remember all the martyrs, Theodore, Sabinus, Ulric and the others, slaughtered like lambs by the heathen. We would go on pilgrimages, ‘from every shire’s end of England’ to Winchester and Worcester, Wimborne and Winchcombe, Jarrow and York, Whitby and Hexham, Ely and Evesham, Lichfield and Wilton, Dorchester and Hereford, the Buries of St Alban and St Edmund, the great cities and the little hamlets where visions and saints have been seen. And all along the roads there would be crosses and wayside shrines, where lamps would shine in the darkness to show the way. And thus there would be isles and havens of peace in this land.

    Thirdly we would love God with all our minds. We would not think of some Economic Community, but of a Spiritual Commonwealth. Our industry would build churches. All the tools of the modern world would be turned Godwards. Our culture would be dominated by the quest for the Spirit. In Art we would paint icons and great frescoes of the spiritual history of England. Our literature would be about the lives of the virtuous. Our cinema would show ascetic feats, our schools would train young people either for married life or else for monasticism. In a word, our minds would be occupied with the one thing needful, the salvation of our souls, the love of God.

    And so have we English become Angels as the Great Gregory wished? What have we done with that icon of Our Saviour that St Augustine brought to these shores in the year of Our Lord 597? Alas, we have buried it in the tombs that our hearts have become. Let us bring the light of repentance to our hearts that the icon may be found again, and honoured and revered and wept for. And then all we who are spiritually dead in the tomb shall be awakened anew to the Way and the Life and the Truth, Our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ

    May 1988


    Source: Orthodox England